Alan Biggs: The crazy days of a north-south divide at Sheffield United

Sheffield United May 1990 Dave Bassett being pampered by fans
Sheffield United May 1990 Dave Bassett being pampered by fans
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Adifferent time, a different world but maybe a small pointer to just a little of what’s required at S2.

There’s only ever been one “Crazy Gang” in football. Or has there? Just as Dave Bassett releases a book of that title along comes a tale about how the Crazy Gang went on the road from Wimbledon. . . to Sheffield.

It happened in the late 1980s as Bassett’s move north to Bramall Lane, via Watford, prompted many of his former Wimbledon players to journey up the M1 and join him in the Steel City.

Eventually this would number the likes of Vinnie Jones, Brian Gayle, Glyn Hodges, Alan Cork , Kevin Gage, Mark Morris and Wally Downes (“Harry’s” co-author) besides John Gannon, goalkeeper Simon Tracey, assistant manager Geoff Taylor and physio Derek French. The rest is history in that, after an initial largely unavoidable relegation, Bassett’s Blades bounced up two divisions in a memorable promotion double that led to four seasons in the top flight.

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. French reveals that a north-south divide in the dressing room reached such chasmic proportions that Bassett had to take drastic action. And, entirely in keeping with the best traditions of the Wimbledon outfit he took from basement to big time, it ended in a fight.

Carl Bradshaw, a renowned toughie of United’s Sheffield brigade, recalls: “We used to play a lot of five-a-sides but Geoff Taylor wouldn’t allow North v South. He knew someone would get hurt.”

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French takes up the story: “Brads was one of the contingent we had to win over. There was also Wardy (Mitch Ward) and Dane (Whitehouse). It’s fair to say there was a bit of friction when we all came up from the south.

“So what did Harry do? He packed us all off in a coach to an army camp at some godforsaken place in Wales. Once there it all ended up in a mass fight – and everything was sorted out! We became real tight and good friends.”

From waging a civil war, United suddenly had as fierce a fighting unit as any in the game.

To say Bassett recreated the Wimbledon spirit 170 miles from base, and with it a siege mentality that saw the Blades confound critics of their vigorous, direct style, would be no overstatement.

“It was the best team spirit of my career and Harry’s man-management was brilliant,” says Bradshaw, who started at Sheffield Wednesday and later played for Norwich, Wigan and Scunthorpe.

That’s despite the fall-out from Brads not making the squad for the all-Sheffield FA Cup semi-final in 1993: “I threw my boots in a bush and told the boss I’d never play for him again. But I started the next game! He’d also come down to the back of the coach even after I’d played well and we’d end up fighting. Geoff Taylor would have to pull us apart. But you just get on with things and it’s about how you bounce back. It was all mind games and I played the best football of my career under this manager.”

Some of the antics could never be encouraged let alone recreated, but you can’t help feeling the current United side could use a little of the Wimbledon spirit.

Many Blades fans will identify with a book being billed as “the true inside story of football’s greatest miracle.” As you’d expect, it’s warts and all, muck and bullets and any other cliche you care to mention. Don’t dare miss it!

n “The Crazy Gang” by Dave Bassett and Wally Downes. Bantam Press. £18.99