PROFILE : DAVE BASSETT : Gains of Harry's game Simon O'Hagan assesses the management style and unlikely success of a likeable character

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Imagine you had never heard of Alex Ferguson or Dave Bassett. You are introduced to them, told that one of them is a football manager, and have to guess which. No contest, is it? But while Ferguson the austere Scot may seem less typical of the bre ed than Bassett the larky Londoner, that would be to overlook deeper qualities in the latter.

Tomorrow night the two of them will be opposing each other in the FA Cup for the third successive season when Ferguson's Manchester United and Bassett's Sheffield United meet in the third round at Bramall Lane. As with the previous two matches - the score stands at 1-1 - this one is made for Bassett, whose appetite for sticking one over his supposed betters is as keen now as it was when he joined Wimbledon 21 years ago and helped launch them on the path that took them from non-League ranks to the old First Division.

Since last season's 1-0 defeat at home to United, following the previous year's 2-1 win, Sheffield United have fallen out of the Premiership and had their difficulties in the First Division before a recent return to form has seen them rise to fifth in the table.

Only the most ardent Wednesday-ite would begrudge them promotion, for the circumstances under which they were relegated - safe until the last minute of the last match of the season when they were done for by a Chelsea goal and some improbable results elsewhere - were cruel beyond belief.

Even the normally irrepressible Bassett struggled to come to terms with what had happened. Derek Dooley, one of the club's directors, remembers travelling with the team to Australia for a post-season tour two days later and never seeing Bassett so low. "Looking back," Bassett says, "I thought I'd recovered by the start of the season. But I realise now that I hadn't. It had a major effect on me." Yet it was typical of a Bassett team to be at the centre of such drama.

Bassett's own playing career was modest. Born in Watford in 1944 - it is hard to believe that this most youthful of men is now 50 - he grew up in and around north-west London, went to school in Harrow, got a job in an insurance firm, and was a junior at Chelsea until Tommy Docherty took over and had a clear-out. Somewhere along the way he acquired the nickname Harry, for no better reason than that his father's name was Harold.

The long-standing effects of a broken leg meant that Bassett only ever played part-time football, all of it for non-League clubs other than the first season Wimbledon had in the Football League in 1977-78. He also played for the England amateur team.

By then he had been "discovered" by Allen Batsford - manager of Walton and Hersham in the early Seventies when a hot-headed young midfielder came to his attention who he reckoned had the makings of a captain. It was Bassett's first taste of responsibility and he relished it. When Batsford joined Wimbledon in 1974, he took Bassett with him.

"The club was in such trouble financially that they were only down to six men," Batsford says. "I remember Dave walking into the dressing-room for the first time and saying: `Right, we're the ones who are going to show you lot how to play.' That was typical. He was always a terrific leader."

Within a year, Wimbledon were taking Leeds United to a replay in the FA Cup; within three years they were in the Football League; within seven years, Bassett had become manager; within 12 years they had reached the First Division. There was something outrageous about it, certainly as far as the purists were concerned, who saw Bassett and his long-ball philosophy destroying their beautiful game.

But Lawrie Sanchez, one of Wimbledon's leading players at the time, remembers that Bassett loved the criticism. "He believed that if they were slaughtering you, then you had to be doing something right," he says. "We played the long ball, but that was just Dave's way of evening things up against bigger and richer teams."

For Bassett, having to make do with modest means is all part of the challenge. "He's sometimes said that he'd like to go to a big-money club," Batsford says, "but I think it quite suits him to be somewhere where the money is tight." Certainly, Bassett has a reputation for being a poor payer, but that has not stopped players giving their all for him.

Tony Agana, who played under Bassett at Watford and Sheffield United, agrees with Sanchez that he is a supreme motivator, often in unpredictable ways. "You might have won 4-0 and he'd still come in and give you a roasting," Agana says. Sanchez remembers a match when Wimbledon were going well in the old Second Division and facing an easy-looking fixture against lowly opposition. "Dave came into the dressing-room an hour before the kick-off and said: `Right, you're going to lose today. You think you're too good for this lot. Well, I've seen your attitude this week, and you're not.' And that was his team talk. It was a classic double bluff. In the end, we won fairly easily and we could give him a good ribbing. But he'd got the result he wanted."

By the time Sanchez was heading Wimbledon to victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, Bassett had been gone a year and the team was managed by Bobby Gould. Bassett is often given the credit for that victory, which in the likes of Dave Beasant, Dennis Wise, John Scales, Terry Phelan and John Fashanu featured players Bassett had nurtured from relative obscurity but who went on to even bigger things. Sanchez thinks that is unfair on Gould, but says that, without the self-belief Bassett had instilled in them, they might not have done it.

After an eight-month spell at Watford that did little for either party, Bassett joined Sheffield United in February 1988, an unlikely- looking move north for a manager whose garrulous Cockneyisms seemed to place him within the bounds of the M25. Althoughhe could not prevent a struggling United from being relegated to the old Third Division at the end of his first season in charge, he then turned things round in spectacular style.

With Brian Deane and Agana in harness up front, United ran away with the Third Division in 1988-89, and went straight on up to the First Division the following season. By now Sheffield and Bassett had fallen for each other in a big way, and it has remained like that ever since. With his wife and two daughters, aged 13 and 15, Bassett says he feels settled in Sheffield, a city which shares his passion for the game.

"I must say I had my doubts about Dave coming here," Derek Dooley says. "I wondered how Sheffield people would take to this cheeky chappy. But he's been marvellous. He's really involved himself in the city." Bassett established such a rapport with the fans that during the disastrous start to the 1990-91 season, when United went until 22 December before winning, none of them was calling for him to go. They finished the season in 13th place.

After United had made almost as bad a start to the following season but again managed to survive, Bassett staged what is probably his biggest stunt. The team obviously couldn't win before Christmas, so let's bring it forward. In August 1992, Bassett threw a Christmas party for his players. The trick seemed to work; United did respectably in the League and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup when they lost to Sheffield Wednesday.

Asked what he looks for in a player, Bassett says: "I look for talent, whether he's got something about him. It's a gut feeling. Then I ask myself: `Does he understand the game? Is he athletic? Is he brave? Is his character sound?' "

Following these instincts, Bassett has rescued careers, shown faith where others haven't, bought for peanuts and sold for millions. Above all, he has that rare ability to be as tough as need be as a boss while remaining one of the lads when work is done.The number of ex-Wimbledon players who have joined Bassett at Bramall Lane says much for the loyalty he commands.

Tactically, Bassett has mellowed during his Sheffield years. At the very least it has become passe to talk of him as a long-ball exponent. And most of the time it is not true either. "It really infuriates me when people talk of Dave like that," Dooley says. Bassett himself is less bothered by that than the idea that "I don't appreciate someone like Eric Cantona. Of course I do." Which is not to say he won't delight in knocking him out of the FA Cup.