John Motson covered football for the BBC for half a century, but it’s unlikely he ever topped the words he uttered at the end of the 1988 FA Cup Final. As Princess Diana clapped in the stands and Motson waxed lyrical about one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s 116-year history, Wembley was a scene of great contrast.
Liverpool, the first division champions and undisputed kings of England, were more flummoxed than furious. At the final whistle, Kenny Dalglish and his coaching staff strode immediately to the opposing dugout, offering their congratulations despite the shock etched on their faces.
On the pitch, Clive Goodyear and John Fashanu embraced, before the latter sank to the floor, overcome with emotion. Dave Beasant hopped around merrily. Even Vinnie Jones allowed himself a smile. Bruce Grobbelaar commended Beasant, his opposite number; plenty more in red shirts followed suit.
The magnanimity shown by the Reds was indicative of the scale of what had just unfolded. Far from being disgusted by their failure to become the first English side to win a second league and cup double, Liverpool – and, indeed, their travelling fans – could not help but applaud the side that had denied them.
To understand why, one must understand Wimbledon FC. A quick glance at the league table that season doesn’t suggest the result was all too shocking: Bobby Gould’s men finished seventh in the top flight. Yet they had been elected to the Football League only a decade earlier. Three promotions in four years saw them zoom up the league structure, landing in the first division like a bolt of lightning disrupting a peaceful summer’s day.
The methods that propelled them there were, to say the least, unconventional. A trip to their Plough Lane stadium – appropriately named, given the state of the playing surface – was met with dread by clubs across the footballing spectrum. Games against Wimbledon were messy, bruising affairs, and ones which, invariably, you lost.
Yet for all they had uprooted football’s norms, few foresaw them springing another surprise beneath the Twin Towers. Dalglish’s side was littered with stars. Between them, the Reds’ starting XI had won 25 First Division titles, four FA Cups, seven League Cups and six European Cups, most of them together. Wimbledon, well, hadn’t. A look back at their line-up now reveals a host of household names, but that is a happy fact born out of the famous final, rather than anything prior to it.
If Liverpool’s style of play was cultured, then Wimbledon’s could not have been more different. Shaped under Dave Bassett and then continued by Gould, theirs was a game plan basic in approach but nigh on impossible to combat. Get the ball up the field, put yourself about and fight for everything. With Jones commanding fiercely in the middle, Fashanu acting as a battering ram up front and a supporting cast of Thorn, Dennis Wise and Lawrie Sanchez, few expected to come away from a tussle with the Dons without sporting a bruise or ten.
The sides differed not only on the pitch but off it too. Viewing the Liverpool of the ’80s through a modern lens would horrify some; a bonding trip to Tel Aviv before the 1984 European Cup final resulted in a mass drunken brawl, and few at the club were shy of a pint. Yet in comparison to Wimbledon the Reds were saintly.
The tales are legion, far too numerous to list here and perhaps summed up best by Neil Ardley, a YTS player in those days: “If the Crazy Gang happened now we’d all be in prison.” That moniker, hurled into the public consciousness so memorably by Motson, was not just embraced by the players but encouraged by their superiors. Far from bringing shame upon the club, the camaraderie their japes brought about was deemed essential to the side’s endeavours.
Many laughed them off as a joke, yet in doing so they played into their hands. Wimbledon were baffling to plenty but their methods worked. What is more, they were far more sophisticated than they were given credit for. Bassett organised shadow training sessions, an innovation of the great Arrigo Sacchi, focusing upon improving his players’ positional sense. They undertook opposition research weeks in advance. Commonplace now but a rarity then, Wimbledon were one of the first clubs to heavily invest in video analysis of other sides.
Not that they needed to search too far to prep for their first ever cup final. Liverpool, even in an age when televised football was in its infancy, were known across the continent. Dalglish had at his disposal the likes of Alan Hansen, John Barnes and Peter Beardsley, to name just three players with genuine star power.
Wimbledon plainly didn’t and, more importantly, they didn’t care. The final itself was no great thriller, settled as it was by a single Sanchez header, eight minutes shy of the break. Liverpool had created plenty before Grobbelaar’s goal was unceremoniously breached; afterwards, their attacks became a veritable siege. For much of the second half, Gould’s side opted for the novel approach of not even playing a striker, so deep had Fashanu dropped.
The Reds’ pressure was relentless and, on the hour mark, the Dons succumbed and conceded a penalty. Ironically, given some of the horror tackles that had gone before it, Goodyear’s tackle on John Aldridge actually won the ball. With VAR some three decades from existence, complaints fell on deaf ears, and Aldridge himself stepped up to dispatch the equaliser. Or so many expected. Instead, Beasant made history by becoming the first player to save a penalty in an FA Cup final at Wembley.
Liverpool’s kitchen sink went hurtling towards Beasant to no avail. By the end, even the champions of England knew that fate was against them. Beasant lifted the trophy as a nation blinked disbelievingly. And afterwards? The Crazy Gang went where they had spent the evening before the final. Down the pub.
Part of our Magic of the Cup series