Smells like team spirit: Fear and loathing in the dressing room

    Story highlights

    • Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang' provided one of English football's strangest chapters
    • A team famed for its team spirit defied the odds to make it to the top
    • But did a climate of fear rule the dressing room?

    (CNN)What happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room is an oft repeated phrase by football managers and players.

    But in the last few weeks a rag-tag bunch of 'misfits, throw-outs, not-wanteds' -- their own words -- who didn't just take on the English football establishment but steamrollered their way through it, haven't stopped talking about what went on in their dressing room.
      Reveling in their nickname of the Crazy Gang, Wimbledon's remarkable team in the 1980s cared little for either rules or reputations.
      "At Wimbledon, you got tied up naked and dragged through puddles, or maybe someone nicked your car and drove it away [to hide it], or your shoes would get nailed to the top of a seat," Terry Phelan, a former player, told CNN.
      "Or they would burn your clothes, cut your clothes or your tie off, or if you left your hotel key when you were out of a hotel you'd come back and your room would be trashed."
      Though derided for their long-ball style, the small South London club achieved a rise in English football that was astonishingly fast.
      In 1977, the unfashionable club entered the English football league -- starting in the fourth division.
      Nine years later, they were briefly top of what is today's Premier League after a startling run of four promotions in five seasons.
      Better was to come as the alley-cats then defeated English football's aristocrats in one of the FA Cup's greatest upsets, as Wimbledon beat Liverpool -- dubbed the "Culture Club" by one commentator -- in the 1988 final.
      Although a smattering of players would go on to both bigger clubs and international careers, there was one undeniable factor behind Wimbledon's success.
      "We've got the team spirit to carry us through," replied future England international Dennis Wise when asked about the prospect of beating Liverpool, described that day by a BBC television presenter as 'arguably the greatest post-war club we've seen', in the 1988 FA Cup final.
      A variety of elements -- such as hard work, tactics, team discipline, an early use of video data and, in the final itself, a dollop of good fortune -- underpinned Wimbledon's success, but unity was the key.
      "WE RULED BY FEAR"
      This was achieved by bonding exercises that seem routine now but which were far from commonplace then, such as army boot camps, but others believe the togetherness was forged in an altogether less pleasant environment.
      "We ruled by fear -- it was wonderful," former striker John Fashanu, Wimbledon's self-proclaimed leader, said in a controversial documentary broadcast by British television channel BT Sport last month.
      Fashanu said he dragged a teammate by his nostrils, while he also spoke of players being locked in car boots or being forced to go two days without eating. Then, among myriad tales, there were the regular fights that broke out, often involving Fashanu -- a black belt in karate.
      On the pitch there was mayhem as well -- there were the injuries suffered by opponents players, most notably Tottenham's Gary Mabbutt (fractured eye socket and cheekbone) and Gary Stevens (career ended by footballer-turned-Hollywood-"hard man" Vinnie Jones) and Manchester United's Viv Anderson, in the stadium tunnel, after the game, (three stitches for a cut eye) as Wimbledon's aggressive style and warrior mentality grimly spilled over.
      Even more famous is a near-iconic image of Jones manhandling Paul Gascoigne's "private parts" as he tried to intimidate England's 1990 World Cup star.
      "JESUS AND HIS DISCIPLES"
      "The culture at any club depends on the manager, chief executive and owner, as they tend to set the culture," sports psychologist Dan Abrahams told CNN.
      Wimbledon's owner, at the time, Lebanese businessman Sam Hammam, was -- and still is -- unorthodox to say the least.
      "He realized that Jesus had 12 disciples and all were very different," Fashanu told BT Sport. "Sam was like Jesus in our mind -- almost -- because he was a real leader."
      Despite knowing little about football, Hammam bought the club on a whim and was soon introducing his unusual modus operandi -- contractually arranging that players would have to sit through opera if they lost by four goals, while he once made coach Bobby Gould eat cooked sheep's testicles as a way of being persuaded that he really wanted to buy a certain player.
      "The whole time Sam Hammam was there, he encouraged us not to bully or be reckless but to be different and strong with each other," Neal Ardley, who came through Wimbledon's youth system before making his debut, aged 18, in 1991, told CNN.
      Ardley is now manager of AFC Wimbledon, whose FA Cup defeat by Liverpool on January 12 revived memories of years gone by.
      Several claims in the BT Sport program have angered many of the other personnel involved, who have dismissed the tales as wild exaggerations -- particularly the most serious account where a Wimbledon player, Jones, says a teammate was so badly beaten in a locker room fight that his badly torn calf muscle needed 20-30 stitches.
      It has since been dismissed as a wrestling bout gone wrong, by FA Cup winner Terry Gibson.
      Would any other workplace -- even a football club -- have tolerated what went on at Wimbledon?
      "The first thing I'd think about was getting down to the pub and getting away from it, having a drink," defender John Scales, who joined in 1987, told BT Sport. "I remember getting in the car and getting psyched up for training so I would be able to cope for it."
      PUSHING BOUNDARIES
      "I had to adapt and I adapted -- it took six months -- but it made me into the person I am," added Phelan, who joined alongside Scales and would play at the 1994 World Cup for the Republic of Ireland. "I'm not going to name them but I saw lads -- tears in their eyes and breaking down -- who couldn't handle it."
      But can fear really motivate a dressing room?
      "Of course," says psychologist Abrahams. "Any team dynamic can be complex and there is more than one way. But a culture of fear is very explosive and if that was predominant, it would have helped some players but hindered others. A culture of fears normally means things are out of control."
      Between 2007 and 2013, Rene Meulensteen worked as assistant coach to Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson -- famed for his fearsome 'hairdryer' rants, where he would admonish players from close range, in the dressing room.
      "It's not fear, but respect -- ultimate respect," the Dutchman told CNN. "If you want the best, time and time again, you have to push people and push boundaries.
      "The reason managers do it is because they know it's in those players. I'm sure 99.99% of those players, if asked, would say the manager got the best out of them."
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      The Dutchman also believes the Wimbledon managers -- first Dave Bassett and then FA Cup-winning coach Gould -- were fully aware of what they were doing.
      "I was the headmaster of the worst comprehensive school in the whole of England," Gould told BT Sport. "Every morning, you were going to walk in and there was going to be a problem."
      "We spent pre-season training at various army training camps around England and Europe," Bassett wrote in an AFC Wimbledon match program, as he angrily refuted much of the BT Sport claims.
      "They were tough "beasting" days, but I wanted to build characters, make players feel at ease in different surroundings. I also wanted bonding."
      "It's up to the manager to allow the players some control," added Meulensteen. "These players can keep the dressing room at the right temperature."
      "Take the relationship between Sam Allardyce and Kevin Nolan, or Jose Mourinho and John Terry -- they are the guys that pull the dressing room together," he said, referring to the West Ham and Chelsea managers and their respective captains.
      CHANGING TIMES
      One former Wimbledon player says it's wrong to single out the club for treatment -- even if the players did once strip him naked and leave him to run three miles back to the training ground.
      "I didn't take that as bullying -- that was a practical joke," Germany's Lutz Pfannenstiel told CNN. "We were going for a run in the park and it was a bit cold but to have been stripped naked and have to run back, it was more fun than anything else.
      "But there were lots of practical jokes that were not so funny, almost wrong -- like pissing in someone's shampoo bottle, especially with my long hair.
      "I think these kinds of practical jokes wouldn't happen anymore but it worked a little bit then," he explained.
      "It was part of the culture, that people took the mickey out of each other, that people pushed each other on the field to perform, so it was a much closer connection between some of the players -- but these days, those sorts of things are not accepted," said Pfannenstiel.
      Pfannenstiel, who has played on all the world's continents, says he found the culture of Wimbledon's dressing room leaders replicated elsewhere.
      "In Brazil, the way the older players were treating the younger players was just as hard as at Wimbledon. It was very difficult for the youngsters in Brazil to adjust. In some ways, it was just too much. Many times, an older player slapped a younger player.
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      "Let's put it this way -- when I was younger, the typical way of having respect for the older guys was much greater than now," says Pfannenstiel, who believes the changes came about in the early 2000s.
      "Now, a younger player will tell an older player to f*** off. But in that time, whether in Wimbledon or Germany or Brazil, if you got off on the wrong foot, nutmegged or showed disrespect to someone, it was a problem.
      "But it's not just football where respect for the elder has changed, as it's happened in offices and businesses all over the world."
      "MOLLYCODDLING THE NEXT GENERATION"
      As a manager Ardley is well aware that in the 21st Century different rules now apply in dressing rooms.
      "In the past, young players were hungry -- they used to have to do jobs, stand up and be counted and deal with everything thrown at them. Now you've got young lads who want everything done for them.
      "Academies in football have created a much better environment, training facilities and coaching quality, but they pamper them too much.
      "But players at 14 get treated like first-team players. We're trying to get the right mix -- we want our players to have the best coaching and facilities, but we also want that hunger."
      The 42-year-old Ardley is intent on instilling a steely mentality in his players.
      "We want a hardworking environment and we're trying to change for the better to do that. But it's a fine line -- when trying to fire up a youngster -- between getting him to perform and getting him to clam up.
      "Society's a lot nicer today but also a lot weaker, not as tough as it was 20 years ago. There is so much political correctness around that we have to be careful not to mollycoddle our next generation to the point where they haven't got the character to make it to the top."