Football: FA Cup Countdown: Bassett's ambition can beat handicap: Sheffield United's manager is dreaming of reaching Wembley on a shoestring. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
'ARRY was not 'appy. 'Bleedin' ear infection,' he said. 'Giving me terrible stick.' So, too, were his players. 'Makes a change from him giving us earache,' chuckled Dorian Gray, alias Alan Cork.

Dave 'Harry' Bassett and his Sheffield United team are big on banter - the manifestation of a healthy esprit. The young Blades are not quite as crazy as Bassett's old gang at Wimbledon, but there is enough of the us-against-the- world mentality for an ordinary side to 'do' anyone when roused. Ask Manchester United. Or Tottenham.

Sheffield's stirring 2-1 victory in the fifth round removed the more celebrated United from the FA Cup, dashing another Double dream. A one-off? Hardly. Their 6-0 demolition of Spurs in midweek brings them to today's quarter-final, at Blackburn, with confidence brimming.

If the tie was at Bramall Lane, where Manchester United, Oldham and Tottenham have fallen in quick succession, it would be a home banker. Away, though, Bassett's assortment of free transfer cast-offs and bargain buys have won just once, at Chelsea, in their last 16 attempts.

So whence the confidence? Scoring six on Tuesday did morale no harm and further encouragement came off the field, with the timely resolution of a wrangle between the directors and the previous chairman, Reg Brealey.

The power struggle went Brealey's way, which is good news for Bassett, in the sense that the reconstituted board will have enough financial muscle to do what was beyond their predecessors, and make funds available to strengthen a threadbare squad.

If it happens before the transfer deadline, which is the intention, the managerial reaction will be: About time too.

If the money is not forthcoming, United will be hard pressed to hold Bassett to a contract he deems to have been invalidated by the club's change of ownership.

In five years in South Yorkshire he has done a Wimbledon all over again, taking an impoverished team from the old Third Division to the new Premier League, but he is wearying of shoestring management and the annual relegation battle, and yearns for the chance to compete with the best on equal terms.

'The league is a handicap race,' he said. 'If you look at the advantages the big clubs have, they've got more money to spend on transfers, they can pay more in wages and they get better treatment from referees. They get more penalties, more corners, more free-kicks and less bookings and players sent off.

'When teams like Southampton, Coventry, Wimbledon, Sheffield United and Oldham play the Arsenals, Manchester Uniteds and Liverpools, we get more free- kicks given against us than they do for the same challenges. We've had one penalty in 78 games - that's two years next month. I know we've had valid claims refused in that time.

'Referees can be intimidated by the crowd when they go to the big clubs, and I think they come into certain games with preconceived ideas. I'm not saying referees come to us thinking: 'I've got to give free- kicks against Dave Bassett's team'. I think it's a subconscious thing. They read the papers and listen to the talking media and pay too much attention to all that.'

Get the violin out, 'Harry'. He laughs. 'All I'm saying is that the figures - the crime count at the end of the season - is not a true reflection of what goes on. I know we're not going to change that. Sheffield United have got to live with it.'

With or without Bassett. He might have gone to Sunderland when they sacked Malcolm Crosby, but their approach smacked of frying pans and fires, and when he does leave Sheffield it will be for a club with a bank balance to match all the big talk.

He was born in Wembley, but has not been back since captaining Walton and Hersham to victory in the Amateur Cup final, 20 years ago, and more recently, the old stadium has been the source of his greatest regret.

'I can't forget the fact that Wimbledon won the FA Cup the year after I left, with what was more or less my team. I could have been part of that, but my relationship with Sam Hammam (Wimbledon's owner) had deteriorated, and I had to go. I'm delighted they won the Cup, but I wasn't there, and I would have loved to have shared that experience with them.'

Instead, and to his increasing frustration, Bassett has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals.

'I'm ambitious,' he said. 'I want to get to Wembley and I want to be in Europe. I don't want to be scrapping and scraping for ever. I don't want to be known, always, as a trouble-shooter. I've got that reputation, but it's because I've never been given the chance to become anything else.

'Clubs think: 'We're in the shit, send for Harry. He'll dig us out.' I don't mind that, but I'd like to be given three million quid to spend, and see what I could achieve then. It might be bugger all, but it would be nice to find out.'

With United, he has had pounds 2m in five years. 'Not a lot, is it, when you consider what we're competing against. I know it's not easy for the club, but we have reached the point where we need to take the next step forward.

'I've taken it as far as I can, getting the likes of Adrian Littlejohn and Charlie Hartfield for nothing. There's nothing wrong with doing that, but there comes a time when, if you want to compete with the big boys, you've got to find some extra money for better players.

'I'm not saying Sheffield United should spend pounds 3m a year, but they have to be prepared to spend pounds 700,000 to pounds 1m each season if they want to stay in the Premier League.'

It is no mystery to Bassett why relegation is beckoning again, as it has every year since the club's return to the top division, in 1990.

'We needed to strengthen the squad with a couple of good players in the summer, but the financial position wouldn't allow me to do it. We can't do what Sheffield Wednesday did when they bought Waddle for a million quid. We are getting better, gradually, but the fact is that we're at the bottom end of the Premier League, and deserve to be.'

Brian Deane, the England striker, probably holds the key to the club's short-term future. Bassett fought hard to keep him last summer, and will fight the good fight again. If Deane was to leave, the manager might not be too far behind him.

'There was talk at the end of last season about whether we should sell Deano, and we made a positive decision to keep him because he would help us to stay in the Premier League. Sometimes, though, clubs like ours can't hang on to their best players.

'We've done well to keep him, and he's done well by us in not asking to leave, but we're vulnerable. If the big boys want your top man, eventually he'll want to go. Let's be fair, if Deano has got any ambition, he'll be thinking: 'If I go to a bigger club, I'll have a better chance of winning things, and better prospects of playing for England'. '

Deane's importance was never more evident than in the third round, when his hat-trick completed a hair-raising escape. United had been 2-0 down at home to Burnley, and came desperately close to going out of the Cup at the first hurdle.

Bassett summarises their progress as follows: 'That first game with Burnley was on a terrible, frozen pitch, and we were losing 2-0 with nine minutes to go. Glyn Hodges pulled one back, and Paul Beesley equalised in the last minute to get us a replay.

'We were a bit lucky to get a second chance, I suppose, but we deserved that equaliser. We'd hit the post and had shots cleared off the line. We went to Burnley and beat them 4-2, with Deano getting a hat- trick, and then Hartlepool came to our place, having just beaten Crystal Palace. They were flying at the time, full of confidence, but Corky scraped one in, and we won 1-0.'

Which brings us to Manchester United, and the cup-tie of the season. Bassett said at the time, and still maintains, that his team did not get the credit they deserved for an inspired performance, in the very best traditions of cup combat.

Ryan Giggs scored early, but David got off the floor to give Goliath a memorable whack in the eye, courtesy of Hodges' delightful lob.

'I was a bit upset by the reaction,' Bassett said. 'Some people referred to it as a Wimbledon performance, but we don't play like that. Because I'm the manager, it's the easy thing to say, but I felt sorry for the players when I read that stuff because we played well against United, and were good value for the result.'

Hodges has followed Bassett from Wimbledon to Sheffield, via Newcastle, Watford and Crystal Palace, without ever fulfilling his considerable potential. Lifted by the occasion, and an atmosphere which would have done justice to any final, he was outstanding.

Thirty next month, the Welsh international knows time is no longer his ally, and is at last applying his talents with due diligence.

'Hodges is a bit like Tony Currie in some ways,' Bassett said, knowing that there can be no higher praise among the red and white fraternity. 'He's an excellent player, and not as lazy or Jack the Lad as people paint him. I give him a bit of stick to keep him on his toes, and he's getting more consistent.'

On his day, Hodges can be a match-winner, as he proved to Mancunian despair. The same is true of that other enigmatic wanderer, Franz Carr, who opened the floodgates against Spurs, and of the pacy, powerful Deane. Unfortunately, Bassett says, their days are too infrequent.

'We haven't got one player who's had a good season. They've all had good games, but they haven't been consistent, which is why we're struggling in the League. If I was asked to pick my player of the season, I couldn't find one.

'They are good, honest boys, but sometimes I do question their attitude. They are a bit apprehensive away from home, and have little doubts, now and then, whether they are good enough. They expected to be doing better this season, and not doing so has definitely knocked some of them back.

'We know that on our day we're capable of beating anyone. We've got enough ability in the side, enough determination and enough character to do it. What we can't do is knit enough of those results together. We played well against Manchester United and Spurs and were shit against Wimbledon and Southampton. A good day always seems to be followed by a bad one.'

An ominous thought as they travel to Ewood Park on the back of that 6-0 win.

(Photograph omitted)