So Wimbledon began gearing themselves for their Fourth Division debut. The history making opener was set for Plough Lane on Saturday, August 20, with Halifax Town their first opponents in Football League competition. But there was plenty to be done before then.
Allen Batsford was busy in the transfer market, signing new players in Galliers from Chorley, Leatherhead's Willie Smith, Paul Denny from Southend, Richard Teale, a keeper with experience at QPR and Fulham, and Dave Galvin from Gillingham. The total cost? Just £1,800.
Chairman Ron Noades was matching Batsford stride for stride in the work rate stakes. He had already masterminded one recovery in the club's finances, beginning the long haul back from the brink when he arrived at Plough Lane the previous July. Wimbledon's liabilities were then running at around the £37,000 mark, with an additional £200 a week to the borough for ground maintenance.
Noades changed all that, employing a full time groundsman and going into a period of cost cutting that saw the debt to the council reduced by £1,000 and a further £3,000 slashed from other outstanding bills. At the same time Wimbledon were able to embark on a £19,000 ground improvement scheme, although, as the big day dawned, there was still a call for volunteers to help spruce up the ground.
Noades was determined that Wimbledon would find a place on the sporting map of the world "and not just for tennis, either" and Halifax arrived to put them to their first test. It was, understandably, a shaky start. The gate topped 4,600, but there was a long wait to the 51st minute for Wimbledon's first League goal, with full back Jeff Bryant earning a place in the club's history when he stabbed home following a free-kick.
That cancelled out an earlier Halifax effort and with John Leslie and Roger Connell adding, honours finished even at 3-3. Batsford was not impressed. "A disgraceful performance," he said. "I felt for the crowd." Alan Ball senior, manager of Halifax, wasn't complimentary either. "They won't set Division Four alight," he said.
It was another month and six games, before Wimbledon at last made the breakthrough with their first League win, with Billy Holmes and Phil Summerill scoring the goals in a 2-0 victory over Northampton Town at Plough Lane. Summerill was making his debut after signing on a free transfer from Millwall, while other changes saw Guy out and Teale laying claim to the goalkeeper's jersey.
Wimbledon were striving to operate on a part time basis, training four evenings a week and twice in the afternoons. Batsford was working elsewhere in the mornings as an executive in the concrete industry. Consequently the part timers were struggling. They were 90th in the League, just a point off the bottom and their early billing as promotion candidates looked positively ridiculous.
"I warned then that that was not being realistic," said Batsford. "Our aim is to consolidate and if we get halfway, I'll be most happy." The players' training sessions were upped to every afternoon, but it was a long hard slog and when Guy was reinstated towards the end of November, Wimbledon had won just three games.
Two goals from Leslie secured the win over York City, but spirits, temporarily raised, were sagging again seven days later as Wimbledon, past masters of FA Cup giant killing, were giant killed themselves, 3-0 at Enfield. Ian Cooke, 14 years at the club, was not prepared to give up a promising banking career to go full time and quit for Slough Town, while Holmes moved onto Hereford United.
It was a bleak midwinter. Too bleak for Batsford. Of six League games played in December, Wimbledon drew three and lost three. A 3-0 defeat at Swansea on January 2, 1978, saw Batsford resign, signaling the end of the 'Batsford Era'. The man who had masterminded the big step up was a victim of his own earlier successes.
Batsford's number two, Dario Gradi, took charge, naming Bassett his assistant, and there was an almost immediate upturn in fortunes. Ten games were won in the second half of the season as Wimbledon surged up the table to finish a comfortable 13th, beaten just five times in their last 21 league outings.
Gradi made his mark with some astute signings. 'Keeper Ray Goddard, a £4,500 buy from Millwall, shored up the back division and provided much needed League experience. Les Briley, a record signing at £16,000 from Hereford, dominated midfield with a series of outstanding performances. And in came striker Alan Cork, popping them in from the start. He and Steve Ketteridge signed from Derby, while there were other new young faces in Terry Eames and Steve Parsons.
Gradi had had a chequered career. Sacked from Chelsea in October, 1976, where he had worked as youth, reserve and first team coach, he had a brief spell as manager of Sutton United, where he played as an amateur, before linking up with Colin Murphy at Derby. He had joined Wimbledon at the start of the season.
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