Monday, 23 May 2011

Sutton United blog: Dons' delight, Wally Downes and Stuart Massey

I bet there were a few sore heads in Marbella on Sunday morning. The Sutton United boys have partied hard for the past three days, celebrating their Ryman League Championship success. I can imagine things got very messy. I just hope their blazers, ties and slacks aren't covered in too much sick and kebab remains.

I was in a bit of a mess too yesterday morning. While the rest of the footballing world was whipping itself into a frenzy about the last day of the Premiership campaign I was recovering from the amazing events which took place on the last day of the Blue Square Premier season.

Danny Kedwell converted the all-important penalty at Eastlands to send Wimbledon into the Football League and the supporters who gathered at The Swan in Wimbledon, where I watched the game, into raptures. The result leaves Luton to slug it out in non-league's top flight for a third season.

Good old Wimbledon, aye. The club which was ripped away from the fans in one of football's darkest episodes a decade ago has stuck two fingers up in the best possible way at the FA and the sinister cast which allowed it all to happen.

It's just a shame the game didn't take place in London. The crowd of 18,195 which watched the tense drama unfold tells a story. For many, travelling to Manchester and having to stump up the exorbitant ticket price was simply too much. 

But for me, Wimbledon's promotion to the League rekindles memories of some magical matches I witnessed at Plough Lane involving the likes of John Leslie, Steve Galliers, Steve Ketteridge and, considering recent events, the appropriately named, Steve Hatter.

Basically, anyone with the name Steve who played for Wimbledon back then was pretty useful.

Everyone knows about the club's Crazy Gang legends such as John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and, the craziest of them all, Clive Goodyear, but Leslie, Galliers, Ketteridge and Hatter were just a few of the guys who handed them the baton as the Dons rose from Southern League, to the First Division and FA Cup winners in just 11 seasons.

I'd been watching Sutton for two years before my dad took me to Plough Lane to see a team called Wimbledon play. I'd never heard of the place, let alone the team.

I remember walking through the turnstiles and thinking I was lucky dad had decided to give me a taste of the big time - it was a match in Football League Division Four and the season was 1982/83.

I'd also never heard of any of the teams in that division, but the majority of them conjured up pretty unpleasant images. Rochdale, Crewe, Doncaster and Scunthorpe all sounded like places where naughty boys were sent, but dad needn't have worried, I was on my best behaviour as I soaked up the atmosphere and looked at the programme.

Even though crowds watching Dave Bassett's boys back then were nowhere near as good as they are today for Terry Brown's brigade, it definitely felt like I was at a really big match. I was used to seeing just a few hundred turn up at Gander Green Lane for Sutton's matches, but at Plough Lane supporters even had to queue to get in just before kick-off.

The thing which most impressed me about Plough Lane was the size of the floodlights, they were huge in comparison to Sutton's eight slender pylons. The second thing which really caught my eye was the club shop, it was like an Aladdin's Cave of yellow and blue scarves, hats, badges and other tat which I gleefully bought, with dad's money.

One of the buzz phrases in the school playground at the time was 'wally'. If you were called that, then you'd exact revenge on the little swine who brandished such filthy remarks by either giving him a Chinese burn or carefully placing a sticker on the back of his school blazer which read 'kick me'.

Imagine then, how I laughed when I found out that one of the Wimbledon players was actually called Wally Downes. I immediately pointed it out to dad and earmarked him as my favourite player, and all this before the match had even started.

In subsequent matches competition for the crown of my favourite player soon became fierce because I'd also taken a shine to two of the club's tallest players, Dave Beasant and Stewart Evans, who both sported some kind of weird bubble perm hairstyle-type-thing.

It took a while before me and dad stopped calling Dave Beasant, Dave Bassett and vice-versa. We were always getting it wrong. Dad still does and resorts to calling whoever he means, Dave Bassentt.

Legend: Wimbledon goalkeeper Dave Beasant - or is it Dave Bassett? - I don't know. Whoever it is, he's trying to let his perm grow out and pretend it never happened.

Another thing which impressed me about Plough Lane was it's intimacy. When Wally Downes came over to take a corner kick, he was just a few feet away from us and he would often engage in a bit of banter with the fans.

At Sutton, where the pitch was separated from the supporters by an old running track, we had to shout words of encouragement to the ball boys who would in turn pass our messages of support on to the players. We were too far away from the action.

There was absolutely no chance of having any banter with Micky Stephens when he came over to take a corner.

Wimbledon's success meant the inevitable happened and many of the squad from that era drifted off to other clubs and were replaced by a better standard, like Andy Sayer for example. Ketteridge was sent to Crystal Palace for a couple of years but his move to Selhurst Park wasn't met with the whole-hearted approval of some Eagles fans. Just read the comment below his profile here. Ouch.

Thankfully, former Sutton hot-shot and former Palace not-so-hot-shot, Steve Galloway's profile has been left  untarnished and he also gets a mention in this feature from 2003, along with another former Sutton favourite and former Palace not-so-favourite Stuart Massey.

Any rate, I am going to finish this ramble in a Womble wonderland with a brief reminder of where the Dons and the Hatters were at the end of that campaign which saw me visit Plough Lane for the very first time.

The 1982/83 season ended with Wimbledon winning the Fourth Division title and Luton's David Pleat doing this after the Hatters survived relegation from the First Division by the skin of their teeth, ironically at the expense of Manchester City on whose ground the two clubs met on Saturday. Crikey, how times have changed.

Wimbledon weren't just the early flag bearers of the long-ball game but also pioneers of fancy goal celebrations as can be seen here as when they took on Bury in the final game of that season. What a bunch of wallies.

After the game on Saturday, and in a strange twist of fate, I actually got a bus past the venue where Ketteridge, Downes, Beasant and Bassett helped create so much history.

I saw the sign for Plough Lane which actually filled me with sadness. It's been built on by luxury flats now. But Saturday wasn't a day to be sad, it was a day to be proud of not only Wimbledon, but of what fans can achieve when they stand up for themselves.

Well done Dons. It only took nine years and two fingers.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Sutton United blog: Michel Platini and AFC Wimbledon v Luton

If it wasn't for a ridiculous ruling by Michel Platini and his pals at UEFA  I'd be getting all excited about a trip to Wembley today to watch Wimbledon take on Luton in the Blue Square Play-Off Final.

It appears UEFA want to give Wembley a bit of breathing space before next Saturday's Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona. So, the game which would have been staged at Wembley is now taking place at the City of Manchester Stadium.

I used to like Platini. He was the star of the first European Championships I can remember in 1984 as host nation France triumphed over Spain 2-0 in the final, although his goal from a free-kick was helped by some hapless goalkeeping from Luis Arconada. 

I can remember watching the competition mesmerised as a young lad, often sat in my pyjamas for the latter stages of matches. Ah, I'm getting all soppy now.

For me, Platini personified the excitement of the competition. The most memorable match I recall was the semi-final with Portugal where France battled back from 2-1 down to snatch victory with Platini pouncing in the last few seconds.

The goal was the catalyst for a magical moment from John Motson's back catalogue. His shreik of  'GOAL!' left me cowering behind the sofa like a frightened cat. Mum coaxed me back out with the promise of a Milky Bar.

Any rate, back to today. There's no doubt about it, there would have been a big crowd at Wembley, with plenty of casual observers being tempted to see two non-league heavyweights going head-to-head. You never know, there might be a decent turn-out as it is.

Football fans are a hardy bunch and, as far as Wimbledon are concerned, it's their biggest match since AFC came into existence, so their fans would travel to the ends of the earth if they had to.

Instead, while thousands of fans are bombing up the motorway to Manchester, I am off to hunt for a pub which has the channel Premier Sports so I can watch the game. Platini is not in my good books, let me tell you, our relationship has definitely soured over the last 27 years.

I have never been one to follow the crowd. When the Dons and the Hatters met in the FA Cup Semi-Final at White Hart Lane in 1988 I was put under severe pressure from pals to join them at the big match. But, I held firm, and my reward was seeing Sutton gain a gallant point from a 2-2 draw at Aggborough, the home of Kidderminster Harriers.

I have to admit, I was tempted by the prospect of watching the Cup tie. The chance to see little Terry Gibson, big John Fashanu, hairy Steve Foster and average Mal Donaghy was almost too good to turn down. But, I saw sense, and went to Kidderminster where Barry Williams's boys battled hard for a share of the spoils.

Football back then had a very different look about it. The Dons and the Hatters were high-flying First Division sides, while Sutton were a top-ten Conference club.

As well as Wimbledon and Luton, the First Division featured such oddities as Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, and Watford. Chelsea finished fourth from bottom and were subsequently relegated to the Second Division after a play-off with Sutton's FA Cup conquerors Middlesbrough.

If that all sounds a little strange then the Conference had it's fair share of curiosities too, such as Fisher Athletic, Runcorn and Lincoln...hold on, scrap the last one, they're back for another dose of non-league's big time. It a time before Dagenham had hooked up with Redbridge to form the super-club we know today.

Any rate, I hope the Dons can turn the clock back to 1988 today and beat Luton. I would have written more but I am off to get my drinking boots on and, hopefully, I will be raising a glass to Wimbledon's return to the Football League by 4.45. 

Come on you Dons!


Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Sutton United blog: Stella Mwangi, Karim El-Salahi and Sergio Ramos

The last few weeks have proved all too much for my computer to take, it's thrown a right old wobbly that any weeble would have been proud of and I've only just got it back from the menders.

It's hardly surprising really, it's been a busy time, what with the Royal Wedding, all that business with Osama Bin Laden, Azerbaijan winning the Eurovision Song Contest and Sutton taking the Ryman Premier League title.

Ok, I admit, I maybe a bit late with that last bombshell. However, just as I was about to revel in the glory of my team winning the championship, my computer said 'no' and just refused to work. You swine (I am shaking my fist at it now).

The other day I turned my TV on and it just so happened to be on BBC3 which was showing the first semi-final of Eurovision. Stella Mwangi took to the stage to sing her entry for Norway entitled Haba Haba.

If the name of the song is awful, then her singing on the big night wasn't much better. I haven't heard a voice as rough as that since Sutton's back-up goalkeeper Wayne Shaw belted out a heartfelt derogatory song aimed at the club's number one netminder Kevin Scriven after our final home game of the season against Carshalton.

However, while Shaw managed to command his adoring audience with ease, Mwangi was left biting her nails after a below par performance. Before she knew where she was, the Albanians took to the stage for their moment in the spotlight, and, by the time the show finished, she was packing her bags back to Oslo.

Ah, the spotlight. It's where everyone connected with Sutton United has been basking over the last few weeks, and rightly so. The class of 2010/11 has done us proud.

Song conest: Who is going to win, Stella Mwangi or Wayne Shaw?
You decided, call 0898 12345678910.

I walked to Gander Green Lane ahead of our showdown with Carshalton on April 25 eagerly anticipating seeing the Isthmian League shield being held aloft by Sutton captain Karim El-Salahi in front of a big crowd.

The last time Sutton won the league was in 1999, and being a berk, I had already booked a holiday, so missed all the celebrations which included a 5-0 annihilation of Aldershot.

That means the last Sutton skipper I saw lifting the shield was John Rains after the Us had beaten Kingstonian on a Thursday night back in 1986. But, despite making my way to the front of the main stand at the final whistle against Carshalton - a prime location to watch the celebrations unfold - I still haven't seen a Sutton skipper hold that flippin' shield aloft since Rainsy.

My view was blocked by none other than 'the voice of Sutton United', matchday announcer and Press Officer, Tony Dolbear.

I may not have had a good view of the shield but I couldn't grumble with the vantage point I had of Tony's white shirt and grey slacks. His tidy appearance was a timely reminder that I needed to get down to Matalan and buy some new work clobber.

Tony has worked tirelessly for the club in a variety of roles over the years, and was acting as MC for the great occasion. However, if I go another 25 years without seeing a Sutton captain lift league championship-winning silverware then it'll be 2036 and I'll either be on holiday or senile. The smart money is on the latter.

Watch highlights of the Sutton v Carshalton game here.

I was hoping the boys might get on an open-top bus and parade down the High Street. But when you consider that half the team lives in Hampshire and that the High Street has such charming delights as The 99p Store, Poundland, Agora Amusements, Spinna Winna and Dallas Chicken and Ribs, it's hardly surprising that the idea is a non-starter.

Even one of the borough's most historic sites, Britain's first drive-thru Burger King, is now boarded up. Our lads don't need to drive past these sort of places, showing the shield off to bemused fag-puffing, Premiership-supporting chavs of all ages and sizes.

This is Sutton: The first drive-thru Burger King in the country once once the envy of every town across the land, even Croydon. I think it was opened by Neil MacFarlane MP.

As we all know, celebratory open-top bus tours and, even just winning trophies in general, can be fraught with peril.

Real Madrid lead the way. The wheels on the bus went round and round and over the Copa Del Rey after Sergio Ramos dropped the prized piece of silverware during the club's open-top bus tour after their 1-0 over Barcelona a few weeks ago.

It appears that damaging trophies is all the rage at the moment. Even Darlington got in on the act. Their goalkeeper Sam Russell turned into Sam Butterfingers after he dropped the FA Trophy during the celebrations following the Quakers' last-gasp extra-time victory over Mansfield Town in the final.

I think our guys did the right thing by giving the bus tour thing a miss.

Thankfully, the Surrey Senior Cup is in safe hands after Corinthian Casuals not only defeated Leatherhead 2-0 at Gander Green Lane but made it through the celebrations with the Cup intact. There again, you wouldn't have expected anything less from a bunch of Victorian gentlemen with long moustaches who's wild celebrations consisted entirely of firm handshakes all round.

Any rate, best be off. Sadly, I cant get Stella Mwangi's Haba Haba out of my head. If only Wayne Shaw had put that song about Kevin Scriven on YouTube...