New rules in Harry's game Interview: Dave Bassett

Nottingham Forest's manager thought he had seen it all... then came Van Hooijdonk.
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The Independent Online
Dave Bassett contemplates the word conciliation and almost splutters over his words as they spew out. He appears in considerable danger of suffering from apoplexy as the subject turns to whether the Nottingham Forest manager might hold out an olive branch to Pierre van Hooijdonk? You gain the impression that he might consider a birch, only it wouldn't be offered as a gesture of comradeship.

The astute Londoner - the epithet "Harry" is derived from his father's name - had thought he had seen and heard it all since his career began as an uncompromisingly tough player with Hayes of the Athenian League, but nothing prepared him for how to deal with a professional footballer going on strike, albeit one whose brothers have kept the red flag flying in support of management. "I went away in July for 10 days and when I come back Kevin Campbell's on his way to Turkey and Van Hooijdonk decides he is more or less not going to play," recalls Bassett ruefully. "The wheel's starting to come off." It was followed by a head-on crash as the rebel Dutchman decided that striking meant forming a one-man picket line rather than being an integral part of a Forest forward line. And it has culminated with the club regarding Van Hooijdonk as the first write- off to be worth pounds 6m.

Bassett, a character who is to diplomatic correctness what Michael Winner is to directing love stories, continues with feeling: "Van Hooijdonk was moaning that the team wasn't being strengthened. Well, I felt the same, but I didn't start shouting my gob off and throwing my doll out of the pram. Sometimes you take a job and circumstances change. You just get on with it."

It has all been an illustration of how Harry's game has changed inexorably since those hazy, crazy days at Wimbledon which began nearly 18 years ago, times when all he had to contend with then were a few outrageous pranks, handling the likes of "Fash", "Lurch" and "Corky" and the gang, while defending his team against the anti-long ball lynch-mob mentality. Bassett, apart from the loss of a few more hairs on the receding hairline under that training ground woolly hat, which makes him look like a renegade gnome from the local garden centre, has scarcely altered a jot in the intervening years.

If there's been one thing he learned early on it was an understanding of how to prick an inflated ego. You suspect that he'd have happily turned a blind eye to the former Celtic man, who scored 29 league goals last season, finding his clothes cut to pieces after training or his kit bag full of flour - the typical Wimbledon response to a prima donna or "celebrity", as Bassett refers to players of his ilk. "They're the ones who think they are better than they are. Glyn Hodges was one at Wimbledon. He could be brilliant, but he could also be piss-poor. And Dennis Wise was too, although he's turned into a good player. They had warts but at least they knew they had to work. Van Hooijdonk's actions have been despicable. And when he goes around shouting about 'the coaching's not good, the tactics are wrong, the players are no good', how can you respect someone like that? Why should I be conciliatory?

"Obviously, the players are not happy either about his derogatory comments but I would expect them to all be professional and ignore their personal sentiments."

Indeed that is the stance he has taken over Irving Scholar, the Forest director of football, brokering Van Hooijdonk's restoration to the club, an act that might have caused a stand-off between manager and board in some quarters. But Bassett is a man who started out selling life insurance. He, more than most, knows that life is too short for such hostilities. His understandable ire has been assuaged by the realities of the situation, and he does not discount the possibility of the 28-year-old of Holland's France 98 squad performing for Forest again, although he remarks somewhat mischievously: "Hopefully he'd score goals. But as his Premiership record is one from eight games, at that rate he might have had one and a quarter goals by now if he'd been playing."

He adds: "I didn't want him back and the board are aware of that, but I have to be sensible and look at the overall picture. If I have pounds 55m in the bank I can say to myself: 'Do I let him rot or not?' and fight for the principle. If he is a pounds 6m asset and I am broke, then I think: 'Hold on.' That's the essence of life, isn't it? As soon as we get an acceptable offer we will take it, but until then we're paying him good wages and we are not going to cut off our nose to spite our face."

To many, Wimbledon remain a dollop of spilt gravy on the pristine dress shirt of the English Premiership. It has made a stain that Bassett has found hard to remove as he has moved on, via Watford, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace to Forest. Last season's promotion was the seventh time he has achieved that distinction with a club, and there have been sufficient chairmen who have developed a sweet tooth at the prospect of Bassett's sort of methods to make him a regular flavour of the month. Yet, as he agrees, others will forever taint him by association. "Obviously, I came up an unfashionable route with Wimbledon. At first everybody admired it, then they wanted to knock it, the long ball and the aggression, although we were no different from the Arsenals and Manchester Uniteds. The fantasy didn't work out as everybody expected and I ended up being the bloke blamed for ruining English football. I have always had that albatross to carry."

That has not been the only fabled creature he has experienced in close proximity. Another is perennially sitting on his shoulder squawking: "Eh, Yoong Man...". Even the City Ground reception is adorned with photographs of the 1998 First Division championship-winning side juxtaposed with images of the 1979 and 1980 European Cup victories.

"Forest's problem is that the expectation is higher than they can achieve," Bassett maintains. "Since those Brian Clough days when he did brilliantly they haven't got the crowds or been selling the merchandise. They lose their sense of realism at times. Hopefully, we can build a team that's capable of getting into Europe again, and who knows, we might nick a championship. You've got to believe that. We're not a million miles away."

Well no, but Forest aren't in the same neighbourhood as the elite financially either, and that fact is beginning to betray itself. Their elevation from the Nationwide allayed many fears about Bassett's methods, but indifferent results have left them second from bottom with two wins from 10 games. Last week, it was Liverpool and a 5-1 "tonking" as he puts it.

It doesn't get any easier today: Middlesbrough have flourished and the contrast between the two clubs could hardly be more acute. "Bryan Robson's got an excellent chairman in Steve Gibson, and he lets him use money as he wants. When Paul Merson decided he didn't want to play they got over pounds 6m for him so he's gone out and bought Colin Cooper from us, together with Brian Deane." Until Van Hooijdonk is sold, there will be no similar acquisitions by Bassett. Jean-Claude Darcheville, on loan from Rennes, has partly filled the vacuum created by Campbell and the fleeing Dutchman, along with Dougie Freedman from Wolves. "This season, I've brought in pounds 6.5m and only spent pounds 4.5m. We're probably the only Premiership club that's working on a deficit, but you either walk out and say 'this is not the brochure you gave me to look at' or you get on with it to the best of your ability."

There are, of course, similarities between Forest and Boro. Both have had their share of dysfunctional players and Bassett's counterpart Robson has had to cope with the "drying out" of Paul Gascoigne. "Gazza will never regain his precocious talent, but he's still an enthusiast. Whether he's done so much damage to himself that he can't get fit, I don't know," Bassett reflects. "Unfortunately, the media coverage has done his head in and he hasn't been able to cope with it. You just hope he comes out of this and starts performing well."

Gascoigne would have been thoroughly at home in the Crazy Gang at Wimbledon. Such regimes have now all but disappeared, to be replaced by the Sober Set who eschew humour and alcohol in favour of gravitas, strict diets and temperance. Bassett is not entirely convinced. "I don't think there is anything wrong with players having a drink, if they perform. I had two drunk players at Wimbledon one Boxing Day, although I didn't know it until afterwards. We won 3-2 and they were bloody excellent. It's up to them if my players want to take a few beers or some wine on a Thursday or Saturday night. I'm happy, unless they come in reeking of it the next day."

If Bassett, a former amateur England footballer, hadn't graduated to professional management, you could have imagined him on stage as London's answer to Bernard Manning. But is there a danger of being too approachable and populist?

"I don't walk around pretending I am some kind of sergeant major, but most the club's I have been at nobody's taken the piss. I like players and I don't want people to be frightened of me. People call me the cheeky, chirpy, ebullient, brilliant cockney - whatever - and I enjoy a giggle, but I can read the riot act, even John Fashanu and Vinnie Jones found that."

Whatever else, he remains an optimist. "I've learned that in difficult times, you've got to keep the momentum going and your belief." Somehow, you imagine Bassett's going to require that by the barrow load in the remainder of the season.