Ex-Wimbledon star Earle on Crazy Gang days, the Reggae Boyz and racism

Ex-Wimbledon star Robbie Earle on pranks and ‘cracking’ nights out with the Crazy Gang, playing for the Reggae Boyz at the World Cup, Jamaica’s bright future and why he ‘totally supports’ Wilfried Zaha for not wanting to take a knee

  • Robbie Earle was made to jog two miles naked on his first day at Wimbledon 
  • He was part of the famous Crazy Gang team in the 1990s and has plenty of tales 
  • Earle remembers when John Hartson’s Armani suit was set on fire after training
  • The ex-midfielder also talked playing for Jamaica at the World Cup and racism  

Robbie Earle chuckles as he remembers the time he was forced to run through Wimbledon common stark naked with just a traffic cone protecting his modesty.

‘We were out on a run before training and as we got to the furthest point away from our ground the lads all jumped on me and stripped me. It was two miles back to get more kit. I had to jog past a few old ladies and other people out on their morning strolls.

‘God knows what they thought. It must have been a strange sight. And that was my first day at the club, so that was my kind of welcome to Wimbledon.’

Earle has got hundreds of stories like that from his time playing alongside the likes of John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones and Lawrie Sanchez in that famous Wimbledon side of the 1990s. Pulling pranks was part of the culture and daily routine of the Crazy Gang, a nickname the club adopted in the late Eighties for their boisterous and macho style on and off the pitch.

Robbie Earle opens up on his Crazy Gang days, playing at the World Cup and racism in football

Earle is best remembered for the nine years he spent with Wimbledon in the Premier League

Sometimes the tricks could be as elaborate as taking the entire contents of manager Dave Bassett’s office and setting it up exactly the same in the corridor. Other times they were more crude and elementary. Earle was certainly not the first, or the last, to fall victim to having his clothes stolen. That one was quite common, and frankly, getting off lightly.

John Hartson discovered just how bonkers the Crazy Gang could be when they set his Armani suit on fire and almost burned down the dressing room. Pinching the tyres off of Michael Hughes’ car was another one they liked to do while on away trips it was customary for them to return to their hotel rooms to find that all the furniture had been moved outside, presumably not by a staff member.

Vinnie Jones famously once said you either had to grow a backbone quickly or you’d dissolve as a man in that dressing room. But the constant raillery, sledging and practical jokes off the pitch helped to establish a camaraderie and a brotherly mentality when they were on it.

They had such a riot most days that Earle never wanted to be ill in case he missed out on something hilarious. He spent nine great years at Wimbledon and never once felt like it was a chore. In fact, those years between 1991 and 2000 remain some of the best memories of his life.

Earle (pictured left trying to put out the fire on John Hartson’s Armani suit) was part of the famous Wimbledon side of the 1990s that included Vinnie Jones (right) and were nicknamed the Crazy Gang for their daily pranks and boisterous style on and off the pitch

The midfielder still looks back at his time at Wimbledon as some of the best days of his life

‘They were special days, we were playing in the Premier League with our best mates like people play with their best mates down the park, but we were playing at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane and Anfield,’ Earle tells Sportsmail.

‘We had such a fun time together and some cracking nights out as well. It’s probably a good thing there was no such thing as camera phones or social media around that time or some careers might have been cut a bit short.

‘I remember on the way back from Hereford once, we’d just beaten them in the Cup, and our coach had broken down. The driver told us it won’t be sorted until tomorrow morning. The lads let out the biggest cheer because it meant we could have a night out in Hereford. And we ended up having a night like you wouldn’t believe.

‘Things have changed since my days. Players can be a bit vanilla now. I know Sam Allardyce at West Brom said Covid has made it difficult for him to do some of the things he’s wanted to do to try and bond the players, which is important when you’re fighting relegation. We were a band of brothers at Wimbledon and that was a big reason why we were successful.’

During Earle’s time at the club, Wimbledon defied the odds to become an established top-flight side and reached two League Cup semi-finals and one FA Cup semi-final. In the 1993-94 season he also made a significant contribution with nine goals as they finished a club-best sixth in the Premier League.

Earle was a vital player in helping underdogs Wimbledon compete with the league’s best

Wimbledon defied the odds to become an established top-flight side during Earle’s time at the club and reached two League Cup semi-finals and an FA Cup semi-final in 1997 after beating Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough (pictured)

Earle was renowned for making late dashes into the box to score from midfield and has a memorable brace at Anfield among other great moments to savour from his career. In his best goalscoring season for Wimbledon, he netted 14 times in the league and showed enough quality over the years to leave many wondering if England missed a trick.  

Despite being called up to a couple of squads, Earle never played in a competitive game for England and decided to switch his allegiance to Jamaica through his parents’ nationality at the age of 31 when it became clear he would continue to be overlooked.

Earle was one of seven English fringe players to join Jamaica’s squad for their 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign and helped to create history as they became the first Caribbean nation ever to book a spot at the tournament.

‘That whole experience was amazing, being the Reggae Boyz. There was a lot of interest in us and references to Cool Runnings and things like that,’ he laughs. ‘We gave a good account of ourselves and the fans were obviously incredible as well.

‘Some of my friends said in the Croatia game that was one of the best half-times they’ve ever had in their lives because of the music, the party and the dancing girls were there. It was showing off what Jamaica was about and was a nice way to shine the country in a good light, because at the time there was a lot of negative connotations with Jamaica.’

Earle netted 14 times in his best scoring season for Wimbledon and was on fringes of England

He switched his allegiance to Jamaica at 31 and went with them to 1998 World Cup in France

Earle created another little bit of history in that game, scoring Jamaica’s first-ever World Cup goal in a 3-1 defeat. ‘As soon as the ball fell to Ricardo Gardner, I knew exactly where he was going to cross it,’ Earle remembers. ‘He was only 17 at the time but even then he was a great crosser. I’d seen it in training a few days earlier and I just knew when he put it in that I was going to score.

‘That was a great moment and was a nice little thank you back to Jamaica for giving me the opportunity to play international football. I think I would have felt a bit unfulfilled in my career if I didn’t get that chance.’

Jamaica would fail to make it out of their group but left France with a precious souvenir by beating Japan in their final game. They have never qualified since France 98′ but hopes for the 2022 World Cup have been boosted with West Ham’s Michail Antonio leading a fresh contingent of English players ready to ditch the Three Lions for Jamaica.

‘The US has been reaching out to the talent pool through grandparents and parents for years. The Republic of Ireland have built teams based on drawing as far afield as they can,’ Earle says. ‘It’s good to see the JFF (Jamaican Football Federation) are starting to do the same now.

Earle said he would have felt unfulfilled in his career if he didn’t play on the international stage

Jamaica’s dancing girls were an iconic part of France 98, with every game a party atmosphere

Earle created a bit of history as he became Jamaica’s first World Cup scorer against Croatia

‘There’s already players like your Ravel Morrison’s, Leon Bailey’s and then you’ve got Liam Moore and possibly Ivan Toney from Brentford, so all of a sudden there is a bunch of talented players who can add to the talent Jamaica already have, so it is exciting times.

‘I think Antonio is the shining light and the stage he’s at in his career is probably similar to mine at the time, in that he’s been in and around the England set-up but he’s unlikely to be a part of the Euros and moving forward so Jamaica gives him a great opportunity. Playing international football rounded off my career, and I’m sure it’s something he’ll want to do.’

Earle was forced to retire two years after the World Cup at 35 after rupturing his pancreas in a collision with his own goalkeeper during a reserve game for Wimbledon. Since hanging up his boots he has moved into punditry and currently works as a Premier League broadcaster for NBC Sports in the US.

He made headlines last year on both sides of the Atlantic after almost being reduced to tears during a powerful and emotional conversation about racism live on TV. Earle knows what racism looks like. He had it for years as a player. He’s seen it before. The same words dripping with vitriol. The fact that players are still receiving abuse because of the colour of their skin 20 years on from his playing days bothers him greatly. But he thinks there is some cause for optimism.

‘It was pretty common when I first turned professional in the early 80s. It was something you just put up with,’ he says. 

Jamaica hope to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and Earle is optimistic about the future

West Ham’s Michail Antonio is one of several English stars set to switch allegiance and says he’s in a similar position to the one he was in when he ditched England to play for Jamaica

‘Back in the day there wasn’t the avenues there are now, there wasn’t the support that you get now and to be honest at the time you had to be careful as a black player, you didn’t want to be seen as somebody who had a chip on their shoulder because that could affect your career.

‘I done a lot of work with Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out and remember having conversations then that this was the time we had to go and re-educate people and in 10 or 15 years we will have made big steps and got on top of it, and unfortunately 20 years later we are probably in a worse place now in some respects.’

‘What has been encouraging though is that players who have a platform and an audience now are speaking out,’ he adds.

‘Tyrone Mings the other week put it very eloquently why it’s still important to take the knee while I totally support Wilfried Zaha’s opinion as well. He’s saying I want to do it differently and I want the conversation to go in a different direction and that’s important that we’re not just taking a knee for taking a knee’s sake. It’s not just lip service anymore, it’s not just ticking a box, we have got to make serious change and that comes with time and strong, brave decisions.

‘I have to say the Premier League’s support has been important and they’ve done a lot of good work. We need to make changes though so ethnic minorities are getting opportunities in the business side and decision making and clubs are appointing more black coaches. It’s not just about players getting racially abused, it’s about inequality across all areas. 

Earle, 56, now works as a Premier League broadcaster on NBC Sports in the United States

He says he supports Wilfried Zaha’s decision to do his own thing in the fight against racism

‘It has to be a combined effort and it has to be serious. This is probably the first time I’ve seen as many non-black people as black people get involved in the discussion, so I think that’s a big step forward, too.’ 

It is coming up to almost 11 years now since Earle left England to start his new life in America. ‘It’s gone very quickly,’ he says. ‘The timing was just right for me to make the move. I do miss the UK now and again but the weather over here is great and I love travelling around different states and getting a better understanding of the country. I like to keep myself fit and do a bit of boxing when I’m not working. I’m sure you know the portion sizes over here are massive, so you have to try and stay fit. After you’ve been here a while though you calm down a little bit because you notice the waist line’s getting a bit bigger.’

And what about the ol’ Crazy Gang, ever get the time to catch up with any of them? ‘We’ve still got a WhatsApp group that’s about 25 strong,’ he says. ‘It’s got some of the old players, our old chairman Sam Hammam, Joe Kinnear, even now we continue to be team-mates and have each other’s backs even when it’s 20 years later.

‘The boys still meet up, they call it the two crazy days of the year. One is at summer and one is at Christmas. It starts at lunch and usually finishes up at around lunch the next day for those who can still hack the pace. I’ve not been able to get to the last few but I’m hoping to get to the next one when life is back to normal again.’

Here’s to hoping no one turns up in an Armani suit.

Earle (far top right) is still in a WhatsApp group chat with his former Wimbledon team-mates from the Crazy Gang days and is looking forward to having a night out with them again soon

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