At Wimbledon, nostalgia is being reborn. For the first time since the club were reformed from the ashes of franchise theft in 2002, AFC are in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

That they have progressed this far by beating Premier League West Ham United 4-2 only added to the Crazy Gang spirit enveloping their modest stadium after the game.

“Yeah, definitely, I‘m going to get it dyed yellow and blue,” said Scott Wagstaff of his ginger-hued hipster beard.

“I said I‘d do it if I scored and now I‘ve got two I‘ve really got no excuse.”

Had the old-school Crazy Gang, the bunch who won the Cup in 1988, been still around, its members would have held Wagstaff down even as he was conducting his post-match interview and given him an impromptu shave.

Times have changed at Wimbledon. The showers in the away dressing room these days run warm, physical threats are no longer delivered in the tunnel, the pitch is a bowling green.

But, nevertheless, Vinnie Jones, watching on from beneath a tweed cap so substantial he appeared to be auditioning for the new series of Peaky Blinders, would have been delighted by what he saw on a brisk January night.

Wimbledon were full of zip and aggression, never for a moment allowing their celebrated visitors to settle.

“You could tell they weren‘t used to League One battles,” said sub Toby Sibbick, whose late goal quashed any thoughts of a West Ham comeback.

“They like ball to feet, not really pressing. I think they struggled. We really took it to them.”

That may have surprised as much as delighted the regulars here. With their side cut adrift from safety at the bottom of League One, the fans had been obliged to witness hefty defeats in the past two home games.

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However, manager Wally Downes reckoned that the 3-0 league hammering his players took against Fleetwood on their own turf last Tuesday night may have served as timely incentive.

“Coming into this game, the fear factor applied: they knew if they‘d have played as badly again it would have been a cricket score,” the former Crazy Gang member said.

“It didn‘t need me to tell them they had to improve. They knew that. Their attitude was spot on.”

Hope

West Ham‘s, by contrast, was not. Manuel Pellegrini had started the game with Andy Carroll up front in the hope that he might match their hosts‘ physicality.

That he fell over pleading to the referee after the first encounter with Terell Thomas was indicative.

For 45 minutes, West Ham were utterly feeble, apparently anxious to be anywhere other than engaged in a full-on Cup tie.

“I was shocked how bad we were in the first-half,” seethed Pellegrini.

Wimbledon exploited evident defensive frailty, scoring two sharp goals from Wagstaff and Kwesi Appiah.

Downes, however, warned his players not to think the job was done.

“I told the lads, you get no medals leading at half-time,” he said. “It was important we approach the second-half well and we proved that by getting an early goal. It was terrific.”

Wagstaff‘s second came within 41 seconds of kick-off. And it was a goal which ultimately made the difference, because West Ham, sparked by the substitute Felipe Anderson, suddenly decided to compete.

With the Brazilian seizing control and scoring a second goal with a beautifully worked free-kick, the dream of an upset suddenly looked in jeopardy. Downes admitted his nerves were fraying.

“At 3-2 with five minutes to go, you know what would have happened: they‘d have got a corner, goalie in the box, it would have been nail-biting stuff,” he said.

Instead, he sent on Sibbick who, within moments of his arrival, arrived unnoticed to head home a fourth goal.

Cue mayhem. There may have only been just over 4,000 Wimbledon fans in the place, but the gale of relief enveloping Kingsmeadow threatened the ear drums. The old days were back.

“Every day they‘re making history,” said Downes of his players. “They made history getting into the fourth round.

“At Haringey and Halifax (in rounds one and two) Wimbledon were the giants the cameras were there to watch being killed.

“Not doing well in the league and to go to both of those grounds expecting a turnover was difficult for them, but they came through. Now they have proved they can be giant-killers themselves.”

© Daily Telegraph

Irish Independent

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