1988 was a year in which sporting goliaths vindicated their overwhelming favouritism. Steffi Graf became only the third woman in history to conquer tennis’s Grand Slam; Mike Tyson won all three defences of his heavyweight boxing titles with devastating early knockouts; and Florence Griffith Joyner set world records in both the 100- and 200-metre sprints, cruising to Olympic golds in both.
That year’s FA Cup final was also one in which one competitor supposedly had to just turn up to win. Liverpool were fresh from strolling to their ninth top-flight title in the past 13 years and record 17th overall – Everton were next on the list on nine. Furthermore, the Reds had won four European Cups in seven years until English clubs were banned from competing in continental competitions in 1985. Although their starting XI had changed somewhat since then, with an exhilarating attacking triumvirate of John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge, it was arguably even better.
Wimbledon, by immeasurable contrast, had been a non-league club until 11 years before and had been playing in the English fourth flight as recently as 1983. Bobby Gould’s team included a number of players who had helped them make a meteoric rise to the First Divisions, including some who had held down other jobs to support their income along the way. A case in point was Vinnie Jones. Indeed while Liverpool No4 Steve Nicol was lifting the European Cup in Rome in 1984, his opposite number in the Wimbledon team was working as a hod carrier and turning out for non-league Wealdstone on a weekend.
Jones was earning £300 per week at the time of the ’88 decider; Kenny Dalglish’s players were on a £10,000 bonus just to appear in the match. And of the 98,000-plus inside Wembley, it was estimated that the Liverpool supporters outnumbered their Wimbledon counterparts by four-to-one. It was expected to be the biggest mismatch in FA Cup final history.
Yet a team nicknamed ‘The Crazy Gang’ would never be intimidated. They, on the other hand, would be the intimidators, and it took their alpha male Jones just 60 seconds to bulldoze Liverpool midfielder Steve McMahon to the deck with a thunderous challenge. “The tackle started at his throat and ended at his ankle!” explained Wimbledon forward John Fashanu.
The Wimbledon players worked tirelessly to limit Liverpool to a series of half-chances, and after Beardsley had had a delightfully-taken goal ruled out, the underdogs took an unforeseen lead just before the break. Dennis Wise whipped in a free-kick from the left, and Lawrie Sanchez sent a looping header past Bruce Grobbelaar and into the back of his net.
Liverpool swiftly began laying siege to their opponents’ goal after the restart, and Dave Beasant produced a magnificent double save to deny Aldridge and Barnes. Just after the hour, however, Wimbledon’s luck seemed to have run out when Clive Goodyear fouled Aldridge in the box. A penalty had never been missed in the history of the climax to world football’s oldest club competition, while Aldridge was high on confidence having just finished as the English top flight’s leading marksman and having successfully converted his last 11 penalties. This time, however, Beasant flung his 6ft 4ins frame south-west to tip the Republic of Ireland striker’s effort round the post.
“John Aldridge was so successful with his penalties,” recalled Beasant. “He used to put keepers off with his little stutter – it would cause the keeper to dive and he’d put it in the other corner. So I decided that if I faced a penalty from him, I’d stand still until he kicked it. And it worked – I actually put him off.”
Liverpool tried desperately to make something happen thereafter, but Wimbledon defended doggedly in numbers and on the few occasions a red shirt did manage to get a sight on goal, Beasant was equal to the strike. After 93 minutes, the final whistle sounded – ‘The Crazy Gang’ had produced a crazy shock.
“It was an indescribable feeling,” said Beasant. “Reaching the FA Cup final was a dream, but we were the only ones, apart from our fans, who felt we had a chance. The media had written us off. They were saying it was going to be the biggest one-sided scoreline in a cup final. Nobody knew who we were and they were a team full of international superstars.”
Those nobodies became somebodies that day. Beasant became the first man to save a penalty and first goalkeeper to captain a side to victory in an FA Cup final. Sanchez scored one of the most iconic goals in the history of the fixture. And Jones saw his celebrity begin the rocket mission that has seen him become an international film star. The first Hollywood script he starred in transpired 25 years ago to this Tuesday at Wembley.