The Premier League Years #21: Wimbledon

Looking back on Bradford City’s Premier League adventure, 20 years ago.

By Jason McKeown

City 3 Wimbledon 0
30 April, 2000

There’s a brilliant quote from Napoleon Bonaparte about war that has great relevance when it comes to football – “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

It is a sentiment that summed up how Bradford City stole a crucial advantage over relegation rivals Wimbledon, right at the end of their inaugural Premier League season. The Dons were falling apart. On the cusp of throwing away 15 years of top flight football through bitter in-fighting and a confused loss of identity.

All Bradford City had to do was let them carry on their path to self-destruction, and clinically make the most of the Dons tripping up over their own shoelaces.

Only a few weeks earlier, it had all seemed much rosier for Wimbledon. On Saturday 11 March 2000, they beat Leicester City 2-1 to record their sixth home in the last nine. Carl Cort’s 87th minute winner meant the Dons were comfortably closing in on Premier League survival. They just needed a couple of wins over their last 10 games to seal it.

But then, form collapsed. Just as Bradford City were going through their own losing run, Wimbledon suddenly couldn’t buy a point. They lost seven games in a row, including a 2-0 loss to Tottenham on Easter Saturday. Two days later, the Dons weren’t playing but would have been alarmed to see the Bantams’ shock 1-0 victory at Sunderland. City were now just two points behind Wimbledon, with three games to go. And next up for the Dons was a trip to Valley Parade.

It was a huge, huge game, and the pressure was getting to Wimbledon. For years they’d harnessed the Crazy Gang spirit to keep giving more illustrious opponents a bloody nose. But in 1997, the colourful Sam Hammam sold 80% of his shares in the club to a Norwegian consortium, led by Bjørn Rune Gjelsten and Kjell Inge Røkke. Joe Kinnear, the Wimbledon manager of seven years, had stood down in the summer of 1999 after a heart attack. Times were changing.

Egil Olsen was named Kinnear’s replacement. Olsen was hugely experienced, and in eight years of managing the Norwegian national team had taken them to unprecedented heights. He was a keen student of the English game and in particular the infamous Charles Reep, who pioneered the long ball football philosophy.

Olsen brought that approach to Selhurst Park but found opposition from his own players. Wimbledon might have built up a reputation for ugly football, but in the modern Premier League world had built a squad of decent players who felt they had more to offer. This clash of ideals came more to a head as the season wore on.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Wimbledon collapsed just after Hamamm sold the remainder of his shares in February. The old Wimbledon was gone. The new one was confused. And the cliff drop in form certainly suggested a team not playing for their manager.

But Wimbledon’s cause also wasn’t helped by the fact John Hartson – their record signing – had been out injured since December. The Welshman had scored eight goals in 18 appearances before his fourth-month spell out. He was finally deemed fit to play for the trip to West Yorkshire, but was so keen to make up for lost time that his head was not in the right place.

The legend goes that Hartson met up with former Dons’ hero Vinnie Jones during the week before the game, with Jones lamenting how soft his old side had become. He egged on Hartson about deploying the old intimidation tactics that had served Wimbledon so well in their heyday. It gave Hartson an idea that was to backfire badly.

For in the tunnel at Valley Parade just before kick off, Hartson attempted Jones’ idea of bullying the opposition. He made a beeline for the City skipper, Stuart McCall, and allegedly kneed him. The thinking would be that the rest of the City side would be left startled and frightened at seeing their leader taken out.

But Hartson had underestimated their character. A few people back from the incident, Wayne Jacobs came steaming into Hartson in retaliation. As Hartson prepared for a fight, he was stunned to realise that a handful of his Wimbledon team mates had fled back to the dressing room in fear. The referee Jeff Winter eventually calmed things down.

“John Hartson was trying to wind up his own team, and I think he got carried away a little bit,” McCall would later reveal. “It was mainly him trying to get the team going, but we have experience in our side not to be intimidated by that sort of thing.”

Despite this near surrender from Wimbledon before the game had even started, their performance on the field that day was better than is remembered. The huge occasion and high stakes made City nervous, and they laboured to get going in the first half. Wimbledon created and wasted a glorious chance, when Jason Euell blazed over a sitter. City were penned back in their own half, and John Dreyer had to clear another Euell effort off the line.

The home side then got a lucky break right on half time, as a tame Dean Saunders cross into the box was adjudged to have hit Ben Thatcher’s arm. A penalty to Bradford City, and one of the softest ones ever awarded at the famous old ground. No one had even appealed for it. Peter Beagrie dispatched the spot kick, and the Bantams had a crucial lead.

Hartson’s mood won’t have improved by this turn of events, and early in the second half the red midst sent him out of control. Jacobs brought the ball down but appeared to use his hand. Play was allowed to continue, and the ball was worked to Beagrie, who sent a low dipping shot at goal that Neil Sullivan should have kept out. 2-0 to City, and an incensed Hartson rounded on Winter, who sent the striker off for foul and abusive language. Wimbledon were falling to pieces.

With a man advantage and two goals up, City were in a fantastic position. The Dons still pressed really hard and Neil Ardley almost reduced the arrears. But with seven minutes on the clock City broke away and added a third through Dean Windass.

City had played better and lost that season, but it was all about the points and this was a huge, huge victory. It lifted the Bantams out of the bottom three for the first time since the turn of the year. With two games to go, they held a slender one-point advantage over the Dons. But Wimbledon’s sense of injustice paled into insignificance against their own infighting. In the Valley Parade away dressing room, the players came to blows and Olsen was said to be sat close by with his head in hands, not knowing how to address it. After the game, Hartson publically called for Olsen to be sacked.

“It was a very, very nervy match but we held our nerve and stood fast,” was Paul Jewell’s verdict. Their final two games looked tougher than Wimbledon’s, but back-to-back wins had given City momentum and hauled them back from the dead. A sense of self-belief was back, just as it was evaporating out of Selhurst Park.

City: Clarke, Halle, O’Brien, Wetherall, Jacobs, Blake (Westwood 67), McCall, Dreyer, Beagrie, Saunders, Windass 

Categories: Premier League Years


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