Football is one of the rare sports where despite all odds, strange things can happen. David can beat Goliath. I cast my mind back to the 1988 FA Cup Final where an unfashionable Wimbledon side were victorious against a superstar Liverpool side, lifting the trophy against all odds at the old Wembley. At the time the game was billed as “the aristocrats vs. the artisans”. John Motson famously commented that “the Crazy Gang have beaten the Culture Club” following Wimbledon’s victory which was the public start of the ‘Crazy Gang’.
Wimbledon at this time had made their way from non-league all the way to the then Division One, a real fairytale in itself even before they found themselves beating the best team in the land in an FA Cup Final. Throughout these successful years a team spirit had formed, possibly the most legendary team spirit that football has ever seen.
Wimbledon’s players were known for their pranks, initiation ceremonies, outspokenness and general bad behaviour (both on and off the pitch) more so than their football prowess, in fact their style of football was frowned upon. But there is no doubting this team spirit was the driving force behind the team’s success. Having big characters in the dressing room, like Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu and Dennis Wise was something unique that gave this team the edge.
Everyone loves to compare great teams of old to modern day sides and I see the beginning of something special at one of today’s Premier League clubs. Alan Pardew likened Stoke City to Wimbledon’s ‘crazy gang’ last season: ‘I can compare them to Wimbledon because that was my era and ironically when I was a player we always won against the Crazy Gang, which is why I can speak about them in glowing terms’. He was of course referring to Stoke’s brand of football, that in his opinion, leads to them bullying teams on the pitch, backed up by a crowd that make going to the Britannia Stadium a negative experience.
The ‘crazy gang’ label is more about life off the pitch than on it and what is ironic is that it is Pardew and Newcastle’s main man last season who could be the driving force behind a more relevant comparison to a modern-day ‘crazy gang’ … QPR.
QPR played some excellent football to get out of the Championship last season, so it isn’t the playing style that earns this comparison. Last season the boardroom was segmented from reality, with owners who seemed to see the club as more of an ego-asset than they did a business investment. Throughout the majority of last season, despite the success, rumours were circulating that manager Neil Warnock would be sacked and generally the vibe at the club was one of uncertainty. Warnock is by no means a popular manager with fans; like Marmite, most hate him and wouldn’t have been too heartbroken had he been out of football again.
Thankfully (because I think he deserves his chance) Warnock wasn’t sacked and QPR have a new owner in Tony Fernandes which has allowed Warnock to bring in a few players. More importantly what the period last season has done is to instill an ‘us versus them’ mentality around the place. The team were behind the manager and no one seemed happy with the board, but the manager and players pulled together and were still able achieve promotion when a lot of teams would have folded. For me the arrival of Joey Barton is symbolic because he typifies the ‘us versus them’mentality right now and it is no random occurrence that he has gone straight in as club captain. Barton almost mirrors Warnock – they are both Marmite people.
Much like another Marmite player, Vinnie Jones, lead the crazy gang, Barton can lead the Super Hoops. I personally think Barton is a breath of fresh air; he isn’t afraid to voice his opinions and in this modern day football era where fans are more detached from the clubs and players they support than ever, Barton has attributes that echo what the crazy gang were all about. There is no doubt Barton has his downfalls, apparently winding up Karl Henry and the rest of the Wolves players over the weekend by saying he is on £80k-a-week, but this is just a bit of Vinnie and Fash rolled in to one. Wimbledon’s players believe they won that 1988 FA Cup Final by psyching Liverpool’s players out.
Take last week’s shenanigans on Twitter for example – striker Jay Bothroyd bowled in to training wearing man-Uggs (for those that live on mars Uggs are a female woolly boot) which caused some uproar in the dressing room. Instantly the banter started and one of the tops of the boots was cut off with the culprit somewhat unknown. Obviously QPR are not the only club where this type of dressing room behaviour goes on, but the fact that so many players got involved and we saw events unfold live on Twitter recalled the kind of personal insight that we got with the original crazy gang.
But it is more than that; the dressing room at QPR is filled with characters. Personalities and leaders like Joey Barton and Shaun Derry backed up by a loose cannon in Adel Taarabt, with players like Shaun Wright-Phillips, DJ Campbell, and Paddy Kenny who will all be voices in the QPR dressing room. These are all players with points to prove. Misfits, like the personnel of the crazy gang, may be too strong a label as a lot of these guys are talented players, but most have had a bad reputation like Kenny, Barton and Derry or never quite reached the top and stayed there like Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand or Tommy Smith – this is a group of players who have the perfect setting to shine.
On paper, despite the signings, QPR in their first season back in the Premier League would be lucky to finish in the top half. A lot of people have written them off as relegation candidates. It will take something special to propel them to the higher echelons of English football, but with a ‘crazy gang’ style spirit there could be little this team could not do. If Barton and Warnock can unite this team and continue with the dressing room camaraderie that the new boys seem to have instantly enhanced, then we could have a new crazy gang on our hands with the pantomime villain that is Joey Barton leading the way the same way Jones, Wise and Fash did all those years ago. Football needs a reality check and QPR could be the team to do it.