Dave Bassett has countless stories to tell. They are locked in his vault and each one is always ready to be revealed. All you have to do is ask. When you come around to the topic of his Nottingham Forest spell, however, it is clear to see that the 75-year-old is still hurt by what happened.
“He was a selfish individual who was only concerned with himself,” Bassett pointedly says. If you know of the Bassett-Forest saga from the 1998-99 season, then you know who he is talking about. After finishing third in the 1998 World Cup with the Netherlands, Pierre van Hooijdonk went on strike.
“He thought he was bigger than he was. Unfortunately for me, his agent and one of our directors, Irving Scholar, pounded to what he wanted.”
The former Dutch international striker protested the club’s unwillingness to ‘buy big’ after their promotion to the Premier League and, according to his former manager, because he felt he was in the same ‘class’ as the De Boer brothers. From the way Bassett describes the events from his point of view, you can sense he feels betrayed by van Hooijdonk’s strike – even 22 years on.
Though an additional problem coincided with Van Hooijdonk’s strike. Nottingham Forest’s chaotic ownership directly impacted the Dutchman’s refusal to leave his home in the Netherlands.
“We were going to push on,” Bassett says, “but then the board promised money they couldn’t afford. They went on the AIM market and their shares went all up the creek. All of a sudden, from giving me money to develop the team further, they wanted me to sell players. It ended up with Campbell being sold to a team in Turkey, Colin Cooper going to Middlesbrough, and Van Hooijdonk sitting on his fat arse in Holland.
“Irving Scholar and the football club decided to sell Kevin Campbell when I was on holiday when I didn’t want to sell Kevin Campbell. In hindsight, I should have resigned there and then, but I didn’t. I was advised to carry on because it looked like I was throwing my dolls out the pram.
“The spirit was there but the worst thing happened. We were battling, Pierre came back, and the board wanted me to play him. I shouldn’t have done. The players weren’t having him. I suffered and I got the sack. They thought Ron Atkinson would come in and be able to applicate him. Ron had this reputation of a good bloke. Ron then found out what a bleeding disgrace and a complete prick of a man [Van Hooijdonk was].”
He added, “It fucked the club up. I knew my time was there. I didn’t want him back. The players knew I didn’t want him back. I couldn’t pretend otherwise. Some of the boys were okay, but a lot of them also felt he caught them [in it]. He wasn’t a team player. He only cared about himself. He was rich enough. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the backing of the board to say, ‘you can come back but we are going to sell you’. We did have an offer from Leeds, but they turned down £6 million.”
The saga ended in 1999 when Bassett was sacked in January and Van Hooijdonk was sold to Vitesse Arnhem for £3.5m in the summer. Bassett believes that if the club cashed-in on the striker and used the money to spend on other players, they could have stayed up. Instead, Forest’s 1998-99 campaign was the last time they had been in the top division.
“They got what they deserved, Forest. The direction from the top and the board of directors at Forest at that stage – Nigel Ray, Irving Scholar, and that mob – doing the shares, they cocked it up for the club. They have never been in the Premier League since. That is what happens when you don’t run the club properly. Forest have never been run properly since. It is bad management. It is a shame for the fans. They have been loyal, and they have been sold down the river by the custodians of the club.”
Questions could be asked surrounding Bassett’s ability to manage the situation. The LMA Hall of Famer even admitted to BBC Nottingham Sport in 2016 that he should have travelled to the Netherlands to find a mutual agreement. However, throughout his career, Bassett believes fate guided him.
“My man-management with my personality is me. Fate was my mentor. I didn’t model myself on anyone. I didn’t want to be anybody. I was Dave Bassett. That was the way I was. I had imperfections as well. I enjoyed people and I got on well with them. I thought my management was the way.
“A lot of people said to me that the way I managed was dangerous. Well, I didn’t think it was dangerous. I thought it was quite natural. Obviously, certain people wouldn’t want to manage the same way I manage, and I wouldn’t want to manage their way.
“I never ever thought I would want to be like Brian Clough or anybody. I respected people who were good managers, but I didn’t sit here with a mirror trying to pretend to be them. I am natural. Hopefully, I learnt from the mistakes I made and got on with the job. I got to look at it like, if I lasted 1000 games, I must have had some man-management skills.”
Dave Bassett began his coaching career at Wimbledon as player-coach to Allen Batsford. He was then offered the managerial role but declined it because he felt he wasn’t ready. He gathered greater experience as assistant manager during Dario Gradi’s three-year spell at Wimbledon.
In 1981, Bassett’s prophetic patient journey to becoming Wimbledon’s manager concluded when Ron Noades bought Crystal palace and Gradi followed him.
Bassett’s management was built on his own instincts. He did not read books on leadership and harness his skills in other dimensions that other managers and coaches may feel were necessary. Instead, he was a believer in himself and relied upon his personality to lead.
“You either become a leader or you don’t. If you’re at the top, you have to build that spirit. You build it through your own personality. You’ve got to get the players on board; get them to show their personality, character, to let them know there is discipline but also fun and what is enjoyable.
“A season is a long time. You are working together. Like anybody else, you get on one another’s nerves which is quite normal for a human being; but at the same time, you have to respect one another and work together. You have to make sure you all bond and pull in the same direction.
“You might not agree with one another, but you’ve got to decide you want to be successful, and you are going to be successful. You can see the vision and the picture of where you want to go. You can dream and dreams can come true sometimes.”
Bassett’s ability to build a squad from nothing and lead from the front birthed the Wimbledon dream. He integrated youth players like Glyn Hodges, Paul Fishenden, Wally Downes and Kevin Gage. He also made a remarkable profit on Steve Galliers. They originally bought him for £5,000, sold him to Palace for £65,000 and then brought him back for £15,000.
Wimbledon’s meteoric rise from Fourth Division in January 1981 – when Bassett accepted the management role – to finishing sixth in the First Division in 1987 drew a lot of attention for their on-the-field and off-the-field antics. Bassett was the ultimate architect behind the ‘Crazy Gang’.
“I encouraged it!” Bassett said. “I encouraged the famous spirit and to enjoy it. To have a good laugh. We don’t need to be serious all the time. There is a time when you are working. When you are training and playing it is serious. In between, you have fun and do some mickey-taking. It was all part of creating a bond between one another. You came to work, and you enjoyed it.
“We used to start training at 10:30 am and they had to be in by 10:00 am, but most of them were there by 9:15 am. They enjoyed coming in having a coffee, a bit of toast, banter, and a good laugh. After training they didn’t clear straight away, one or two would from time to time, but generally, they would have a snack.
“Some would go and play golf and go out. I encouraged them to go out and enjoy themselves. I wasn’t necessarily with them at all. I encouraged them to build the spirit. The majority did. Some were into it more than others. They all pulled in that direction. They knew where they were going, and it became a clan. We all played together and wanted the same things – we wanted success.”
However, Bassett is unsure whether modern-day players would buy into that type of culture he prompted at Wimbledon.
“Millionaire players probably wouldn’t want to do that. I’m not saying they don’t, it is a different cup of tea. They need spirit. Chris Wilder has built spirit at Sheffield United. He has built a side that has spirit and pulls together.
“An individual can help a team and get them to the next stage if he is good and mixes with the players. He is just an individual, but it is a team game at the end of the day. You got to understand one another.
“Everyone has a different job in the team. It is like making a car or an aeroplane. Everybody has different jobs to their components. They do that and you respect one another for what they do. You realise without the combination of everyone else doing their job properly, enjoying it and wanting to do it, you don’t succeed.”
Over the course of 21 years, Bassett journeyed through the football leagues and reached 980 competitive matches with seven clubs: Wimbledon, Watford, Sheffield United, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, and Leicester City.
Bassett’s football experience led him to conclude in his autobiography, Dave Bassett: Settling the Score, that the managerial role is ‘the loneliest job in town, the most fulfilling and the most frustrating’. Without hesitation, he broke down the position’s genetic makeup.
“The buck stops with you. You have all the decisions. It can be a lonely situation. You have people around you that trust you, care for you and care for themselves, but sometimes you are responsible for those decisions. It is like everything; you want to make the right decision. Sometimes you don’t. you have to deal with it yourself.
“At the same time, there can be the highs of fantastic adrenalin of winning a game. It is like a drug. When you win, you take a drug. When you lose, you are getting withdrawal symptoms. You want the next win. You can have spells where you don’t win for weeks, the pressure builds up and the tension.
“The fans expect you to produce. They have so much belief in you, or they want to have the belief in you, that you feel an obligation. A lot of these people in top companies suffer from pressure but they don’t actually have 30,000 or 20,000 seeing the team play. If they make some bad decisions in a company, it doesn’t become evident straight away.
“It can be frustrating. You can have days where you think you’ve played well, you’ve had enough chances, but you lose 1-0. You think, ‘where is the justice there?’. We were the better team. That is just the way it is. You have taken it on the chin. There are other times where you played crap and you win 1-0. You have to remember those and don’t think the world is against you all the time.
“It can affect you [the frustration]. Some managers won’t go out on a Saturday night. In my 1000 games, five times I perhaps said, ‘I don’t feel like going out’. Me and my wife went out every Saturday night. It wasn’t her fault or the kids. I might be swearing on the way home in the car, but when I walk through the door, the kids don’t want to see you with the hump, and we went out.
“I might wake up at 5 o‘clock in the morning thinking about it, but I never let it ruin our relationship. I believe that is completely unfair. I believe that is selfish. You should be able to manage that. As soon as we drove up to the house, that’s it, switch off.”
Bassett is now beyond this, though he still craves the football managerial drug that possessed his life for more than two decades. He has since enjoyed a consultancy role at Sheffield United and has watched his former player, Chris Wilder, take Sheffield United from League One to challenging for European qualification in the Premier League.
“I’m pleased for him. I recommended him for the job. I recommended him a year before, but they decided to go with Nigel Adkins. I wanted him. After he lost his first five games, I thought ‘oh bloody hell they won’t ask me again!’”
But Bassett is never afraid to offer his stance on the modern game, especially on a present-day football position that, he believes, has been executed poorly: Director of Football. Bassett held the position at Leicester for close to two-years between 2002 and 2004.
“I think it is a good job, but I don’t think it’s used properly. The Director of Football, in my opinion, should be on the board. He should be an expert on football. The people on the board – who aren’t particularly experts in football but maybe business – he is protecting them and advising them for what to do.
“He is also there to help the management and explain to the manager that he has a job to do. There are budgets and the manager are not going to spend money willy-nilly that might not be there. The manager can think, ‘well, it doesn’t matter if the club goes bankrupt years down the road or after I’ve left because I’ve blown the money, well, it isn’t my money.’
“You got to make sure this runs like a business and a manager knows where you are. You are there to help the manager. The manager has got to have the final decision, but you’ve got to be able to work with the board.
“But a lot of the directors look like they are in recruitment as well. It is obvious a lot of clubs bring in players that the manager doesn’t necessarily want. That is futile. It happened to me twice at Nottingham Forest. I wasn’t having someone picking my players. I got to play and work with them.
“It has happened so long in Italy and Spain and other countries; these technical directors and recruitment directors are bringing in players. I don’t mind if I am the manager. It will be quite easy for me to say, ‘I like that player, can you go and get him.’ Then I don’t need to worry about all the negotiations side. I’ll be quite happy for someone to sit down with an agent for ages, arguing and all that.
“A Director of Football can be good, but people don’t understand it. There have been too many people criticise it in the past. A lot of managers think it is a threat. You’re not there as a threat, you’re a football director there to help.”
He added, “Too many people have too much say now. Too many people working, too many opinions. When you have a load of opinions, everything is going round and there is nonsense.
“I don’t subscribe to you losing the players in the dressing room; you lose the players who aren’t in the team. That is all that happens. Those who aren’t in the team, and if they are vocal, snidey which a lot of them can be, then they are going to be the ones that moan. The ones who are playing aren’t moaning.”