Great Football League Teams 30: Wimbledon, 1982-3
The nine year rise of Wimbledon Football Club from Division 4 to the English game’s summit is a story of such remarkableness that it’s often forgotten just how much of a yo-yo club the Dons were in the years immediately following their ascension to the Football League in 1977. Indeed, the club’s first two spells in the third tier lasted a single season each — they were relegated under Dario Gradi in 1979-80 and then suffered the same fate in Dave Bassett’s first season in charge in 1981-2.
The denouement to that underwhelming campaign had been a tragic one, with ex-QPR and England full back Dave Clement taking his own life after suffering from depression partly brought about by his too slow recovery from a broken leg. 53 points had been a large haul to be relegated with and the Dons had toppled back into the basement only on goal difference behind Walsall.
Among the players who had already proven themselves well capable of terrorizing Division 4 defences, a survivor from the non-league days, John Leslie (no, not him) was perhaps the most important and throughout 1982-3 he once again proved his mettle, netting 23 times.
Other stalwarts included Wally Downes, a fruit and veg man by trade and a meat and potatoes man as a player — but effective and in possession of not inconsiderable nous, as his subsequent successful career as a defensive coach has proved. Then there was busy midfield water carrier and £1,500 snip from Chorley, Steve Galliers, Leslie’s strike partner Stewart Evans, and veteran right back Gary Peters, another to go on to prove himself as a manager.
But it was the flourishing of younger talents that was to mark the start of a new era for the south west London club. Alan Cork only arrived into the fray late in the season after joining from Derby County but 19 year old Glyn Hodges provided craft to offset the ‘bunch of clodhoppers’ image and a shaggy barnetted Dave Beasant was already ensconced between the sticks.
Presiding over it all was Bassett — mystifyingly nicknamed ‘Harry’ and a man who had been with the club when they had joined the Ninety Two half a decade before. That first season as a football league player had been his last but he had continued as a coach under Gradi before being promoted to gaffer status in the wake of Chairman Ron Noades’ departure from Plough Lane.
The suburban ground was a long way from that other local sporting arena, Centre Court – and as football as a whole suffered its lowest ebb due to hooliganism and poor attendances, typical gates hovered in the low thousands — only 2,717 witnessed the title clinching 5-0 win over Blackpool. That bothered the Dons little though as they scrapped entertainingly — after a brace of initial draws including a 1-1 at Boothferry Park against a Hull City team that would prove to be their main challengers, a run of 6 wins on the bounce put them vigorously into the picture, including a 6-1 hammering of Aldershot inspired by Hodges and a 4-1 away win at York.
The autumn was patchy though — and if seventh place is good enough for a play-off place in the same division these days, it was a season long low for the Dons here. A 4-2 defeat against financially stricken Bristol City was matched ingloriously at home to Halifax, but after losing 2-1 at home to Hull on January 8, a full 22 unbeaten matches were reeled off; results tellingly becoming more imposing as the Spring progressed — young tyro Cork bagged three as Chester were thumped 4-0 and that Tangerine shellacking followed the very next week.
A Tigers side that included Dennis Booth, Billy Whitehurst, Emlyn Hughes and Steve McLaren had lost a crunch derby game 1-0 to York City on April 19, leaving Wimbledon to pick up the pieces — and the title was secured with a points tally of 98 — 8 ahead of the Humbersiders. But Bassett had had enough of immediate relegations for now.
The following year, the Dons maintained their habit of one year stays in Division 3, but this time it was to be only an outstanding Oxford United who were to deny them — the Dons following the U’s into the second echelon with Hull unfortunate to miss out in fourth behind Sheffield United. The rest is legendary of course — and indeed, the wait for Division 1 participation was to last only another two years. Beasant, Cork and Hodges were to prove integral to that march.