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From the Fruit & Veg Stall to defying Leeds in the FA Cup!

Back home for one of the great ‘Batsford Boys’

26 January 2022

His Southern League winners’ medals are now proudly on display in our WiSH museum and we were delighted recently to welcome back Billy Edwards.

Billy, who starred in Wimbledon’s famous FA Cup run that ended with a gallant defeat to Leeds, attended as part of the unveiling of a photo mosaic by Wimbledon in Sporting Heritage, and Mick Pugh, Head of the Wimbledon Old Players’ Association, caught up with one of his heroes.

During that memorable cup run, Billy (pictured far right on the bottom row in the team picture above), combined playing with shifts on his father’s fruit and veg stall!

Mick tells us more below about a player who was an integral part of our success in the 1970s.

Arriving at Plough Lane with his former team-mate and fellow defender Jeff Bryant, Billy brought with him four tankards and a very special shield to donate to ‘The Greatest Story’ exhibition room. Every item tells a story of a great 1970s Wimbledon team, not just one man, but a team that became nationally famous under their remarkable manager, Allen Batsford.

I first became aware of Billy when he signed for my hometown team, Walton & Hersham, in 1970. He had been a Tottenham Hotspur youth player from the age of 15 and was a part of the Spurs team that won the FA Youth Cup, beating Coventry 1-0. When Spurs released him Billy was contacted by Batsford and very soon became a part of a very strong Walton side.

Apart from several long unbeaten runs in league and cup, they were drawn at home to Brian Clough's Brighton & Hove Albion. Clough famously told a reporter: "This game, young man, will be like thoroughbreds playing donkeys!" The first game at Stompond Lane was a 0-0 draw, but Batsford's side travelled down to the Goldstone Ground for the replay on a cold Wednesday and beat Brighton 4-0. The Walton boys sent Cloughie a signed poster of a donkey and his reign as Brighton’s boss soon ended.

Batsford's Walton side also won the penultimate FA Amateur Cup Final at Wembley, Roger Connell scoring the only goal against a leg weary, but brave Slough Town. With a nucleus of fine players, it was no surprise that Batsford raided his old club after being installed as Wimbledon manager in 1974. Starting with only seven registered players at Plough Lane, Batsford promptly signed Edwards, Dave Donaldson and Dave Bassett, Keiron Somers and Roger Connell.

Soon Batsford's dedication to fitness, running and sensible diet (he brought in the "B Max Diet" for all players) started to pay off, but it was his experience as an ex-Arsenal player and his organisational skills that soon turned the Dons into a formidable side.

In the very first season of 1974/75, the Dons had a truly amazing run in the FA Cup.  We played nine games in all, but it was in the third round that the national press sat up and took notice. Billy and the lads had trained hard on fitness, set pieces and "doubling up" on dangerous opponents - and it was just as well! Top-flight Burnley, one of the leading sides at the time, had the Welsh flyer Leighton James on the wing, Ray Hankin, Brian Flynn, Paul Fletcher and Alan Stevenson in goal. The Dons, with captain Ian Cooke leading the way, were seldom threatened though. Billy, Jeff Bryant, Dave Bassett, and the defence, were protecting Dickie Guy's goal superbly. Then, in the 48th minute, a shot from Cookie was parried by Stevenson, only for Micky Mahon to drive in what was to be the winning goal.

A non League team had beaten a top-flight side in the FA Cup for the first time in the 20th century. History was made! What is even more remarkable is the fact that the team were part timers: Billy helped on his Dad’s fruit and veg stall from 5am, Dave Donaldson worked for an airline, Ian Cooke for a bank, and we had a taxi driver, insurance agent and a BBC employee in our ranks! This created serious problems for training schedules and often three sessions a day were needed, including weight training and stamina work.

Billy Edwards and the gang.jpg

Billy (pictured centre above at the launch of the mosaic) told me that training and tactics became even more intense before taking on a Leeds side that included Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Peter Lorimer, Duncan McKenzie, Terry Yorath, and Johnny Giles. It certainly worked as the Dons earned a thoroughly deserved draw with Dickie famously saving Lorimer’s penalty.

Billy recalled Allen Batsford being "less than pleased" at a rather bizarre pre-match entrance by a couple of Wombles! Leeds players with their expensive kits, tags on their socks, and personalised track tops had been out for some time – and that led to Leeds fans chanting, ‘Wombles, where are you?” Suddenly, two six foot plus Wombles appeared from the tunnel. A huge cheer went up from both ends and one of the hairy beasties actually dribbled the ball into the Leeds net past a bemused David Harvey. 46,230 fans still awaited the Dons who were to emerge with seconds to go.

After earning national headlines for defying the mighty Leeds, the replay was Wimbledon’s fourth game in 10 days – hardly ideal preparation to meet the Champions! A gallant 1-0 defeat at Selhurst Park followed. Years later when I organised ‘An Evening with Dickie Guy and Friends’, I received a letter from Jimmy Armfield, which said:  “Wimbledon were non league, but they were magnificent. We hardly ever got through their superbly organised defence, but on the rare occasions we did Guy was always there."

It was yet more vindication of Allen Batsford’s methods - his single-minded dedication to fitness and organisation standing out. It was a tiny squad, maximised by physio Owen Harris and a fitness coaching regime that made this non league outfit capable of winning their first Southern League Championship - despite playing an incredible 73 games! The same level of commitment continued with two more titles and the biggest prize of all – a place in the Football League status for the first time. In that defining promotion season of 1976/77 season, Billy was voted Player of the Year.

Following Allen Batsford’s departure in 1978, Billy joined Maidstone United and he later had a spell at Tooting and Mitcham, where he became player-manager with Ray Thorn (father of the future Crazy Gang member Andy Thorn), as assistant. Billy also managed Dulwich, Leatherhead, and Staines.

After his football career, Billy joined the police and he still works in a specialist capacity on a part-time basis.

Talking to Billy throughout the years, one thing is very clear: that his best football memories are firmly with Wimbledon. He was a part of an outstanding team who always over-achieved. The legacy they and Allen Batsford left led to this club achieving greater things.

When Dave Bassett was eventually asked to become manager, the Dons finally got to the old First Division and for several weeks were the top team in the entire Football League. Following Bassett’s departure we went on to win the FA Cup and became founder members of the Premier League. I like to think that the determination of Billy Edwards and the rest of the “Batsford Boys” laid the foundation stones for “The Greatest Story in English Football”. Throughout the trials and tribulations of the subsequent years, “We Are Wimbledon” and that dogged spirit has continued to define us.

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