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Wednesday 04 May 2011
Build up to the play offs - interview with Ian Cooke

As we approach a momentous few days for the club, we continue the build-up by talking to Wimbledon legend Ian Cooke – who scored a club record 297 goals in 615 games for the Dons between 1963 and 1977 – about his take on the play-offs and his memories of the last time we entered the Football League. Back then, there was no automatic promotion for the top non-League sides: they had to put themselves up for election, along with the sides that finished at the bottom of the old Fourth Division.

Ian, what do you remember about our election to the League?

It was quite different for me than for most of the other players, as League football was probably going to mean the end of my Wimbledon career, so I had mixed feelings. I was 32 and had been at Wimbledon for 13 years, but my career was with NatWest, and after 15 years with the bank I had just got onto the management rung. So if I was to continue playing football, it was going to have to be part time.

We started our pre-season training as part-time players, but after about a month the club announced that we would be going full time. I approached the manager, Allen Batsford, and asked him if I could stay at the club. He told me I could if I coached the youth team. That wasn’t quite what I meant, but his reasoning was understandable. He was so meticulous in everything he did – he felt that the free-kick and corner training that we did day in, day out was so carefully planned that I simply wouldn’t know what was going on if I only trained part time. That was fair enough. I ended up at Slough, playing part time.

Where were you when you heard the news that we had been elected?

I got home from work and it was on the news. Obviously these were the days before mobile phones, so that was the first I heard of it. It was strange waiting for the decision, as it was completely out of our hands, and none of us took it for granted that we would get elected. The club was worried that it may have campaigned too hard, and you never knew what the relationships were between the decision-makers and the other clubs.

Were the days before the Leeds FA Cup tie in 1975 more like the build-up to these play-offs than the build-up to our election to the League?

Definitely. The week before the tie, our game was postponed, so the whole squad went over to watch Leeds play at Stamford Bridge. To be honest, in the back of our minds we feared a heavy drubbing, but Allen Batsford kept drilling into us individually what our jobs were, and that if we concentrated on doing those jobs well, we would have a chance. The likes of Johnny Giles and Billy Bremner were no bigger than us and they shouldn’t scare us. They may have been better footballers, but with discipline we could hold our own. I remember an occasion when we were on the way to an away game, Weymouth I think it was, and we were at Waterloo Station. The West Ham team were going somewhere and they were there too. I was struck then by how they were no bigger or stronger than us, and that kept getting drilled into us.

What was the night before the game like?

I remember clearly being in the hotel for dinner. Usually we were told what to eat, or at the least we had to choose from a specially prepared menu. However, this time Allen Batsford just said to eat what we wanted. Harry Bassett broke the ice and ordered snails, which was a bit of an odd choice!

What will the big difference be if AFC Wimbledon are promoted?

I think that the jump won’t be that great as we are already full time this time around. Last time we were already working hard, but once we were elected there was a big shift to harder training sessions. I remember one session at Richardson Evans in particular. I recognised a guy on the touch-line, Fred Callaghan, who was in the Fulham set-up. There we were, doing our running drills and ensuring that we got to a certain yardage. He came up to me afterwards and asked if we did that every time – he was shocked at the work we had put in. I said yes, and he told me we would be knackered by the time the season started. We just did things differently, and were very well drilled. If AFC Wimbledon get promoted, I think our current crop of players will do quite well. So many players have come on this season through being full time. It was a good move, and we are seeing the results of that.

What would be your advice to the players preparing for these play-off games?

Just carry on doing what you have been doing, and importantly, don’t be scared to miss when you shoot. Keep your shape. Keep playing football and do what you have been doing most of this season. You are in second place for a reason, and in many seasons a team with 90 points would have won the league. Keep your discipline, and things will be fine.

And do you have any advice for Terry Brown?

The same as for the players. Just keep telling the players the same thing. Focus on the tactics and not the occasion and we will be OK. Obviously Terry has been here before, and this is massive for him. But his team goes into the play-offs on form and fit, and so as long as the players keep their shape and discipline we have a great chance. Allen Batsford would make sure that he spoke at length to everyone individually so that they knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing, and I think Terry will do the same.

Can the fans make a difference?

There is absolutely no doubt about that. The players were very aware when we played Burnley and Leeds [in the FA Cup in the 1970s] of the large turnout by our fans and the noise they were making. It really does make an enormous difference to the team and in a positive way. The fans would do really well to remember that.

Would you be advising a Bobby Gouldesque couple of pints in the pub the night before, as he encouraged the team to do before the 1988 FA Cup Final?

Probably not. I read a lot about the clothes-burning Crazy Gang style, but on balance I would just want them to rest and try to relax the night before.

Ian was speaking to Xavier Wiggins