When Allen Batsford took over as Manager in the summer of 1974 he inherited one of the smallest squads of all time. Just seven players. As such, the purchase of new recruits was a necessity rather than a luxury and Dave Bassett, Dave Donaldson and Billy Edwards were signed from Batsford's former club Walton & Hersham Striking duo Keiron Somers and Roger Connell had left Walton for a year, following a contract dispute, moving onto Hendon and were only too pleased to link up with their old manager again.
Pre-season matches yielded promising results, including a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace's first team, but the important opening day of the season saw the Dons go down 2-0 away to Nuneaton Borough and have Selwyn Rice sent off. The following Tuesday, however, Yeovil tame to Plough Lane and were beaten 1-0 and that was the first in a run of 22 successive victories that the Dons strung together.
The impact of this was not immediately apparent. Eleven of the matches were in different cup competitions, often against weaker opposition such as Corinthian Casuals and Bideford. The team were near the top of the table, rather than at the top, due to Saturday's spent fighting their way through the FA Cup qualifying rounds, as well as London Senior Cup ties as the London FA insisted these took precedence over League football.
Corinthian Casuals, Cheshunt and Leytonstone were all knocked out at Plough Lane in the London Senior Cup and similar good fortune with home draws saw Ashford, Bideford and Bognor Regis leave SW19 with their Southern League Cup hopes in tatters.
The main focus of attention was, as always, the FA Cup, and when Dickie Guy lost a cross in the sun at Bracknell, which ended in his net, he probably did not imagine that the next FA Cup goal he conceded would be to the Football League Champions. Recovering from their early 1-0 deficit to record a comfortable 3-1 win at Bracknell, followed, it should be said, by five coach loads of supporters, further home victories over Maidenhead (4-0) and Wokingham (2-0) saw the Dons drawn away to Guildford & Dorking.
Although the team had won 5-0 in the League against the same opposition, a close match ensued and Wimbledon's two late goals gave the scoreline a flattering 3-0 look.
As in the previous season, a fellow non leaguer, Bath City, was the first round 'reward', but the match was at Plough Lane, rather than the inhospitable terrain that King's Lynn had provided the year before. The late postponement of the Tooting and Crystal Palace tie nearby helped swell the crowd to an excellent five and a half thousand and created the atmosphere for an excellent, end to end cup-tie. The excellence of the two goalkeepers kept the scoreline blank, until, with the game in injury time, Mick Mahon let fly with an absolute screamer that at last found a way beyond the agile Kenny Allen.
A dramatic ending to an excellent match and another home draw in the second round, against fellow Southern Leaguers Kettering . With more at stake and nearly 6,000 inside Plough Lane, a measure of the team's growing maturity came in the shape of an easy 2-0 win, which pitched the team into the third round proper for the first time in history.
With visions of a glamour tie against the likes of Liverpool or Tottenham, an away draw at Burnley was regarded as somewhat of a short straw. There was little prospect of a result or a good pay day, while League form had stuttered over the Christmas period with defeats at Stourbridge and Wealdstone, the latter before nearly 3,500 spectators.
But the interest generated by the Club's first ever third round FA Cup appearance meant that over a thousand supporters more than the previous season's average home gate made the long journey to Burnley's Turf Moor. What they were to witness was one of the amazing results in FA Cup history as a non-league team won on the ground of First Division opponents for the first time since 1920.
The only goal came in the 48th minute when Cooke's shot was parried by Burnley 'keeper Alan Stevenson and Mahon drove in the rebound. 'Keeper Dickie Guy had saved some good efforts in the first half, but he surpassed himself in the second with brilliant saves from Fletcher and Hankin.
Incredibly, the team held on to win 1-0 and once the Fourth Round draw had given an away tie at League Champions Leeds United, media interest soared. Wimbledon were buzzing and big news. Before Christmas, a consortium, including George Best, was strongly tipped to be about to buy out Bernie Coleman's 80 per cent share holding, with Best himself in line to take over as player-manager.
The idea fell through eventually, but the blaze of publicity created by the Cup run enabled Chairman Jack Beaven to launch an appeal to reduce the £35,000 debt by offering 19,000 non-voting shares for issue at £1 each.
Back on the field, interest in the Leeds game was reflected in the crowd of 46,230 which attended the Elland Road cup tie. Wimbledon again defended magnificently against a Leeds side, at the pinnacle of European Club football and as every schoolboy knows, Guy saved Peter Lorimer's penalty kick, with just eight minutes left, to force an incredible goalless draw.
People queued throughout the night for tickets to see the replay at Plough Lane the following Tuesday and when all the tickets were snapped up in 90 minutes, there were angry scenes. Supporters clashed with touts, with one being chased down the street and having to leap onto a bus to avoid being attacked. As it happened, the replay never took place at Plough Lane, due to a waterlogged pitch, which pleased the police as they believed there were thousands of forged tickets in circulation.
The match was switched to Crystal Palace's Selhurst Park where another 45,000-plus crowd saw the end of the Cup dream as a Johnny Giles shot, going wide, deflected off Bassett and beyond Guy for the only goal. It was Wimbledon's first Cup defeat of the season in 19 matches.
The alternative route to Wembley, in the FA Trophy, had started well, with home victories over Sutton United, Kettering and Telford putting the Dons into the quarterfinals for the first time ever. Drawn away to Scarborough, Lady Luck deserted them as no fewer than four efforts came back off the woodwork and a bad back pass gave the home team the only goal before a massive crowd of 8,000
Then two days later Kettering earned revenge for their Trophy exit by knocking the Dons out of the Southern League Cup semifinal to the tune of 3-0. In the space of three days, four targets had been reduced to two and, to their credit, Wimbledon won both.
The London Senior Cup, which the club had tried to avoid entering due to fixture chaos, was won in April with a 2-0 victory over fellow giant killers, Leatherhead. But the most praiseworthy achievement was winning the Southern League.
Putting behind them the glamour and the razzmatazz of the Cup, the team knuckled down to the job in hand, playing three or four games a week, sometimes on successive days. Of the first five matches in April three were lost and two drawn, but this was only a hiccough in the relentless pursuit of the title, ahead of rivals Nuneaton, Kettering and Yeovil.
The games in hand were finally played and the title clinched with a 1-1 home draw against Telford on Mayday. The final margin of victory over second placed Nuneaton was three points. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the finest season to date was the four votes polled at the Football League's June annual meeting at Ashton Gate. Kettering, with 20, polled the highest of all the non-leaguers, which suggests that geographical location and canvassing ability were more important factors than footballing talent.
But despite this set-back, the club had taken positive steps to renewing former glories on the field, while wiping out the overdraft with the cup run off the field. Yet the old maxim that it was harder to stay at the top than to get there was about to be put to the test.
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