My attendance at Friday nights game will mean I will have seen the Dons play in every round of the League Cup with the exception of the Final and, bizarrely, the First Round (although that’s going to come sooner or later…). Ok, maybe it isn’t as fantastic a claim as that held by myself and many other Wimbledon fans to have seen our side play in every round of the FA Cup from Preliminary to Final, but it is another consequence of our, erm, strange history.
The League Cup might not inspire the same sort of passion as its FA equivalent… it’s rare to find even one Premier League manager coming out telling the press this is a competition they want to win. Championship clubs don’t seem to care unless they somehow find their way through to the quarter finals, and the competition is normally over well before the end of September as far as clubs in the bottom two divisions are concerned. Attendances, even in the later rounds, are pitiful.
And yet… every football fan who follows their club regularly has a League Cup story or two, a dramatic giant killing or unexpected classic, perhaps helped by the fact the majority of games are played of an evening under floodlights – I’ve always considered night games to have that little extra atmosphere, as if someone plonked a roof over the ground, and can more than make up for any lack of bodies in the stands.
This season, due to the unusual circumstances surrounding Birmingham qualifying for Europe and getting themselves relegated in the same year, the Dons and Crawley face off in the preliminary round before our League campaign has even started. Yet as those with longer memories than my own will attest (although I do have the excuse of not being born for another three months), in a curious case of history repeating our first games as a Football League club were in this very competition.
The Dons played a two-legged first round tie with Gillingham, winning 4-2 with both games taking place before the Dons kicked off as a Division Four club for the first time against Halifax, our reward for progression being a 0-4 defeat at Tottenham (it will take three wins for us to stand any chance of a return to White Hart Lane in this years competition…). A victory twelve months later against Southend only ensured another heavy Second Round defeat, this time 0-8 at Everton.
The Dons first real run in the competition came as Aldershot, Orient and Plymouth were dispatched prior to a 1-2 defeat to Swindon in the Fourth Round (this was also the first of three seasons in a row where Wimbledon and Aldershot were paired in the First Round). The 83/84 season was the first the Dons really caused an upset, defeating Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest 2-0 at Plough Lane, holding on for a 1-1 draw at the City Ground.
As the Dons rose themselves to ‘giant’ status, the likes of Cambridge, Plymouth and Peterborough were on hand to dump us out of the competition over two legs, the Dons struggling to make in impact on the later rounds despite memorable wins against Newcastle and Manchester United at Plough Lane.
By the time the nineties began, and Plough Lane was sold out from under us in exchange for the joys of Selhurst Park, a League Cup encounter in our second season drew a sub- 2,000 crowd on a Tuesday night to witness a 0-1 defeat to then Third Division Bolton… Fortunately Wimbledon progressed thanks to a 3-1 first leg lead against opponents who would go on to usurp Aldershot as the Dons most frequent League Cup opponents.
I actually have pretty good memories of that night, as it was the first time I was allowed to travel across to Selhurst Park on my own… I say ‘allowed’, my mum decided I wouldn’t be able to go to evening games unless I travelled with friends, With none of my mates willing to go out on a cold October night, I simply made up a name and told my mum I was going with them (looking back I can see where a lot of those jokes about our poor attendances came from, when as a Dons fan I literally resorted to travelling to games with imaginary friends…). Anyway, I couldn’t believe I’d seemingly got away with it, only to find a literally deserted Thornton Heath was not the sort of place a not so street smart 14-year-old kid really wanted to hang out after dark… every staggering drunk became a potential murderer, every shop doorway hid a mugger…
It took twelve months before I was brave enough to repeat the trick, just in time for the first of a number of seasons in the nineties where I became convinced the Dons would go on to win the trophy. Victories over Hereford and Newcastle set up maybe the most memorable League Cup ties the club were involved in, at home to Liverpool (although those who witnessed the 6-4 win at Southend may disagree, and the 4-5 defeat to Charlton was memorable for all the wrong reasons).
The Dons seemed to have the game won leading 2-1 with the clock ticking well beyond ninety minutes, before a freak own goal from Hans Segers took the game to extra time. Segers redeemed himself by saving a penalty in the first period, before the Dons finally got the win after a shootout, the airplane celebration that followed being one of the few truly iconic images of the Dons stay at Selhurst Park.
That year’s quarter final was a huge let down, a 2-1 defeat at home to Sheffield Wednesday in a game the Dons didn’t get going in until it was too late. Even more frustratingly we then beat the same side in the League just days later… Not as frustrating as the 0-1 ‘home’ exit to Crystal Palace a year later, my vote for the worst League Cup tie I ever saw. The crazy 8-7 aggregate defeat to Charlton followed twelve months later, and the Dons looked as though they would continue their ongoing poor form in the competition.
Yet a year down the line, Wimbledon made it to the semi-final of the competition after defeating Portsmouth, Luton, Aston Villa and Bolton. I remember watching the first leg of the Leicester tie in a pub in Kingston that no longer exists called the White Horse, the first and last time I entered the place before it was demolished. It seemed to be the only pub in town showing the game, and me and a friend watched in nervous silence as the Dons ground out a 0-0 draw.
What happened before the second leg at Selhurst Park will always be controversial in my mind… the club decided to hand out leaflets telling fans how they could go about buying tickets for the final if we won. Planning for every eventuality maybe, but in my eyes this was a sign of chickens being counted, a terrible omen. Yet the Dons took the lead in the first half, Marcus Gayle scoring a similar effort to the one that defeated Villa earlier in the competition, spotting the keeper out of position and drilling past him at the near post from a tight angle.
However Wimbledon couldn’t build on it and put the game to bed, and when Leicester scrambled an equalizer via a looping header, they repeated the Dons defensive trick until ninety minutes, then extra time, were all but up. We had turned up late on the night, and consequently found ourselves stuck at the back of the upper tier of the Holmesdale Stand, and I found myself having to explain the Away Goals rule to a gentleman sitting behind me confused as to why Neil Sullivan was coming up for corners so close to what he presumed would be penalties…
Bolton finally got one over on us by knocking us out a season later, now a Premier League club themselves, but we took revenge a year later, as the Dons stormed to the semi finals once more. This was a weird year for me, I spent the majority of it working at the airport on a social life murdering Tuesday-Saturday 1-10pm shift pattern, which also meant I didn’t see much of the Dons… that season would have passed me by completely if it hadn’t been for this run.
We found ourselves up against Tottenham, sick to the back teeth of each other with the two-legged semi forming part of five games against them in the space of a few weeks. With no chance of getting the night off work, I decided to tape the game and watch it when I got in, but a chance encounter with an empty staff room complete with TV saw me watch much of the second half. With the Dons trailing 0-1, I decided to turn the TV off and go back to work, for no other reason than I wanted to hold onto the dream for as long as possible… the depression when I got home and finally caught the end of the game was as bad as it had been two years earlier…
The 1999/2000 season would end badly (very badly…) but in retrospect was probably the closest we ever got to winning the League Cup. Cardiff, Sunderland and Huddersfield were dispatched before our obligatory trip to Bolton saw us take an early lead thanks to a Carl Cort goal. Yet Bolton came back to win it 2-1, galling as Tranmere shocked Middlesbrough… while there is no guarantee the Dons would have gone on to beat Tranmere (after all, Bolton were beaten by them pretty convincingly, even less they could have taken some revenge on Leicester, this was the ultimate ‘what if?’ season, and you wonder how a trip to Wembley might have positively affected league form during the run in…
Wimbledon weren’t completely done with the League Cup… a season later we shocked Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park before defeat in the fourth round at Manchester City, but the following years 2-1 loss at the Withdean to Brighton proved to be our last as a fanbase… at least until Friday night…
Of course non-league footballs plethora of knockout competitions provided us with a new meaning to the phrase ‘Mickey Mouse Cup’… Cherry Red Books Trophy anyone? The Bryco Cup??? Which means our trip to Crawley, for me at least, is a meaningful experience. A trip to Crystal Palace might even jog a few happy memories of League Cup encounters past…