With no less than seven promotions to his name, Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett has a record to be proud of. That he also has a reputation or legacy for playing – encouraging, even – a particularly direct and abrupt style of football is perhaps a point of which Bassett is not so keen.
An unjust legacy or not, Dave Bassett is rightly remembered as a ‘true footballing man’ who got the very most of his and his players’ abilities and careers. Perhaps most famously known for his part in the amazing rise of Wimbledon from the basement division to the top flight in just four seasons, there is more to both the man and his tactics than the simplistic labelling of being a ‘long-ball merchant’.
Beginnings and Playing Career
Born in Stanmore in the London Borough of Harrow, Bassett spent almost the entirety of his playing career in the non-league ranks. He played for several clubs including Walton and Hersham for whom he appeared at Wembley in the 1973 FA Amateur Cup Final, before signing for Wimbledon, then in the Southern League, a year later.
It was while at Plough Lane that Bassett reached perhaps his pinnacle as a player. He was part of the Dons’ side that, as a non-league club, shocked then First Division Burnley in the FA Cup Third Round by defeating them at Turf Moor in 1975. This led to a tie against Leeds United, the reigning League Champions, at Elland Road where a fantastic rearguard performance resulted in a scoreless draw and a replay held at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park ground.
Unfortunately for Wimbledon and Bassett, a late shot was deflected off his knee for the only goal of the game.
After Wimbledon were elected to the league in 1977, Bassett continued playing and managed one complete season in the Fourth Division before stepping down to take charge of and play for the reserve team.
Into Management: Wimbledon
In January 1981, Wimbledon manager Dario Gradi decamped for Crystal Palace and Bassett was appointed manager of the Plough Lane club. The club was in 13th place when Bassett took over, but by the end of the season had climbed to fourth and so clinched the final promotion spot.
The first season in the higher division proved to be difficult and Wimbledon suffered an immediate relegation despite a late run of form that brought four wins from five games. Back in the Fourth Division, Wimbledon regrouped and came back stronger. A good 1982-83 campaign ended in success as a 98-point total was gained and the title secured.
This time Bassett had his charges ready for football at a higher level, and a second straight promotion was secured in 1984.
With his stock rising following three promotions (and one relegation) in four years, Bassett came to the attention of other clubs, His old Wimbledon chairman, Ron Noades, was still at Crystal Palace and he moved for Bassett in June of that year. Swayed by the attraction of managing a supposedly bigger club, Bassett initially agreed to join Palace before changing his mind 72 hours later and returning to Plough Lane with his Crystal Palace contract unsigned.
The Wimbledon story was beginning to gain momentum now and a solid season in the Second Division followed. In 1985-86 the Plough Lane side went one better and found themselves in a promotion battle.
By now Bassett was developing the style for which he would become famous. A fast-moving and pressing type of football was adapted with balls played into the channels for the strikers to work the opposing centre-backs. Strong players were used throughout the spine of the team, but it is also fair to say that smaller players with a creative bent were adapted to work the wings.
After a 1-1 draw at Bradford City, Wimbledon were promoted to the First Division. It had taken only nine years since their election to the league to reach the top flight. Once again Bassett was being eyed up by other clubs and it was thought that he might now be tempted to move on if he considered he’d taken Wimbledon as far as he could.
However, Bassett was not deterred by the size of the task that awaited him and The Dons and elected to stay once more with the club.
Far from being overawed or out of their depth, Wimbledon fair enough took the First Division by storm with famous victories at Anfield and White Hart Lane being complemented by home victories over Manchester United and Everton. For a while, Wimbledon actually led the First Division but their final position of sixth would have been unthinkable just a decade earlier.
Wimbledon were now very much ‘The Crazy Gang’ of legend. With such players as Vinnie Jones, John Fashanu, Dave Beasant, and Dennis Wise, the competitive and aggressive side of their play was always going to be evident, but there was also a level of skill and talent that assisted the side. Players such as Nigel Winterburn came through at the club at the time and would later go onto play for England.
Moving On: Watford
In the summer of 1987, however, things finally came to an end for Bassett and Wimbledon. New Chairman and owner, Sam Hamman, wanted to insert a clause into Bassett’s contract that would allow him, Hamman, to pick the side if he so wished. Bassett was unsurprisingly unwilling to accede to such a demand and so resigned.
For a while, it looked as if his next stop would be Maine Road, as Manchester City’s Chairman Peter Swales moved to sign him. A sticking point was Swales’ insistence that the Maine Road background staff should stay in place, while Bassett wanted to appoint his own men should he take the job.
While he was considering his options, Bassett took the opportunity to go to Wembley to watch the FA Cup Final between Tottenham and Coventry. Imagine his surprise when he got home to find his wife entertaining a certain Elton John in the living room of their house!
Graham Taylor had recently quit Watford after over a decade’s service, and Elton John (not yet a ‘Sir’) was on the hunt for a replacement. It was this search that led him to beat a path to the door of Chez Bassett and after some negotiations, it was agreed that Bassett would join the Vicarage Road club.
It wasn’t a success. Dave Bassett said that the players were too entrenched in their ways and were unwilling to try and bend to him or his way of playing. A miserable first half to the following season ensued and with Watford mired in relegation trouble, Elton John pulled the plug and Bassett left the club in January 1988 with the side marooned at the foot of the table.
Relegated Twice in One Season: Sheffield United
Unemployment didn’t suit Bassett though, and just a handful of days later he was appointed manager of Second Division Sheffield United who were themselves embroiled in a relegation battle. Despite having more than four months to turn the club’s fortunes around, Bassett was unable to do so and the Bramall Lane club was relegated at the end of the season.
With Watford also being relegated at the season’s end, Bassett therefore, became one of the only managers to be involved with two different relegated clubs in the same season.
Following this inauspicious start, Dave Bassett and Sheffield United proved to be almost every bit as magical together as his partnership with Wimbledon had been. Bassett was to stay with the club for almost seven years and in that time the club was to hit the highs and lows of promotion and relegation together.
Building the side up from the back, Bassett had Sheffield United amongst the front runners from the season’s off and an instant return to the Second Division was secured in May 1989. Reaching the second flight in a much better condition than they had departed it a year earlier, United were able to kick on and spent most of the 1989-90 season locked in a two-way Yorkshire battle with Leeds United for the Second Division title and a second successive promotion.
It was around this time that the club agreed to take part in a fly-on-the-wall documentary detailing the promotion push. Imaginatively titled, “United”, the show followed the fortunes of the club as it homed in on promotion.
A last day victory at Leicester by a 5-2 scoreline was the backdrop to celebrations long and hard into the night.
Bassett had by now secured six promotions (and two relegations) in ten seasons and quite evidently seemed to have the Midas Touch. It would take all of his renown qualities to keep Sheffield United in the First Division the next season, however, as by the start of December there were no wins and only four points on the board.
With relegation seemingly already assured even at this early stage. Bassett then pulled off what some people described as an of inspiration while others considered it to be one of desperation: he signed Vinnie Jones.
Installed as captain, Jones had an immediate effect on the Blades, and a good run of form early in the new year gave the club a fighting chance. A later run of seven successive victories lifted Sheffield United out of the relegation zone and in the end safety was secured somewhat comfortably.
That summer, Bassett was approached by Aston Villa owner and Chairman, Doug Ellis, regarding the vacant manager’s position at Villa Park but in the end, the job went to Ron Atkinson.
Two more seasons passed with Sheffield United finishing 9th in 1991-92 and 14th a year later in the first season of the Premier League whilst also reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup.
1993-94 was more of a struggle, with the club struggling once more against relegation for a lot of the season. Come the final day of the season and Sheffield United needed to gain at least a point away to Chelsea who had nothing to play for.
Leading 2-1 with 15 minutes to go, a point would indeed have proved sufficient to have kept the Blades up at the expense of Ipswich. Unfortunately, a Mark Stein equaliser on 75 minutes and a further goal from the same player 30 seconds from time condemned Sheffield United to a 3-2 defeat and a return to the second flight after four years.
Years later Bassett wrote about the events at Stamford Bridge in his autobiography. In a chapter titled simply: “Robbed”, he detailed how Everton had started the day third from bottom needing to beat Wimbledon to stay up. After falling 2-0 behind, the Toffees staged a miraculous second-half comeback to win 3-2. Pointedly, Bassett describes this Goodison Park clash as one that was later to come under suspicion in the Grobbelaar/Segars/Fashanu bribery scandal.
Bassett was unable to secure promotion with Sheffield United the next season, finishing eight back in the First Division, and left the club in December 1995.
To Selhurst Park at Last
Once again, Dave Bassett did not stay unemployed for long and in January 1996 he finally made the trip to Selhurst Park to complete the journey he had aborted a dozen years earlier. Inheriting a side in 12th position in the First Division, Bassett inspired his charges on a run that took the club to the very brink of automatic promotion before a late defeat at the hands of promotion rivals Derby County saw the side consigned to the play-offs.
Charlton were overcome in the semi-final to set up a winner-take-all final against Leicester at Wembley. When Andy Roberts scored to put Palace ahead after quarter of an hour the omens looked good. An hour later and the score remained 1-0 with Bassett mentally counting down the minutes to his seventh promotion. It was not to be, though, as a Garry Parker penalty forced extra-time and then with seconds to go before a penalty shoot-out, Leicester’s Steve Claridge scored the goal that broke Palace’s hearts.
Early the following season Bassett was once again approached by Manchester City to take over at Maine Road. By now the club was in the control of former player Francis Lee who was keen on appointing Bassett. After thinking things through, Bassett decided he wasn’t sure about working with Lee and elected to stay with Crystal Palace.
Into the Forest
The future was looking bright for Bassett and Palace together and so it came as a shock when he left the club the following March with the club once more heading for the play-offs. That he was moving back into the top flight was no surprise, but that it wasn’t as a manager was. Nottingham Forest had earlier in the season sacked manager Frank Clark and replaced him with Stuart Pearce as player-manager.
After an initial bounce in fortunes, Forest had slipped back again and so Bassett was approached to take over as General Manager with Pearce still being responsible for team selection and tactics.
The double act was not a successful one and Forest were relegated at the end of the season when Pearce left the club to go to Newcastle as a player. In his stead, Bassett was appointed manager.
So it came to pass that in 1997-98 Bassett found himself once more outside the top division planning a promotion campaign. A tremendous campaign resulted in Forest winning the First Division title with 94 points, three ahead of Middlesbrough.
This was to prove to be Basset’s last success in football for the following season, 1998-99, was as disastrous as 1997-98 had been excellent. Disputes with players were said to have played a part as Forest started the season terribly and remained rooted to the bottom of the table pretty much all season. Striker Pierre van Hooijdonk went on strike at one point in the season, and with morale at an all-time low, Bassett was sacked in January 1999.
Next stop was Oakwell and a spell as Barnsley manager. 1999-00 saw Bassett back at Wembley as Barnsley met Ipswich Town in the play-off final with a place in the Premiership at stake. Despite going ahead in the game, Barnsley eventually succumbed by a 4-2 scoreline and Bassett left the club the following December.
One year was then spent firefighting as the manager at Leicester City trying and failing to keep the side in the Premier League before handing over the reins to Mickey Adams and becoming Director of Football. It was Bassett’s last full-time position as a manager but he was to enjoy further caretaker spells at Leicester and Southampton, and further assistant and consultancy roles at Watford, Leeds and Sheffield United.
Now, more than fifteen years since his last full-time role as a manager, Bassett is remembered perhaps a little unfairly as being a proponent of ‘route-one’ football. There was a lot more to his tactics and man-management skills than that as his record of seven promotions would attest.