When I started watching Welcome to Wrexham earlier this year, I had a bit of a deja vu experience of with struggling English football clubs. Some 40 years ago on my first journey to the British Isles during a vacation (it turned into a work-vacation), I attended three matches – an England vs. Germany friendly at Wembley, and two lower division contests. One was Orient FC (known better known as Leyton Orient) in the old Third Division and Wimbledon (which eventually moved to Milton Keynes in 2003) in the old Fourth Division. I wound writing two stories about those clubs for Soccer America. The stories talked about the trials and tribulations of lower division clubs. Today, I would like to share with you these two stories from 40 years ago next month.
Both stories were used with permission from Soccer America. You can visit the online publication at www.SoccerAmerica.com.
Today soccer America contributing editor Michael Lewis finishes a two-part series about the lower rungs of English soccer, which in many ways are not unlike professional soccer in the United States. In this story, he profiles the Wimbledon Football Club, a team that was promoted to the third division after finishing at the top the fourth with a 29-6-11 record.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – Contrary to popular belief, tennis is not the only sport that is played in Wimbledon. They play soccer in the southeast section of the city.
Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. It all depends on the year. The Wimbledon Football Club, you see, is caught in a vicious cycle and dilemma. It is too good for the fourth division but not good enough for the third.
So the Dons, as they are nicknamed, alternate between levels. One year on the top of the fourth, the next at the bottom of the third.
It all started in the 1977-78 season, when Wimbledon was accepted into the fourth division after several seasons as champions of the semi-pro Southern League.
In 1977-78, the Dons finished 14-16-16 or 13th place in the fourth. Still in the league in 1978-79, they improved to 25-10-11 and a fourth-place finish.
In 1979-80, they were 24th, last out of 24th teams in the third with a 10-22-14 mark. In 1980-81, they were near the top of the fourth with a 23-14-9 record and a fourth-place finish. Then they dropped to 14-20-11 and a 21st-place finished in the third in 1981-82. Back in the fourth last season Wimbledon compiled a 29-6-11, good for the division championship.
This year Wimbledon is back in the third again.
“What I’d like to see is us establish ourselves in the third division,” assistant manager Alan Gillet said last year. “We’re lacking in all-around strength.
“Our aim and ambition is to get into the third and not sell any of our players. if you step up a league, you must improve your side by two players. If you win the fourth, you’ve got to have a third division players.”
Manager Dave Bassett added: “I don’t think there’s a million miles between the top and the bottom. It’s not like that. Our first priority is to get out of the fourth division.”
Wimbledon is among a number of English soccer teams using innovative methods to stay alive. The Dons average 2,347 fans last a game last year down 249 from the 1981 82 season.
Fans and supporters literally sponsor everything from player’s uniforms and shoes to the game ball.
Everyone ships before games oh boy walks through the directors’ area selling programs for that day’s match (40 pence apiece, about 70 cents in in U.S. currency).
The gate brings in about 20 percent of the club’s revenue.
Gillette estimated that the other 80 percent comes from renting out their team gymnasium, the club’s nightclub and the bar for parties and the directors lounge for meetings.
“We don’t have great facilities,” Gillet said. “But we make the best of what we’ve got.”
“It’s very difficult to make ends meet,” Bassett said. “The gate receipts are not very good. Off-the-field [activities] keeps football at Wimbledon afloat. Most teams got to have some revenue.”
It seems it always comes back to money.
“When we get promoted, we haven’t been able to improve the squad of players,” Gillet said. “The last time we were promoted, we had to sell two of our best players. Otherwise, we’d go out of business.
“Obviously, we can’t keep doing it.”
But Wimbledon has to, It’s part of the game of survival. You don’t get rich playing in the fourth division, but you might make yourself a reputation and move up. A typical player earns about 170 to $200 a week.
Gyn Hodges a promising 19-year-old midfielder, who like hundreds of young and up and coming players dreams of performing in the first division, earns $180 a week with Wimbledon.
“To be honest, that is quite good for my age,” said Hodges, who is a member of the Wales Under-21 national team. “It’s a fair wage. … If we get a promotion then we’re in for a lot of money.”
Last year Wimbledon did get that promotion, although not every victory was a gem. On this particular night in the fourth division Wimbledon experienced little trouble with Rochdale, posting a 3-0 victory.
“The way we played tonight wasn’t very good,” Hodges said. “You didn’t see us in a good game.
“You play the top teams and you lift yourself for the game. When you play against these teams, it’s always going to be hard. You can never control the game for 90 minutes. As soon as we scored an early goal, everybody relaxed.”
“I’m satisfied that we won, he said, but we didn’t play as well as we usually do.”
Unlike his managing colleagues who watch games from the bench alongside the field, Bassett would rather watch from the stands.
“I prefer to watch the guys from up there,” he said. “That gives me a clearer picture on what’s going on. It depends on your preference. You definitely see more [from this stands]. You can have a good view of it. Sometimes though, I feel like going down there [to the field] and have a shout.”
Editor’s Note: Gyn Hodges, now 59, went onto enjoy a 20-year career, mostly in English soccer. He made 535 appearances and scored 97 goals for 11 clubs. He tallied 49 times in 232 matches for the Dons from 1980-1987. Hodges also performed for Newcastle United, Watford, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest, among other teams. He also represented Wales on 18 occasions, scoring two goals. Most recently Hodges managed AFC Wimbledon, the team that replaced the original club after it moved the Milton Keynes, from 2019-21.
This story is used with permission from Soccer America. Its website can be reached at www.SoccerAmerica.com.