Football: Bassett hounded by bad memories

FOOTBALL: Despite enduring shattering disappointments with Sheffield United and with his current club at Wembley last summer, Crystal Palace's ebullient manager is still up for the fight. Glenn Moore reports
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Opinions are divided on Dave Bassett. As one manager said recently: "Some people think: `That Dave Bassett, he's a good manager. He took Wimbledon from the Fourth Division to the First Division.' But other people say: `Nah, he's rubbish. His teams play all that long-ball bollocks'."

Aficionados of Bassett-speak might have guessed already that the speaker was Bassett himself earlier this month. He was just the same when we met at Crystal Palace's Mitcham training ground this week: uncomplicated, unrepentant and, at present, under-achieving.

It is 16 years this weekend since Bassett took up management and, after six promotions, he might have expected to be in the Premiership. Had Palace, rather than Leicester, scored in the last minute of extra-time in last season's play-off final, he would be. Instead he has to be content with managing a Palace side which, having scored goals by the half-dozen in the autumn, is now slipping in the First Division promotion race. One win in the last 10 matches has left them languishing in eighth place.

Today, however, the league is set aside as Palace visit Leeds for an FA Cup third-round replay. For a predominantly young team it will be a test of character, but they need look no further than Bassett for inspiration. It was at Elland Road, 22 years ago today, that Bassett had a leading role in one of the great FA Cup ties.

Leeds were then the League champions, Wimbledon were in the Southern [now Dr Martens] League. They had already won at Burnley, then of the old First Division, with Bassett marking Leighton James - "he got kicked up in the air a few times". Then they held Leeds in front of 46,230.

"This is the first time I've been back there in a cup tie," Bassett said. "It was a great atmosphere, intense but enjoyable, even if our 200 fans were outnumbered. It was one of those moments you look back on as a non- League player."

After 82 minutes of increasingly physical stalemate, Bassett brought down Eddie Gray in the box - "a perfectly legitimate tackle, about neck high. Incredibly the ref gave it," he said. "Dickie Guy saved and it made him famous," he added, "but he never even thanked me. He went on Match of the Day, pocketed a pounds 500 appearance fee, and kept it."

They replayed at Selhurst Park in front of 45,701. If anything, this game was even naughtier, Leeds having been upset by some of Wimbledon's post-match quotes. There was a huge punch-up after about 15 minutes and later on Bassett copped an elbow from Joe Jordan - "I deserved it, I flew off at the mouth once too often." He and Jordan are the only two still involved in League management from that tie.

"They were two very physical games. They had [Johnny] Giles, [Billy] Bremner and [Terry] Yorath in midfield, and there was a bit of action going on, a bit of kicking. But you live by the sword, you die by it. You gave it, you took it."

This time Bassett gave away an own-goal. "It was a shot from Giles. It was not a great one and I heard Dickie call. I tried to get out of the way but it hit me on the kneecap."

The modern Leeds are no angels - witness the mass protest that precipitated Bruce Dyer's penalty miss in the last minute of the first match. But Palace, too, have had a couple of dust-ups recently, a brawl at Norwich which is the subject of an FA inquiry and some argy-bargy between team-mates Andy Roberts and Dean Gordon last Saturday.

"Sometimes people say `your side don't show enough passion', then when they do it's `hold on'," Bassett said. "Andy's upset, Dean's upset, there's a few words and for a few moment it's a bit tricky, but they didn't whack one another. It's like when you're married, your missus has a go at you and sometimes you snap. That's human nature, you're not going to change that.

"At Norwich it was two minutes from the end and there was a skirmish. There was punching and shoving but several players were trying to break it up. No one walked away with a cut eye or claret all over them. Football's an emotional game.

"As for Leeds, well, the referee was a bit indecisive but Bruce had already scored one. To be honest, I've always maintained if ever a side of mine got two penalties in a game I would change the penalty taker - but that is the first time it has happened and I'd forgotten about it.

"I thought we played well the first game. Leeds started very well, they out-muscled us, then after 20 minutes we started to come to terms with it. I thought we dominated the second half and deserved to win. It's intimidating up there, but it's a winnable game."

Bit of a shock, that last paragraph - how often has a "Harry" Bassett side been "muscled-out"? Bassett's teams have usually mirrored a playing career summed up by the reference in Wimbledon - A Complete Record, to Bassett being "the worst disciplined player". This in a season in which Wimbledon once had so many suspensions they could not raise a substitute.

The Norwich brawl apart, things have changed. When Bassett arrived at Selhurst, many Palace supporters feared the neat passing side developed by Ray Lewington would be sacrificed for a long-ball game.

"A reputation goes before you," Bassett said. "It amazes me that people think: `He can only play one way'. When I first took over at Wimbledon in the Fourth Division we played the sweeper system. We passed the ball about. I changed the tactics because I felt it would suit us better - and so it proved.

"You adapt. I couldn't play long-ball with these players if I wanted to, they are not equipped for it.

"Not that there's anything wrong with it. Why not be proud of what you're doing, if you're being successful and the fans are happy? People say it's not in vogue now but there are several sides playing it. Wimbledon still play long ball and are very successful with it, Leeds play long ball.

"If the fans aren't happy you have to adapt it, but who's to say whether you should play with sweepers, a back four, a long ball game, passing through midfield. There's no one set plan that is successful; if there was everybody would do it."

Bassett, who looks considerably younger than his 52 years, left Wimbledon in 1987 and, after an unhappy spell at Watford, spent eight years with Sheffield United. It was there he suffered his worst experience in management when United were relegated in injury time in May 1994.

It happened at Stamford Bridge and I recall the atmosphere at the press conference being akin to that at an unexpected funeral. Bassett, whose team had lost 3-2 after being 2-1 up with 15 minutes left, seemed a broken man. "I was devastated. You want to go and hide. That [press conference] was the hardest thing in the world to do, but you can't sulk, it's part of your job. It was a bitter pill to swallow, if Chelsea had beat us 3-0 I'd have had no complaints... then there was the other results."

One of them was Everton's comeback from 2-0 down to beat Wimbledon 3- 2. The match is one of those at the centre of the current Grobbelaar-Fashanu- Segers match-fixing bribery case and Bassett added: "Reading about that keeps reminding me. You think: `If Everton had drawn 2-2, they'd have gone down'. That result affected people's lives, it changed my life at Sheffield United. It affected players and the club.

"I can understand how Kevin Keegan feels, the disappointment that he didn't win the title last year when he must have thought he was there. With hindsight, I was a zombie for a year afterwards. I thought I was there but I wasn't. I should have left Sheffield and started again."

Steve Claridge's last-minute goal at Wembley last year re-opened the wound. "I thought: `What have I done to deserve this again?' I've had a few. Leeds the other night, the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley with Sheffield United when Mark Bright scored against us with three minutes left in extra- time. But in the Amateur Cup [his first Wembley visit, in 1974 with Walton & Hersham] we won with two minutes left.

"I wasn't sure how the players would react to last year, but they are all young. I don't think they expected to make the play-offs. They all enjoyed playing at Wembley and I could see straight away pre-season that they had got over it and that helped me. I thought: `Come on, Harry, no point in feeling sorry for yourself'."

There has never been much danger of that. Less than half-a-dozen current managers have been doing it longer than Bassett. He is a believer in loyalty and, over the years, has rejected several offers, most recently from Manchester City. Yet he remains ambitious and, if Palace fail to realise their potential, Bassett's adoption of the passing game may help him achieve his.