We were saddened to hear about the recent death of former Dons chairman Joe McElligott.
Joe was described as a gentleman by those who knew him and he played a key role in Wimbledon’s history during the early 1980s.
Joe became chairman of Wimbledon FC during one of the club’s darkest hours. A friend of Dave Bassett's, he had been instrumental in persuading Ron Noades to take over at Plough Lane in the summer of 1976. The following spring, as Allen Batsford's team completed a hat trick of Southern League titles, he toured the north of England, in the company of Ron and his vice chairman Jimmy Rose, persuading directors to vote for the Dons at the AGM of the Football League in June.
Joe remained involved throughout the club's early years in the Football League. When Ron Noades quit the club in the early month of 1981, Sam Hammam took the helm and Joe was made club chairman for a short period as the Lebanese businessman was often abroad. For a time, the very future of the club was in doubt, but gradually the situation was stabilised and Joe was able to witness first-hand the Wimbledon’s remarkable rise through the divisions in the mid 1980s.
The Wimbledon squad photo from the 1982-83 season shows Joe second from right in the row of club directors at the time.
Below is an interview by Stephen Crabtree that was published in our match day programme a few years ago.
When did you first watch Wimbledon play?
I remember going to see the 1963 Amateur Cup final with a group of mates. We didn’t support either side. I lived in north London and we just went along as it was a big game at Wembley. It was great match. Sutton were the favourites but they did not have Eddie Reynolds. He used to come down to Plough Lane occasionally for a drink when I was involved at the club in the 1980s and it was lovely to relive those four headed goals with him.
How did you come to be part of Wimbledon FC?
I was an Arsenal season ticket holder for years but when we moved out of London and went to live in Greenford I met Dave Bassett. He was a top amateur footballer in those days. Before he broke his leg he had been a quick winger with a lot of skill but afterwards he lost some of his speed so he became a midfielder. He was always a good organiser and he knew how to get stuck in. I used to watch him playing for Walton when they won the Amateur Cup and I travelled with the team when they had that famous win over Brian Clough’s Brighton side.
So when Dave moved across to Plough Lane, you started following Wimbledon?
Allen Batsford felt he had taken Walton as far as he could and he brought five of his best players, including Dave, with him when he became manager of Wimbledon. In those days Dave rented an office in a block owned by Ron Noades to run his insurance firm, Manor Brokers. Ron was involved at Southall back then and we used to meet up with him and say; “What are you doing there? Come over to Wimbledon. They need the money!”
He bought the club off Bernie Coleman in the summer of 1976 and straightaway set about trying to get them a place in the Football League. Allen did the business on the pitch while we went round the country drumming up support for the club. The London clubs didn’t want to know - they did not want another competitor in the capital. So Ron would ring up one of the chairman of the clubs in the north and we would go and visit them on a match day or during the week.
I was lucky in that my job involved keeping in touch with my sales team all over the country. I would make sure the visits to clubs coincided with my work. We covered an awful lot of miles in the spring of 1977. I remember Jimmy Rose, Ron and I going to places like Mansfield, Southend, Birmingham, Bradford, Scunthorpe and Northampton. I never thought we would get voted in as it was such an old boys club in those days but we did it.
What were relations between Ron Noades and Allen Batsford like?
When we got into Division Four, Ron wanted us to stay part time to save money and Allen was not happy about it. He thought we were at a big disadvantage and they had a few rows about it. I remember Allen saying to me; “I don’t know if I should be here anymore.” Eventually he resigned and Ron appointed Dario Gradi, who had been Allen’s assistant, as his new manager.
We knew Dario because he had been involved in the non league game at Sutton. He had made a name for himself as a youth coach at Chelsea and Ron saw youth development as the way forward for a club like Wimbledon who had very little money to buy new players. It proved to be an inspired decision as so many players came through to the first team in the years ahead from that youth system.
But then Ron and Dario left to take over at Crystal Palace, leaving you as chairman?
Before that happened, Sam Hammam had arrived at the club one day asking to invest in the club. When he said he wanted to put in something like £30,000 Ron almost pulled his arm off! All went well for a couple of years but gradually the poor crowds that Wimbledon attracted began to get Ron down. He felt the club could not progress without better support. When the chance to buy Palace arose he hoped Sam would come with him.
The supporters were outraged, of course. I remember asking Dave (who had become the manager), when the protests were at their height, “What do you think we should do?” He replied by saying; “Leave it all to Sam.” Hammam made it clear that he did not want to leave Wimbledon, but since he was abroad most of the time taking care of his business interests in the Middle East he installed me as the chairman.
I was working and I didn’t have a lot of time so Dave did most of the work at the club. He was a brilliant businessman. A player would go in demanding a big rise and come out thanking him for offering him a fiver! The wages we paid back then were shocking, but they were all we could afford.
As well as being clever with money, Bassett was a brilliant football manager, but what made him so special?
Everyone went on about how he played long ball but it wasn’t about the long ball, it was about the second ball for him. He wanted the team to win the knockdowns and put the opposition under pressure. He took the club from the Fourth division to the First with a collection of free transfer signings or players that cost virtually nothing.
We got Nigel Winterburn from Oxford for nothing, Glyn Hodges came from the Chelsea youth system, Vinnie Jones cost a few thousand from Wealdstone, Wally Downes knew Dennis Wise from where he lived in White City and told Dave he was having regular rows with his manager at Southampton.
I remember going over to give the chairman at Edgware Town £500 as a down payment for Dave Beasant, I went back to their end of the season dinner to give them the other £500. An England goalkeeper for a grand! It was an amazing bit of business.
But it was what he did with those players that was really impressive. He knew exactly what system he wanted to play and they became totally loyal to him. He could be very hard when he needed to be but he was very astute with people. The players loved him.
Could you sense that there was a special atmosphere around the place in those days?
It was the away trips I remember most. We always used to go by train and on the way back something would always happen. Sam loved to join in with all of that. I remember once he started throwing things around the carriage and it ended up with all the players involved in a fight. We were all bundled together on the floor. It was not the way the owner behaved at other clubs.
Half way through that journey up to the top Bassett agreed to join Noades at Crystal Palace, then he changed his mind the next day. What do you remember about that?
He said ‘Yes’ to Ron and them immediately regretted it. He knew what he had at Wimbledon. He preached loyalty to the players and they told him in no uncertain terms that he could not leave now as they had come so far. He changed his mind and came back the next day.
Did that change his relationship with Sam Hammam?
Sam and Dave always got on well but Sam never liked the fact that as far as the players and supporters were concerned all the success was down to Dave. He was bit jealous and the relationship had cooled by the time the club reached the top flight. It meant that when Elton John arrived at Dave’s home in Northwood one afternoon in 1987 he did not need too much persuading to join Watford.
But it turned out to be a mistake didn't it?
Yes, just as Dave was revered at Wimbledon, so Graham Taylor was loved at Watford, and the crowd never took to Dave. His first match there was against Wimbledon and I remember after the game that the players from both sides went to a pub near the ground where Elton was buying. Things soon soured at Vicarage Road and he ended up at Sheffield United where he had eight very successful years.
Why did he never get the chance to manage a really big club?
Manchester City came in for him while he was in Sheffield and I told him it was too good an opportunity to miss. But something made him hold back. It meant he missed the chance to take over one of the really large, big city, clubs.
Do you ever come and see AFC Wimbledon today?
I came down with Dave recently and I was amazed at the set-up there. What you have achieved in getting through all those leagues after the way the FA treated the club is remarkable. I was delighted to hear that the club may be going back to Plough Lane in the near future. We never had any support from Merton Council when I was at the club. We used to go along to meetings and talk but nothing ever came of it.
I hope to come back when AFC Wimbledon are playing in a brand new stadium, where the dog track used to be.
Name your all time favourite Wimbledon XI
Dave Beasant, Nigel Winterburn, Terry Phelan, Vinnie Jones, Andy Thorn, Dave Donaldson, Lawrie Sanchez, Dennis Wise, Glyn Hodges, John Fashanu, Alan Cork.