There was a sense of history in the air at Wembley this weekend. Not history being made, but the history of the two clubs taking to the field. In the pink and chocolate shirts, Corinthian-Casuals: a club that plays strictly to the amateur code and the inspiration behind one of Brazil’s most famous names. In the blue and yellow, AFC Wimbledon: a relative newcomer in the literal sense to the football pyramid, but one with plenty of history and memories in their previous incarnation.
The occasion was a celebration of Corinthians 125th anniversary, although by happy coincidence, it also falls on the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest FA Cup upsets of all time: Wimbledon’s victory over Liverpool. You couldn’t get a more fitting venue than the home of English football.
Corinthians: Global Ambassadors
In an age where money rules the modern game and the salaries of the top players would happily pay for a small chunk of Hertfordshire, the completely amateur Corinithian-Casuals remain something of an oddity, albeit a welcome one. The Surrey club pays no wages, save for expenses, and despite having just avoided relegation from the Ryman Isthmian Division One South, the very name and spirit of the Casuals is a reminder of a different era. Indeed their mission statement is poles away from the teams that currently occupy the Champions League spots in the Premiership: “to promote fair play and sportsmanship, to play competitive football at the highest level possible whilst remaining strictly amateur and retaining the ideals of the Corinthian and the Casuals Football Clubs.”
Corinthian-Casuals came into existence in 1939, a merger of two of the famous names in amateur football. The Corinthians were formed in 1882 as a ‘gentleman’s club’, in part because England were having problems putting together a team capable of beating Scotland, and in the late 1800s the majority of the English team was drawn from Corinthians, with the amateur club twice providing a whole set of players for games against Wales.
The club’s code forbade them entering any competitions and this, along with the idea of not taking penalties because they weren’t within the spirit of the game, wasn’t altered until the turn of the century, when they beat then league champions Aston Villa 2-1 in the Sheriff of London Shield.
That was one in a number of famous victories, as Corinth inflicted a record 11-3 defeat on Manchester United, while FA Cup holders Bury were dispatched 10-3 in 1903. Had the club entered the FA Cup or league in the late 1800s, there’s no doubt they would have been one of the most successful teams of the era.
As the game moved towards a more professional ethos, Corinthian remained true to their roots, and joined the Amateur Football Association, which precluded them from playing any professional teams (in those days, amateurs and professionals weren’t allowed to mix). But this didn’t stop the club using their ethos to promote football around the world and, as well as touring South Africa, South America, North America, and Europe, in 1910 their tour of Brazil inspired the creation of Corinthians Paulista, who later featured players such as Socrates and Rivelino.
In 1878 The Casuals were formed and although heir early FA Cup performances were nothing to write home about (they rarely entered the competition after 1893) but were more successful in the Amateur Cup, reaching the first final in 1894, while winning the London Senior Club in 1896/97.
In 1905 the Casuals were founded members of the Isthmian League, then the Southern Amateur League two years later. The club rejoined the Isthmian League in 1919 and their greatest triumph would come in 1936 when they ran the Amateur Cup and were runners up in the league.
Three years later, they merged with Corinthians but the new amateur team only played one game before the outbreak of the Second World War. When football restarted, the club duly took their place in the Isthmian League, where they would remain until 1984, when they were relegated to the Spartan League, eventually regaining their place in the Isthmian League in 1997.
Throughout their 125 years, the club has remained true to their amateur ethos and sense of fair play. There’s no surrounding the referee to dispute decisions, while several players have spent a good deal of their career with the club; captain, and carpenter, Chris Horwood has been with the team for ten years, while there’s also a Schools team of Casuals veterans who visit local schools to promote the amateur ethos. It’s these ideals that keep the club going – they rarely get gates above 200 – but regardless of promotion or relegation such ideals are unlikely to be changed after 125 years.
AFC: The Wembley return
While the Casuals evoke nostalgia, the name of Wimbledon evokes anger on the part of many football fans – in 2002 the FA gave the go-ahead for music producer Peter Winkleman to relocate the club 60 miles north out of London to Milton Keynes, one of the largest ‘new towns’ from the 60s and a place that had previously shown absolutely no interest in supporting or building up a local team. No matter, here was a team with players, infrastructure and, most importantly, a league position. The fact that Cardiff, Dublin and Belfast had also ben mooted as potential venues for the Wimbledon franchise seemed little concern for the town.
The original Wimbledon had earned their fair share of plaudits for their rapid rise from the Southern League to the top tier of English football. In 1988 the ‘Crazy Gang’ containing the likes of Vinnie Jones, Lawrie Sanchez, Dennis Wise, and Dave Beasant beat the so-called superstars of Liverpool 1-0 in the FA Cup Final at Wembley in what must rank as one of the greatest ever upsets. Successive top ten finishes followed but after then owner Sam Hammam sold the original Plough Lane site, Wimbledon found themselves homeless and spent the next ten years sharing Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park.
Towards the end of the decade, a Norwegian consortium took control and set about giving the club a permanent home. Despite talk of a return to Merton in South London, and a few studies showing a new 20,000 seater stadium to be viable, the consortium’s spokesman, Charles Koppel, declared the only way for the club to be saved was to move to Milton Keynes. Despite mass protests from fans across the country, and a boycotting of Wimbledon games (leading to cashflow problems for the club, and a spell in administration) the FA reluctantly gave approval and, after one season playing as Wimbledon in Milton Keynes, new owner Winkleman changed the club’s name, colours and badge. MK Dons were born and Wimbledon was no more.
Except the name lives on, after a large group of Dons fans, disgusted with the situation and without a club to support, formed AFC Wimbledon in 2002. In June of that year, they held open trials and two months later played their first game in to Combined Counties league. Although the fan-owned club missed out on promotion at the first time of asking, their second season saw promotion to the Ryman Isthmian League. Further promotions have seen them reach the Ryman Premier, where they’re on course for 2nd, after a season-long battle with Chelmsford City for the title.
Two teams, one stadium, plenty of history
Wembley may not have been filled to its usual capacity on Sunday 13th April 2008, but what was lacking in numbers was more than made up for by a wall of noise from the Wimbledon faithful. There was even room for the odd celebrity with Minty from Eastenders spotted in the crowd. Manchester United v Arsenal this was not, but the sense of enjoyment and occasion was perhaps greater than you’d find the the Premier League.
“Was anybody here in ’88?” asked the stadium announcer to a roar from the Dons crowd, while Corinth were given their own reason to cheer when former player and ex-England cricketer Mickey Stewart was presented to the crowd. Stewart famously missed the Casuals 1956 Amateur Cup final against Bishop Auckland because he was stuck at the airport after an England cricket tour of the West Indies.
Any regular watchers of non-league football will be familiar with the ‘hoof’ tactic employed by many teams to brutal effectiveness but, in keeping with the spirit of the day, there was precious little clogging on view and plenty of neat passing moves.
Despite both sides firing early salvos during the opening exchanges, it was clear the Dons, two divisions above Corinthians, were the better team and before long they raced into a two goal league, both old fashioned wing-play before crossing into the box for pinpoint headers. There was plenty of neat, passing football on display interspersed with typical lower-league commitment in the tackle.
If the first half was entertaining, the second was a goalfest, although sadly for the Casuals, the majority of them came from Wimbeldon. A revamped Dons team for the second half had Gillingham loanee Luis Cumbers up front and before long he’d doubled Wimbeldon’s lead. This was the cue for a rout with plenty of balls behind Corinthians defence causing panic, and several well-taken goals.
But the two biggest cheers of the afternoon were reserved for two wonderful moments that encompassed the amateur feel. Firstly, Wimbledon gave an appearance to their programme seller, who’d won a competition to play at Wembley. His first touch was greeted with roars of support. The Corinthians got a richly deserved goal and, as their striker celebrated, every fan in the stadium stood up to applaud the amateurs, who refused to give up despite being comprehensively outclassed.
Wembley is unlikely to see a game of similar proportions again, either in scoreline or spirit. Lazy sports pundits may have used the MK Dons Johnstone Paint Trophy success to roll out comparisons with the team of ’88 but the friendly fixture is more in the spirit of the old Crazy Gang and is far more of a spiritual return to the stadium than any of MK success will be – the two sides are poles apart in terms of supporters and ethos and while neither may be the original Wimbledon, AFC are the Dons natural successors, not the Franchise 60 miles north.
Meanwhile, Corinthian-Casuals will still stay in Wembley long after the amateurs have left the stadium: just below the Royal Box is the Corinthian Club, a nod to one of the country’s oldest teams, and a club that has more than most to act as global ambassadors for the beautiful game.