Sunday, 29 April 2018

1987/88: Dave Bassett - A season to forget

There is a chance that Mark Hughes may be involved with two relegated clubs this season. Dave Bassett knows how that feels after his terrible 1987/88 campaign.

If 1992 was the annus horribilis for Queen Elizabeth II, then there can be no doubting the comparable period of time for Dave Bassett. Leading Wimbledon from the basement of the Football League to sixth place in Division One in six years, Bassett’s star was rising. But all that was about to change.

To be in charge of one club that gets relegated is unfortunate, but to be involved with two relegation campaigns in the same season is just embarrassing. Sadly, that is the fate that befell Bassett during the 1987/88 season. With Watford and Sheffield United experiencing that sinking feeling, Bassett must have considered if he had made the right decision in leaving Wimbledon.   

After one too many disputes with Wimbledon owner Sam Hammam, Bassett resigned as manager of the club, and was immediately a man in demand. Linked with the vacant posts at Aston Villa and Manchester City, it would take the activation of the managerial merry-go-round to lead Bassett to Watford. When Elton John gave Aston Villa permission to speak to Graham Taylor, Watford’s chairman moved quickly for his man. Perhaps a little too quickly.

Choosing not to discuss the approach with his fellow board members, John drove to Bassett’s house – just five miles from Vicarage Road – and waited for him to return from the FA Cup final. “Dave and I hit it off immediately. I talked to him for about an hour and I knew straight away he was the man I wanted as Watford's next manager.”

“It hardly took him time to sell me the club,” Bassett admitted. “Now it's a different challenge for me because the Watford playing staff and set-up is in perfect nick.” On the face of it, the appointment looked sound. Alas, as with Clough at Leeds and Moyes at Manchester United, Bassett would discover that replacing a club legend is never easy.

In his autobiography, Tony Coton describes the power that Taylor held at the club. “Graham had gained so much control over everything at Vicarage Road that the entire club worked for him. His influence was in every nook and cranny and once we lost that guiding light we were hurtling headlong towards trouble.”

Bassett’s cause was not helped when John Barnes’ rumoured move to Liverpool went through, but the manager did himself no favours from day one. “Dave tried to change too much too soon and we all paid the price,” Coton reveals. “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Taylor’s teams had been accused of being long-ball, route one merchants. Coton argues that this was a myth, and that his former boss had always instructed balls to be delivered with a purpose, and not just lumped forwards.

All this was to change under Bassett, though. “We were instructed to smash the ball forward and chase teams down,” Coton continues. “It was a joyless way to play football and Dave's inability to replace those that couldn't or wouldn't fit in with his philosophy with players of a similar quality proved to be his downfall.”

In came players such as Mark Morris, Trevor Senior, and Glyn Hodges, with Mark Falco, Kevin Richardson, Richard Hill, and David Bardsley departing. Victory over Bassett’s old club Wimbledon was a perfect start to the new regime. But the honeymoon period soon disappeared as the relationship headed towards a messy divorce.

A lack of goals from Senior would see him become a target for the boo boys, and it didn’t take too long for the fans’ ire to focus on Bassett. Previously free-scoring under Taylor, the team now struggled to find the back of the net. The first twelve league matches would see eight defeats and a paltry six goals scored.

Wins over Charlton and Arsenal in November lifted the mood slightly, yet even then Bassett’s job security looked shaky with news breaking that Elton John was trying to sell his stake in the club to Robert Maxwell’s British Printing Communications Corporation. The Football League refused to sanction the takeover, and Bassett would then receive a vote of confidence from the board. We all know that never ends well.

Four defeats in December and January – including a derby defeat at home to Luton – saw the end of eight unhappy months for Bassett and Watford. Sacked prior to an FA Cup third round replay at Hull, Bassett left the club rooted to the bottom of the table, a situation that new manager Steve Harrison could not fix. At the end of the season, Watford’s five year stay in the top flight was over.

“There's no animosity on my part and I want to see Watford do well,” Bassett explained after his departure, before having a dig at the fans. “I felt I had got the team on my side. But even if we had won the next four games, then lost the next two the anti-Bassett feeling among the supporters would have emerged again.”

Despite his difficult spell at Watford, it didn’t take long for Bassett to get back into management. Appointed Sheffield United boss just ten days after leaving Watford, the Blades were hovering dangerously close to the Second Division relegation zone. “I am not a magician,” Bassett announced on taking the job. “I don’t have a magic wand to enable me to walk into Sheffield and say: ‘Right, we’re going up’.”

Never mind going up, Bassett had a task ahead of him simply to keep his new club in Division Two. Defeats in his first two league matches didn’t bode well, but back to back wins at least kept the club’s head above water. Yet six losses in the next seven, including 5-0 and 6-0 thrashings at Leeds and Middlesbrough respectively, plunged Bassett towards the basement of the table for the second time in the campaign.

Bassett had reinforced the squad, signing Tony Agana and Peter Hetherston from Watford, Wally Downes from Wimbledon, and bringing in goalkeeper Graham Benstead on loan. Sadly, it could not prevent the club from slipping into the relegation play-off spot come the end of the season. A two-leg semi-final against Bristol City, who had finished 5th in Division Three, awaited.

Bassett must have wondered if the world was against him in May 1988. The day after Wimbledon had won the FA Cup, their former manager saw his latest club lose 1-0 at Ashton Gate. A 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane three days later gave Bassett the unenviable tag of a manager who had been in charge of two teams relegated in the same season.

Fortunately, things could only get better, with Bassett and Sheffield United bouncing back. Consecutive promotions helped to heal the scars of the drop into Division Three, restored the reputation of Dave Bassett, and made him a legend in the red and white half of the Steel City. Possibly best not to mention his name in certain parts of Hertfordshire, though.

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