PLOUGH LANE – PART THREE
WIMBLEDON made their debut in the Southern League for the 1964-65 season and it would take them twelve years to get out the league although only one to make it out of the First Division.
Dons’ first-ever Southern League match was at home against Poole Town. A crowd of 3,342 witnessed a goalless draw as the newly semi-professional outfit found their feet.
After that it was all systems go with Eddie Reynolds continuing to bang in the goals at an alarming rate. In that first season in the new competition the Ulsterman found the back of the net an astonishing 53 times as the team finished runners-up to Hereford United and earned immediate promotion to the Premier Division.
Wimbledon were formed as a limited company that year raising £20,000 by selling 4,000 shares at £5 each. Chairman Sydney Black, as he had done so often before, proved a generous backer provided a £49,000 interest-free loan to be repaid over the next seven years at £7,000 per year.
The team took yet another rise in their stride finishing 5th in their first season in the Premier Division of the Southern League seven points in arrears of champions Weymouth.
The 1964-65 season saw Ian Cooke break into the team although it would be another year before he became a fully established member of the side.
Cooke had joined the club during the 1963-64 campaign and made two appearances that year. There were some initial issues about gaining release from his banking job and turning semi-pro with the rest of the squad but these were eventually ironed out and he made eight appearances in 1964-65 before becoming a regular the following season.
Ian Cooke’s testimonial
Cooke was later appointed captain during Allen Batsford’s reign and would spend the whole of his career at Plough Lane, retiring in 1977 (he was awarded a testimonial against Crystal Palace) just as they were about to enter the Football League having played a total of 615 games and scored 297 goals, both of which are second all-time in the club’s history behind Roy Law, from whom he took over the captaincy, and Eddie Reynolds, from whom he took over the chief goalscoring responsibilities, respectively.
Plough Lane in 1966
Work on Plough Lane continued in 1965. New floodlights installed with a reduction from eight pylons to four and a concrete wall was added around the ground.
By the start of the 1965-66 season Eddie Reynolds was now reaching the veteran stage and was being phased out as the main striker with Cooke and Gerry O’Rourke taking over as the chief source of goals.
O’Rourke, who had played for Hayes and Hendon after being stationed at Windsor with the Scots Guards, joined Wimbledon in 1964 and turned semi-pro on the club’s ascension to the Southern League.
The new floodlights were used for the first time in a 6-1 home league win over Tonbridge, Cooke marking the occasion with a hat-trick.
During the season regular goalkeeper Mike Kelly suffered a broken jaw after colliding with a goalpost and Les Henley paid Queen’s Park Rangers £1,500 for Frank Smith to replace him.
Smith’s form was so good that when Kelly was ready to return he couldn’t dislodge him. Dons had already turned down one £5,000 bid from Millwall for the ‘keeper and when QPR came in they allowed him to leave. Kelly would later play for Birmingham City and in the U.S. before becoming the England goalkeeping coach in the 1980s.
The end of the 1965-66 season was the end of an era for the Dons as the legendary Reynolds was allowed to move on to Ashford. There was also a colour change with the blue shirts and white shorts changed to an all-blue kit.
The late 1960s saw regular finishes close to the top of the Southern League, regular failed applications to join the Football League with the club gaining only a handful of votes at best, and the arrival of a young goalkeeper, Dickie Guy, who would have a major impact on the club’s fortunes in the future.
The 1967-68 season saw signing of Irish striker Eddie Bailham. Bailham has been on the books of Manchester United as a schoolboy – at the same time as Johnny Giles – and had won a full cap for his country, playing in the 3-1 defeat to England at Dalymount Park in 1964 where the England goals were scored by George Eastham, Johnny Byrne and Jimmy Greaves. Wimbledon signed him for £1600 from Worcester City
An F.A Cup run was ended in the 2nd round when Bristol Rovers overpowered the Dons 4-0 with more than 9,000 in attendance. The season also saw a runners-up spot in the league and, perhaps most crucially of all, the passing of chairman and major benefactor Sydney Black.
In his will Black bequeathed money to the club in order for them to pay off the remainder of the loan he had made five years before, but the generous support of the club’s greatest fan and backer would be sorely missed.
Sir Cyril Black, Sydney’s brother, stepped in to help the club with a £20,000 interest-free loan but with attendances dropping and little progress being made on or off the pitch it seemed that the club were merely treading water. Although they were constantly finishing in the upper-reaches of the Southern League there was little impetus to take the next step and a Football League place seemed perennially out of reach.
A Southern League Cup win in 1970 was the sum total of silverware received during the early 70s and manager Les Henley paid the price when he was allowed to leave at the end of his contract in 1971. The club also sold striker John O’Mara to Brentford to give the coffers a much-needed £1,500 boost.
Mike Everitt, who had played league football for Arsenal, Northampton Town, Plymouth Argyle and Brighton & Hove Albion came on board as Henley’s replacement but he inherited an ageing squad and would need time and money to turn things around – and both were in short supply.
Everett’s first season in charge – 1971-72 – was disappointing with the club recording the lowest position in their Southern League top flight history, 10th. There were also early exits from the Cups and a disappointing drop in average attendance. Eddie Bailham, who had scored regularly for the club, was allowed to leave as the manager set about trying to reshape the team.
In September 1972 the club found the benefactor it had been looking for when local publican and businessman Bernie Coleman bought Sir Cyril Black’s majority shareholding and wiped out the club’s debts. The new man in charge admitted however, the he would not be able to fund the club in the way Sydney Black had and Wimbledon would need to start finding their own way, financially, through results and support.
At the same time the club opened a pub on the corner of the ground which would certainly add some revenue but more was required to achieve Wimbledon’s ambitions.
More of the club’s old guard had moved on with Roy Law now at Sutton United. That his new team knocked Wimbledon out of the F.A. Cup at the 4th qualifying round stage must have been slightly bittersweet for the former Plough Lane stalwart.
Toward the end of the 1972-73 season the club hosted a prestigious friendly against Aston Villa hoping to showcase their potential for a place in the Football League. 3,100 fans showed up to see the visitors take a 2-0 win.
The club were shocked when Everitt left to take on the job at Brentford. His short spell in charge at Plough Lane had been a difficult one with few newcomers arriving and a number of the old guard moving on, along with promising youngster Barry Silkman who was sold to Barnet for £700.
Everett would later find success coaching abroad in Egypt, Kuwait and Morocco. His replacement at Plough Lane was former Colchester boss Dick Graham who had led the Essex club to their famous shock cup win over Leeds United in 1971.
But Graham’s tenure at Plough Lane didn’t even last a single season. He resigned in March 1974 after being asked to switch from a full-time to a part-time role, and accused the club’s directors of interference. Trainer Danny Keenan took charge for the remainder of the campaign and guided the team to a second consecutive 12th-place finish.
A much more serious crisis was averted when a combination of Bernie Coleman and the Supporters Club raised the £5,000 needed to pay off a bank overdraft that threatened to put them out of business and a new manager was found.
Allen Batsford had been in charge at Walton and Hersham, leading them to victory in the Amateur Cup and an F.A. Cup upset of Brian Clough’s Brighton. He won the race to take the manager’s job over 27 other applicants, took the Wimbledon reins in 1974 and would prove the right man for the job of taking the Dons to the next level.
Among the new recruits joining him at Plough Lane were five players who had played for Batsford at Walton. The strike pair of Roger Connell and Kieron Somers, along with Dave Bassett, Dave Donaldson and Billy Edwards added numerically bought also brought a level of toughness with them that suited the Dons.
The 1974-75 season started with a loss to Nuneaton Borough but the Dons then went on a run of 22 successive victories in the league and various cup competitions.
In the F.A Cup the team fought their way through to the 1st round proper where they overcame Bath City at home in front of 5,500 whilst fellow Southern Leaguers Kettering were duly dispatched in Round Two.
The 3rd Round, whilst failing to produce a glamour tie, did set the Dons up with First Division opposition in the shape of a trip to face Burnley.
Just under 20,000 showed up at Turf Moor, including over 1,000 Wimbledon fans. The majority of those attending no doubt expecting a relatively straight-forward win for the Clarets. They, along with the rest of the football world as Wimbledon overcame their illustrious opponents by a single goal.
Micky Mahon got the winner but the real heroes were the defence and in particular goalkeeper Dickie Guy who took all that Burnley, challenging at the top of the 1st Division at the time and the previous year’s semi-finalists, could throw at them.
The result was a real boon for the Dons, as was the share of gate receipts. Then, to add icing to the cake they were drawn to visit Elland Road and face 1st Division Champions Leeds United in the 4th Round.
With the club £35,000 in debt, the share of gate receipts was proving a godsend and 46,230 were at Elland Road for the clash against a Leeds team still coming to terms with the departure of Don Revie and getting used to life under his replacement, Jimmy Armfield.
Allen Batsford with Leeds manager Jimmy Armfield
Leeds battered the Wimbledon defence but couldn’t find a way through. Then, with just eight minutes remaining the home team were awarded a penalty. Peter Lorimer, with one of the most-feared shots in football stepped up to take it, and Guy saved it. And The Dons held on to force a replay.
Not surprisingly there was huge interest in the replay. The match was originally due to take place at Plough Lane but was postponed due to waterlogging. It was then switched to Selhurst Park where another crowd of over 45,000 saw Leeds edge through after a Johnny Giles shot was deflected past Guy by Bassett.
One might have expected Wimbledon’s season to collapse after the loss and defeat in the F.A Trophy soon after seemed to confirm this. But Batsford got his side back on track and they won the Southern League Premier Division for the first time, finishing three points clear of Nuneaton Borough.
Although they failed to repeat their cup exploits in 1975-76, a second successive league win, this time by eight points over Yeovil Town, further strengthened Wimbledon’s claims for a place in the Football League. They also added the Non-league’s ‘Champions of Champions’ trophy with an aggregate victory over Wigan Athletic. They also reached the final of the Anglo-Italian trophy losing 1-0 to Monza although the club said they wouldn’t compete again as, according to Batsford they; “got kicked from one end of Italy to the other”.
The successes came at a cost. An inflated wage bill saw the club announce, at the end of the season, that they were £20,000 in debt. The club continued applying for admission in the Football League and continued to be denied receiving less votes that other non-league clubs despite clearly showing they were the best team not among the nation’s 92.
In the summer of 1976, Coleman stood aside and Ron Noades, formerly at the helm at Southall, took charge. Noades stated that the way to break through into football’s elite would be through ‘good public relations’, but results were clearly important too. A poor start was quickly recovered from and the Dons won a third successive title.
At the all-important meeting to reveal the league’s decision on re-election and promotion held at London’s Cafe Royal current incumbents Halifax. Hartlepool and Southport all comfortably beat Wimbledon’s score of 27 votes. But the fourth current league club, Workington, polled only 21 so that was it, Wimbledon were in!