When it comes to managers making bad starts to their career at a new club, Lawrie McMenemy’s first couple of months in charge of Sunderland take some beating.
Having been relegated from the top flight the season before, the club had put everything on red by appointing Southampton’s McMenemy, a high-profile deal that made the north-east born manager the highest paid gaffer in the country.
The club had seriously invested in the playing staff too – experienced internationals Eric Gates, Alan Kennedy, Frank Gray and George Burley arrived, as well as Dave Swindlehurst – and some of the club’s better players, Shaun Elliott, Barry Venison, Nick Pickering and Gary Bennett, had been retained in the hope of bouncing straight back up.
Understandably expecting an immediate promotion challenge, hopes were more absolutely gutted rather than dampened by a season-opening five straight defeats, followed by a couple of draws – leaving the expected promotion contenders anchored firmly to the bottom of the table.
Five wins in eight games had steadied the ship somewhat and, heading into November things were looking up a little.
On 9 November 1985, McMenemy’s men took on Wimbledon at Roker Park. In their second season in Division Two, Dave Bassett’s men were considered part curiosity, part irritation.
Having only been elected (as teams were in those days) into the football league eight seasons before, they’d bounced between Division Four and Division Three a couple of times before winning promotion to Division Two for the 84-85 season. On the way, they’d won a little admiration – but what they had won, outside of Plough Lane at least – had been dispensed through gritted teeth.
Their long ball, robust football didn’t go down too well with the establishment. In an era of hard tackling and robust play – certainly when compared to modern standards – Wimbledon’s brand of football bordered on the agricultural.
The comparison between a club of Sunderland’s long history – one of the most successful clubs historically (at the time, Manchester United had won seven league titles compared to our six) – was stark.
Sunderland lined up: Bolder, Burley, Kennedy, Venison, Bennett, Elliott (c), Gray, Pickering, Swindlehurst, Gates, Gayle. Sub: Atkinson.
Wimbledon’s team on the day included number of players who’d go on to become household names – Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn, Andy Thorn, Lawrie Sanchez and Ian Holloway, and a player who’d go on to become a firm fans’ favourite at Roker Park: John Kay,
Wimbledon lined up: Beasant, Kay, Winterburn, Galliers, Smith, Thorn, Holloway, Cork, Fishenden, Sanchez, Hodges. Sub: Fairweather.
Sunderland maintained their upturn in form, winning 2-1 thanks to two Swindlehurst goals – both set up by Gayle.
Future Sunderland coach Carlton Fairweather got one back for Wimbledon late on, after Alan Cork had been sent off for retaliation, after being fouled by Elliott.
Dave Bassett explained:
He was uptight because his wife is due to have a baby. The last time she had a miscarriage and almost died. But he wanted to play.
The frustration built up but that should be no excuse.
In my opinion, Elliott went down as if he had been felled by Frank Bruno.
It was a good three points for Sunderland, but any hope of a promotion push were dashed by a shocking run of form in the new year – nine games without a win saw the team entrenched in the lower reaches.
Wimbledon, on the other hand, were on the up and up. A Glyn Hodges hat-trick saw the Dons triumph in the reverse fixture at Plough Lane 3-0, and they were promoted in third place.
We all know how McMenemy’s tenure at Sunderland worked out, and while Sunderland were celebrating winning the Third Division title under Denis Smith a couple of years later, Wimbledon were celebrating winning the FA Cup – Beasant and Sanchez, who’d played in that game at Roker Park, contributing decisively.
Wimbledon’s rise from non league to FA Cup winners is one of English football’s fairytales.
And, while their ultimate demise is a cautionary tale, their rebirth as AFC Wimbledon and return to Plough Lane is heartwarming for every football fan who remembers their rise from the non league.