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They rose from non-league to the top tier in under a decade and even won the FA Cup. This is the controversial story of the notorious Wimbledon ‘Crazy Gang’ and their antics both on and off the field. BT Sport 1, Thur, June 13th 12.30am
It was a nerve-wracking experience, by all accounts, to take the field against Dave Bassett’s Wimbledon back in the ‘80s. The pervading attitude was – the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Reputations counted for nothing to Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu, Dennis Wise & co. as they intimidated their opponents physically and psychologically at every opportunity.
However, as this fascinating documentary reveals, there was only one thing worse than playing against the ‘Crazy Gang’ (as they were rather euphemistically known) - and that was playing for them. It was a dressing room ruled by fear, where the threat of violence was never far away. Some of the players describe it as the making of them all, while others are still struggling with memories that they would rather forget.
Made for BT Sport, much of the piece is given over to tales of the brutal violence, practical jokery and general laddishness of the squad at a time when they were taking the football world by storm. Indeed, such is the emphasis on the less savoury aspects of their behaviour that former club owner Sam Hammam complained to the producers that it was biased and unbalanced. However, the fact is that the documentary is littered with interviews with former players who, with varying degrees and relish and regret, tell some pretty harrowing tales of things they either witnessed or actually took part in.
For example, at one stage Vinnie Jones describes a vicious attack by John Fashanu on a team-mate at the club’s training ground. “Fash literally lifted him up, swung him around and smashed him down on the floor and his calf just obliterated. The fella had to have 20 stitches or 30 stitches in his calf, split it to bits,” he reveals.
“Fash could be hilarious, a very funny man. But when he was angry, he was a very tough man.” Fashanu himself, a product of a tough care home upbringing, appears to glory in the intimidation and violence around the club, saying at one stage: “We ruled by fear. Wonderful.”
The documentary also highlights a feud between Fashanu and Lawri Sanchez that ended with the latter calling a reporter and telling him Fashanu had tried to karate-kick his legs. The event was witnessed by defender John Scales. “We were used to seeing very unusual things but that face-to-face, coming to blows was the most shocking thing I saw,” the former Liverpool and Tottenham man says.
There was obviously a very deep rift between the pair, as striker Terry Gibson points outs: “For six years they never spoke to each other. They were in the same changing room but wouldn’t even celebrate together.” Time has obviously not softened Sanchez’s feelings: “From the first moment, he knew what I was and I knew what he was,” he says candidly.
Fash the Bash
Fashanu comes across as unapologetic but does admit that he might have gone too far on occasion. “Sometimes I wince at some things we made them do,” he says. “Locking them in the boot of their car, dragging them around the pitch. I grabbed Scales by his nostrils. He had one of two choices, you either sink or swim. There were days when you thought Scalesy was almost breaking. But if he and Phelo (Terry Phelan) saw us today, they would say, “Thank you Fash”, you may have beaten the hell out of us but you changed our character.”
Fashanu’s views are not shared by all of his team-mates, particularly some of the newer players at the club such as Scales who arrived in July 1987 from Bristol Rovers. “The first thing I’d think about was getting down to the pub and getting away from it, having a drink.” He remembers. “Was it conducive to me playing well? Obviously not as an athlete. But at that stage it was a coping mechanism. I remember getting in the car and getting psyched up for training so I would be able to cope with it. The Crazy Gang would swallow me up.”
Phelan recalls seeing some players cry at the abuse they received. “It was like a pack of wolves going out looking for blood. It wasn’t normal,” he says. “I’ve seen players cry, physically break down. It was a place for me that was really dark for six months, socially and emotionally. As a footballer you have dreams; for six months I had no dreams. I used to sit in my bedroom upstairs, and I’d say, ‘My career is gone, where can I go from here?’”
But former owner Hammam defended the antics of one-times charges. “Wimbledon was a group of people who worked hard and fought against heavy odds for 20 years and came up trumps,” he says. “We represented the little person, the working-class fan who doesn’t have a lot but works hard and doesn’t give up. The programme portrayed the group as violent thugs as if that was all they had to them. The suggestion was that the players were just a bunch of Fash’s boys and they were all terrified of him. It was far, far from the truth.”
But the last word goes to Fashanu. Asked if he had any regrets, he said: “Not striking Lawrie Sanchez sooner.”
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