One season, two relegations: Dave Bassett’s nightmare 1987/88 season

On May 14, 1988 Wimbledon won the FA Cup final against Liverpool. On May 15, 1988 Dave Bassett, the man who laid the foundations of that team and took them from the Fourth Division to (briefly) top of the First, took charge of Sheffield United as they faced Bristol City in a relegation play-off from Division Two. The Blades lost. A few weeks earlier Watford, the team with whom Bassett had started the 1987/88 campaign, dropped from the First Division. To be involved with one relegation in a season can be regarded as a misfortune; to be involved with two starts to look like some very poor career choices.

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A year earlier, the phone rang at Bassett’s house. ‘Bassett’s wife, Christine, answered,’ writes Lionel Birnie in his brilliant book about Watford in the 1980s, Enjoy The Game. “[Dave’s] not here at the moment…can I take a message?” “Can you let him know Elton John called?”

Watford needed a new manager, with Graham Taylor set to join Aston Villa. Bassett had been offered a new contract at Wimbledon but chairman Sam Hammam wanted to insert a clause that said he could pick the team, if he felt Bassett was ‘working against the club.’

Bassett, understandably, wasn’t keen. “I was mesmerised by Elton, really,” Bassett said, after John had turned up at his house wearing a red sequinned jacket and tights. Even though John Barnes was on his way to Liverpool and the rest of the team were reaching the end of their cycle together, Bassett was only too happy to take the job: it was a First Division team, the chairman wanted him and he lived nearby. Ideal, then. ‘It was, in fact, Taylor-made!’ punned Bassett in his autobiography.

And yet. “It was fucking stupid really,” Bassett told Birnie. “For him to offer it straight away and for me to accept it. It was a monumental error but I didn’t see it and neither did Elton.”

The haste was the problem. John wanted a quick replacement after Taylor’s departure, and before the team went on a post-season trip to China. “We should have let the dust settle,” said Bassett. “The supporters would be in a state of shock. It’s like the break-up of a marriage and telling the kids “Well, your dad’s left but here’s the new fella I’m marrying this afternoon. It was madness.

Things didn’t start well. Some of the board hadn’t been told about Bassett’s appointment until it was announced. When combined with a sceptical fanbase and a squad that were still devoted to Taylor, Bassett was in trouble from the start.

Recruitment was a problem too: Alan McInally was due to have talks over a move from Celtic but didn’t show up to a meeting, instead signing for Taylor at Villa. Bassett tried to sign Vinnie Jones but the board weren’t keen.

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Although Taylor had a reputation as a long-ball man, Watford had at least tried something approaching a passing game in previous seasons. But Bassett wasn’t having any of it. “In a training game I got the ball from one of the full-backs and turned to play it across the winger,” said midfielder Kevin Richardson. “Dave was shouting ‘Woah, woah, woah. What’s all this? Don’t play into midfield, hit the front men.’”

Richardson, for one, wanted out, and took to blasting ‘Please Release Me’ by Engelbert Humperdinck from his car stereo when he arrived at the training ground. He got his move, to Arsenal, where he won the league in 1989.

The first game was against Wimbledon, inevitably enough. Watford won 1-0, thanks to a Luther Blissett goal, but that was the end of the positivity for a while: they won just one of their next 14 games, and the headline in the local paper after one defeat read ‘A Pathetic Shambles.’

They were in the bottom three by mid-October, and the following month there was more upheaval when John tried to sell his shares in the club to a company owned by Robert Maxwell, only for the Football League to block the sale because of Maxwell’s interest in Derby and Oxford.

By December it was clear that Bassett wasn’t going to last, if only because of the hostility from the fans. ‘It even got to the stage where we were afraid to go into a restaurant in Watford for fear of encountering some hostile reaction,’ Bassett later wrote.

“If the fans don’t want you, it makes it difficult,” he told the Guardian after one defeat. “You have to think about whether you can win them over.”

In January, John called him to his house, they agreed that things weren’t working and Bassett was out. Everything seemed quite cordial, though: John gave Bassett and his wife a holiday to California and let him keep his club Jaguar by way of apology. “I was a square peg in a round hole at the wrong time,” Bassett said in 2006. Steve Harrison, who had been a coach and player under Taylor, and the choice of some on the Watford board ahead of Bassett anyway, took over at Vicarage Road.

Still, Bassett had a back-up plan. Sheffield United were struggling at the foot of Division Two, and had just sacked manager Billy McEwan. ‘Watford still had 16 league games to go – which I felt was plenty for someone else to pull them out of trouble,’ Bassett recalled. ‘By the same token, it would also give me enough time to save Sheffield United from the drop to Division Three. All things considered, this was probably a good time for me to leave London.’

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And so, to Yorkshire. “This is a bigger club than either Watford or Wimbledon,” Bassett rather boldly announced, before cautioning: “I am not a magician. I don’t have a magic wand to enable me to walk into Sheffield and say ‘Right, we’re going up.’”

Talk of promotion was perhaps an indicator of Bassett’s confidence, but not the club’s status: they were sixth-bottom of the Second Division having just lost three games by an aggregate score of 12-2. ‘Several people I knew in Sheffield,’ wrote Bassett, ‘Emlyn Hughes and Howard Wilkinson among them, tried to dissuade me from taking the job. ‘The club’s broke,’ they said. ‘It can only do more damage to your reputation.”

They were half-right. “If a club has millions they send for Ron Atkinson,” Bassett said at the time. “If they are skint they send for Dave Bassett.”

Bassett ducked, dived, wheeled and dealt, signing a clutch of players he’d previously worked with: Wally Downes arrived from Wimbledon, Tony Agana, Cliff Powell and Peter Hetherston were recruited from Watford. Downes, in particular, did not endear himself to the fans after getting himself sent off twice in quick succession. A fan on a local radio call-in said Downes was the most hated man in Yorkshire, before correcting himself: “No, he’s second, after the Yorkshire Ripper.”

Bassett claimed most of the coaching staff were against him, and pointed to a poisonous atmosphere at the club. ‘I became aware of the sense of hopelessness which was enveloping, not only the players but also the staff and fans,’ he wrote. ‘I don’t think anything could have put a smile on their faces that winter.’ Certainly not results: United won just four games under Bassett that season, a run that included 5-0 and 6-0 shoeings against Leeds and Middlesbrough.

The Blades finished third-bottom of the table, in a season when the league was experimenting with play-offs to decide relegation. They were to face Bristol City, who had come fifth in the Third Division. The first-leg ended in a 1-0 win for the Robins, featuring one Steve McClaren in midfield, but United couldn’t turn things around in the return, a 1-1 draw meaning they were relegated.

Bassett offered his resignation, which was turned down, and he of course ultimately went on to lead the Blades back to the top flight.

Meanwhile, Bassett’s departure hadn’t done enough to perk up Watford. Just three wins from their 14 remaining games left them second-bottom and well adrift of survival. ‘I can assure you that it was quite a kick in the guts to have been associated with two relegated teams in one season,’ wrote Bassett.

If you were to only take the word of his autobiography, you could very firmly come to the conclusion that none of the problems had anything to do with him, that blame was certainly to be placed somewhere, just…elsewhere. And he may be right. But in the 1987/88 season, Dave Bassett was in charge of two teams that were relegated.

Article originally published on 30 October 2017.

One season, two relegations: Dave Bassett’s nightmare 1987/88 season
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