Harry's passing game

A rebuilt Palace want to shine in the First Division play-off final, says Clive White
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The Independent Online
Now which footballing purist do you think made the following remark? "Charlton played very direct. They missed out the midfield and just tried to hit Leaburn all the time and play their football in the final third. And of course the surface didn't help our passing game, either."

Roy Evans? After all, Liverpool did struggle somewhat to beat the Valiants in an FA Cup tie this season. No. Then it must be David Pleat, after Charlton knocked Sheffield Wednesday out of the competition in an earlier round. Wrong again. It was Dave Bassett. Yes, old up and at 'em "Harry" Bassett, after Crystal Palace had won a tense second leg in the play-offs to qualify for today's First Division final against Leicester.

You would have thought there was about as much chance of hearing Bassett talk in those terms about the opposition as of Vinnie Jones being dropped for lack of aggression. But, believe it or not, the long-ball disciple of Graham Taylor has moved on, not that many have not made it difficult for him to. Particularly the media, who specialise in pigeon-holing. "I was led to believe that Bassett wasn't the ideal manager when I was being linked to jobs at Wolves and Leicester," said the man himself. "They said 'Bassett's a long-ball manager, we don't want him here,' which is ludicrous. If you've been in the game as long as I have you can't play just one way, but of course you get tarred with a certain brush."

Palace's football this season has been in stark contrast to the more direct method introduced by Alan Smith under Steve Coppell. Bassett is neither daft nor vain enough to pretend that Palace's success this season is entirely down to him - their form had begun to improve before he arrived in February - but he has probably played a crucial role in keeping the show on the road. "People love to hate Ron [Noades]," Bassett said, "but, to give him credit, he did put his hand up and say the system of two coaches and a technical director wasn't working. It may well be that I just steadied the ship."

Whatever Bassett's contribution since his arrival at the helm there is certainly no doubting the parts played down in the engine room by Andy Roberts and Ray Houghton, who scored the goal which sealed their semi- final victory. A few sceptics must have wondered whether the former Liverpool midfielder had just come to coast when Smith paid pounds 300,000 for him prior to last season's deadline.

"When I arrived I was led to believe he hadn't played particularly well, but I've got to say that in the 23 games he's played for me he's done extremely well," Bassett said. "He was very disappointed about Palace's relegation. It was the first time he's had to play outside the top division in 10 years and so he's got his bit up. He wants to get back there."

Doubtless there are a few in the Filbert Street camp who would echo those sentiments. And then there's the likes of Scott Taylor, who narrowly missed out on promotion to the big time with Reading in last season's play-off final. As for the exciting new discovery Emile Heskey, some believe he will be playing in the Premiership next season whatever the outcome today.

Until he undertook an apprenticeship in management Martin O'Neill, the manager, had always played at the highest level. It may have taken him a while to pick up the scent after succeeding Mark McGhee in mid-season but by the end of it he had the Foxes hounding the leaders with a run which originated from two wins in the same week at rivals Charlton and Palace.

Bassett has spent the majority of his own managerial career, if not his playing one, at the top, albeit often by just scraping by. Typically, for today's game he finds his resources stretched and may have to field 19-year-old Robert Quinn, his fourth- choice central defender, for the injured Leif Anderson.

"It's always been my ambition to manage a big club but the Bassett tag is that 'he's a good one to get if you're struggling against relegation or want promotion.'

"It's never 'let Harry try to win us the Cup or the Premier League'. The game's lost its dream for many of the smaller clubs, due to the way money dominates nowadays, but you live in hope.

"Going to Wembley is a marvellous, great occasion. But we are going there for one reason only and that is to win."

With style, naturally.