Ian Cooke on the days when two clubs battled for titles
Wimbledon this Saturday host Yeovil Town in what is expected to be another competitive League 2 affair, but it’s unlikely to match the needle and rivalry of previous battles between the clubs in the 1970s.
A big rivalry existed between Wimbledon and Yeovil when both clubs were battling to win the old Southern League title, a prize that would eventually take Allen Batsford’s Dons into the Football League.
This Saturday, Ian Cooke, who was instrumental in Wimbledon’s success with over 300 goals, will be special guest at our pre-match hospitality before the Yeovil game.
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It promises to be an entertaining talk from Ian, who still has a programme collection in his loft from Wimbledon’s glory days, which included THAT memorable FA Cup win in 1975 when then top-flight Burnley were shocked by a Dons side still in non league.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s match against Yeovil, Ian (pictured in action for the Dons above) recalled previous battles against the men from Somerset and how his midfield partnership with Dave Bassett and renowned hard-man Selwyn Rice was pivotal in such games.
“Yeovil were consistently one of our key challengers as they were one of the better sides,” said Cooke. “They also had a pitch that sloped from side to side, which was a big home advantage for them. They were always there and thereabouts in the league. They had a big following and it was always a tough game when we went down there. They had some good players too.
“In midfield we had Dave Bassett, Selwyn Rice and me. We were not the biggest, but we made up for it with effort and commitment. Selwyn was one of those guys you just couldn’t intimidate. The harder the game, the more he relished it. Wimbledon versus Yeovil were always ding-dong battles, they were hard games. I can’t remember the names of their players, but I’m sure they will come flooding back to me when I look-up the old programmes that my father collected.
“I was talking to Selwyn Rice recently and he can remember playing them home and away in the Southern League Cup Final. We went down there and won with a Billy Holmes penalty. It was not as hard as we expected, but the second leg at our place was a bit nervy. We just managed to hold on and win the cup. The cup competitions seemed to mean a lot more in those days.”
Wimbledon won the Southern League title three seasons in succession, before earning election to the Football League in 1977. The achievements of manager Allen Batsford will never be forgotten after he arrived from Walton & Hersham three years earlier. Batsford’s first season was particularly memorable as it included a 26-game unbeaten league run and a nine-match FA Cup campaign only ended after Dickie Guy’s goalkeeping heroics took Leeds to a replay.
Such success never seemed likely at the time when Batsford took over in 1974 as he inherited just seven contracted players – and Cooke admitted he contemplated walking out himself after being left on the bench.
“The club had forgot to send out the retention notices and every player was therefore effectively a free agent,” recalled Cooke. “Half a dozen players walked out. That’s why Allen brought in five or six players from Walton & Hersham. You could not have imagined at that stage what would happen in the next few seasons!
“Travelling up on the coach to Nuneaton I was told by Allen that I would be substitute and I was thinking ‘I will not be hanging around here’. I got on for the last 15 minutes, but we lost 1-0. Then I got back into the side and we were unbeaten for 26 matches. That has given me a bit of ammunition over the years!”
The Southern League was a far different proposition in those days as international players would see out their careers in non league.
“The Southern League was a very good level of football in those days,” added Cooke. “As there was nowhere near the amount of money in the game as there is now, players still had to earn a crust in later years. I remember that Worcester City had three international players. Imagine Wayne Rooney in a few years playing in the Southern League? It won’t happen, but John Charles played for Hereford and I can remember coming up against Johnny Haynes when he was at Wealdstone. There would be big crowds at Southern League games back then.”
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