While the word ‘documentary’ alone has many viewers on the run, BT Sport Films’ The Crazy Gang is tremendously well made and tells an underdog story full of conflict that is immersive enough to enthuse even non-football fans. For the un-initiated, ‘The Crazy Gang’ was the popular nickname given by the media, to Wimbledon F.C. during the 1980’s. Strong and often violent, players like Vinnie Jones (of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame,) and John Fashanu, along with a team spirit seemingly forged in steel, took them from the lower echelons of English football to the Premier League and miraculously, much to the shock of the whole nation, won them the F.A. Cup against one of Liverpool’s great sides. BT Sport Films’ award winning documentary delves deep into what made that Wimbledon team quite so special and will evoke swelling waves of nostalgia in any football fan. That nostalgia though, may easily pale into insignificance when faced with the shocking nature of some of the ways in which The Crazy Gang earned their name.
While initially the team are portrayed as something akin to a group of mischievous school boys with their practical jokes and initiation rituals, the extent of their escapades becomes quite dark in places. The clique that formed at the heart of the team, which was essentially led by Fashanu, was by all accounts, always somewhat out of control. But after the departure of Dave Bassett, the teams figurehead manager, described by many of the players as a father figure, the team became even further removed from the proverbial rails. Preventing a new player from eating for two whole days, breaking the new managers’ rib in a fight and setting fire to a team mates’ car measure amongst some of the more shocking offences, but the pinnacle is chilling. The players interviewed describe an occasion when a new player attempted to challenge Fashanu’s authority as ‘leader of the pack’ and the team resolved to lock them both in the changing room and ‘see who comes out’. Vinnie Jones, no stranger to violence himself, seems almost haunted in describing the extent of the violence. Fashanu inflicted horrendous injuries on his opponent. If this is how The Crazy Gang treated each other, imagine lining up against them on a Saturday afternoon.
Ultimately what makes this documentary so evocative is the internal battle it provokes within the viewer.
Interviews with: key players in the team; both of the periods’ managers and with players who struggled to fit into the unique environment, fill the documentary with life and mischief. The interviewers repeatedly ask the question ‘do you feel you crossed lines?’ as regards the violence and conduct in the team, and the answers they receive are intriguingly varied. Jones attempts to explain away the on-pitch violence by saying that it was the only way the team could survive at the top level. Another players’ answer was simply ‘plenty,’ and Fashanu himself goes as far as to say ‘there were no lines’.
Ultimately what makes this documentary so evocative is the internal battle it provokes within the viewer- on the one hand these men were arguably thugs that didn’t deserve their place on the podium as F.A. Cup winners. On the other hand though, this is the ultimate underdog story. Wimbledon battled their way up through the leagues through hard work and their team spirit allowed a collection of what Vinnie Jones describes as ‘misfits’ to beat a Liverpool side that were one of the best teams in the world at the time. Sam Hammam, in a recent interview with The Daily Mail was outraged at what he perceived to be a lack of balance in the documentary, he argued that more emphasis should have been applied to the blood sweat and tears that took Wimbledon to their peak. But admittedly much of what the players say when interviewed is quite damning.
Wimbledon’s physical style of play and reliance on long balls makes them immediately relatable for anyone who’s ever played Sunday league football. This in combination with their astoundingly widespread notoriety and the fact they achieved one of the greatest F.A. Cup upsets in history, (if not the greatest,) makes the desire to relate to them and see this as an underdog story all the more attractive. The fact that the standard of modern football has come so far since the 1980’s and the amount of money involved in the sport makes a repeat of Wimbledon’s rags to riches glory almost completely impossible. This adds a poignant under-layer to the whole story and is yet another level on which BT Sport Films’ have surpassed themselves in this early venture. However the dark, violent undertones and lack of sportsmanship within the team make it hard to truly love The Crazy Gang. All in all this is an underdog story, but a muzzle would not go amiss.
By George Storr