ALLEN BATSFORD is one of the revered figures in the Wimbledon FC story. The manager whose Dons upset first division Burnley at Turf Moor, took mighty Leeds United to an FA Cup replay and then led Wimbledon from non-league football into the football league. In this interview with WDSA, just months before his passing in December 2009, Allen recounts his memories of a milestone in the club’s history.
(i) Allen, as you sit back and reflect on your life in football, where do you place your achievements as manager of Wimbledon FC in those three sensational Southern League seasons with those preceded by your outstanding results in seven seasons at Walton & Hersham?
Allen: The FA Cup games, Burnley, Leeds United twice, Middlesbrough twice and the three Southern League Championships, all in such a short space of time, outweigh the FA Amateur Cup final at Wembley, (beat Slough Town in 1973) and the FA Cup ties v Brian Clough’s Brighton (4-0 in replay at Goldstone Ground), Exeter and the Athenian & Isthmian league success at Walton & Hersham.
(ii) It’s Dons’ folklore that you had just seven players retained from the previous season when you took the job at Wimbledon. What made you end such an wonderful stint at Walton & Hersham to come to Plough Lane only to discover that there was little to no money available to bring in new players?
Allen: Walton & Hersham had been a lovely club run by a wonderful group of very proud people, but after the Amateur Cup final many players thought they had come to the end of the road and retired. Money became very short and I was ready for a new challenge with professionalism in the very near future. Players were also looking for new challenges.
(iii) You brought over five players with you from W&H, among them Dave Bassett, and with just a basic squad of 14 players enjoyed stunning success in your first season in charge in 1974-75, beating first division Burnley at Turf Moor in the FA Cup, losing in the next round to the mighty Leeds United on a penalty in a replay and winning the first of three consecutive Southern League championships. What were the main factors that made that all possible?
Allen: The group of players I brought from W & H were ones I had worked with for a number of years. I found that the group of players I inherited at Wimbledon were also good professionals of good character. They had been underachieving through no fault of their own, but because of bad management. The two groups of players got on very well with each other. I had to find a way of playing a system that suited the players I had. Having decided how we where going to play we worked very hard, very often four nights a week going through every aspect of our game, also on our exceptional fitness. We worked hard on our confidence which after a period developed so that we delivered and nobody was capable of defeating us. We always worked on our basics.
(iv) How difficult was it to work with such a small part-time squad? Did you have difficulty in persuading all the amateur players to switch to the Southern League and who were the key members of your Dons squad?
Allen: A small but very determined squad, we covered every aspect of our game. A great bunch of players, no one complained or moaned about how hard we were working. Being a small squad it made team selection easy. I knew my best side and stuck to it for almost every game. We worked hard at making it an unbeatable unit. We were a tough outfit but make no mistake we could play and we had a lot of “know how” and always did well against teams that were technically better than us.
(v) After two failed attempts the Dons were voted into the Football League you were quoted as saying the club had to campaign harder to get support, but were you certain at the time that the Dons were ready for life in the Football League?
Allen: We must be honest, Wimbledon was not ready for the Football League, but, of course, you have to take the opportunities when they come. The problem was Ron Noades, he thought he had done it all by himself!!! He never did show us the respect we deserved for our wonderful three years.
(vi) As it turned out you left the club after four and a half months into the first season. What were the issues and circumstances that led to your departure and what was your relationship with chairman Ron Noades and your assistant Dario Gradi?
Allen: Noades never did know what made us a formidable outfit – and it showed the way he went about things. There was something wrong regarding Gradi coming in. Noades told me that Dario would be my assistant – Gradi told me he didn’t have time to help me. It left me in a position of having no one to help with training, no one scouting for me, no one looking at the opposition. Noades wouldn’t pay any expenses for scouts or players. He refused to pay for a coach to take us to Rochdale on Boxing Day. I had to tell the players we had to go in our own cars. I asked Gradi if there were any players at Derby County that would be okay for us (he had only just left Derby a short time before) to which he replied, ‘Oh, they wouldn’t want to come here !!’ Strange, that as soon as he became the Dons’ manager he signed three players from there, (Alan Cork among them). Interesting that !! I did have a short period where I got the players in during the day. However Noades got to hear of it and sent me a letter to my home reminding me that the players must not come in during the day and this letter was a WARNING. I began to reflect on all the situations that I felt weren’t right. The training ground, apparently Noades and Gradi went and inspected it, prior to signing an agreement that I was not consulted on, neither did I see the ground until we were ready to use it. When Gradi took over he was allowed for all the players to go full time and train during the day. Again very interesting.
(vii) What is your view of the effect Noades and later Sam Hammam had on Wimbledon FC?
Allen: I always had a feeling that both of them had ulterior motives and were opportunists.
(viii) Did you maintain an interest in the Dons after you left and did you have any input/mentoring when Dave Bassett was manager of the club? What did you think of ‘Harry as a gaffer?
Allen: I have always maintained an interest in Wimbledon and it was obvious to me that eventually Dave Bassett would be manager – and a good one, too. He has a good understanding of the game and I have always looked upon him as a mate, but the one thing I cannot forgive him for and that is bringing Ron Noades into my life !!
(ix) Now the Dons have been re-born again in the guise of AFC Wimbledon. What goes through your mind as you watch the present-day Dons under Terry Brown on the verge of back-to-back promotions and every prospect of playing in the National Conference just seven years after their inception?
Allen: I think AFC Wimbledon is a wonderful organisation and I think Terry Brown is a lucky young man to have that backing. The club deserves success.
(x) Do you regularly get along to watch the Dons play and how do you rate the organisation and atmosphere of the club, compared with the Dons you started out with in 1974? How would your mid-1970s side fare against the current-day AFC Wimbledon team?
Allen: I see AFC Wimbledon play on a fairly regular basis and enjoy visiting the club. There is a great atmosphere and they always make me very welcome. I am afraid when I originally went to Wimbledon the supporters were not encouraged to get involved as they do now, and the club suffered for it. Looking at AFC Wimbledon team of today, they have some talented players, but I think we had a better all round game, physically stronger and more “know how”, with power and pace up front and at the back.
(xi) If AFC Wimbledon are promoted into the National Conference [interview at the time], do you think it is imperative for the club to go full-time with their players to improve their chances of competing at the higher level, or are there arguments for staying part-time?
Allen: The ideal situation would be for the club to go full-time and compete on a level playing field, however I have my doubts that the club is ready and cannot afford full-time wages. Being part-time and having the players in for evening training presents its own problems. A full size pitch with good quality floodlights is essential, plus smaller areas. Bad weather can play havoc with training grounds and they need constant attention. When I was a manager we used the pitch at Plough Lane on several occasions, but that brought complaints from our opponents on match day. Full or part-time presents other problems, players with good jobs would be reluctant to change. To improve the standard of players means signing players who want full time. Of course part-time players can complete in a full-time environment. We proved that with the correct attitude and understanding that you can compete. If promotion comes, then the club must take it and sort out the problems after. Knowing the personnel involved I am sure they will make the correct decisions.
(xii) How did you feel when returning for the recent club dinner in honour of your team and how many of those players do you keep in touch with? Was it gratifying to have the Dons’ supporters continue to recognise your achievements of over 30 years ago?
Allen: The dinner was a great success. The club does these things so well. All the players were delighted that they were still remembered. I see Billy Edwards, Dave Bassett, Ian Cooke, Dickie Guy, Dave Donaldson and Jeff Bryant on a fairly regular basis.
(xiii) And finally, Allen, how do you view the current state of English football and how do you spend your time these days?
Allen: The English game is technically and tactically much improved. The players are fitter and stronger and as a result the game is quicker. The use of many subs means that the manager can maintain the pace of the game and change tactics during the game. I live a more relaxed life now (I shall be 77 in a few weeks) taking my little dog Suki, a cairn terrier, for walks, or meeting up with friends for coffee or lunch and a glass of wine and generally putting the world to right!
POSTSCRIPT: On 28 December, on his way home from watching Chelsea play Fulham at Stamford Bridge, Allen Batsford collapsed and died of a heart attack, aged 77. He leaves behind him indelible memories of the David and Goliath feats in the 1975 FA Cup tournament of Wimbledon, the non-League team he then managed. Having reached the third round, they went to Turf Moor and knocked out Burnley, at that time one of the strongest clubs in Britain. The score was 1-0 and it was the first victory by a non-League club at the ground of a First Division team for 54 years.
Next, in the fourth round, came Leeds United. At Elland Road, Wimbledon astonishingly held Leeds to a goalless draw. But Plough Lane, the Wimbledon home ground, was far too small to accommodate the replay with Leeds – its largest recorded crowd had been in the 1932-33 season, when the Dons played HMS Victory before 18,000 spectators in the FA Amateur Cup. The match took place instead under floodlights at Selhurst Park, the Crystal Palace ground, watched by no fewer than 47,000 fans. It could well have been another goalless draw, in normal time, had not a Leeds shot struck Dave Bassett – a future manager of the club – and been diverted past the Wimbledon goalkeeper, Dickie Guy.
When Batsford had taken over as manager the previous year, Wimbledon were competing in the Southern League, which in those days was one of the leading competitions outside the Football League. He duly won them the title in three consecutive seasons, between 1975 and 1977. “What Batsford did for us was incredible,” Guy said. “As soon as he came to the club, he changed everything and made it a lot more professional. He was very … single-minded, and knew what he wanted to do.”
Batsford had come to the Dons from another southern club, Walton and Hersham, which then played in the amateur Athenian League. He had joined them in 1967, after a brief playing career in which he made 200 appearances for the Arsenal reserve, youth and A sides, but had been unable to break into the first team. In 1969, he guided Walton and Hersham to the championship of that competition, and four years later, they won the Amateur Cup. In 1973-74, Walton won both the London and Surrey Senior Cups, and Batsford first tasted glory in the FA Cup when Walton held Brian Clough’s Brighton to a draw before beating them 4-0 in the replay. Before the game, Clough had described the pairing as “donkeys against thoroughbreds”, but the result from Batsford’s team spoke for itself.
To Wimbledon Batsford brought “a group of players who,” he said, “had been through the mill. Apart from being good players, they were experienced players, good leaders of men. They were brave enough to do their own thing.”
Yet, after Wimbledon at last reached the Fourth Division of the Football League in 1977, Batsford stayed with them for only six months before resigning. Thereafter, he took various roles with various clubs, becoming youth team coach at Millwall. In the 1980s he was the manager of Wealdstone. Batsford is survived by his wife, Maureen.
— Brian Glanville, The Guardian
[The Allen Batsford interview was first run in WDSA’s Wombles Downunder fanzine in March 2009 and is reproduced in edited form. Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.]