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.

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