Retro: Sheffield United manager Bassett’s volatile five years

Dave Bassett remonstrates with Referee David Elleray - Dec  1992
Dave Bassett remonstrates with Referee David Elleray - Dec 1992
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“People say that five years is a good stint for a manager and for me it has gone quickly. As for the future I don’t look much further than the next six months, at the most, because football is a volatile and moody business.”

So commented Dave Bassett in early 1993 after being at the helm of Sheffield United for an eventful half-decade which saw him take the club from Division Three to Division One.

Spending the majority of his playing career in the lower reaches of the football pyramid, Bassett was part of the Wimbledon team that won promotion to the football league in 1977.

After hanging up his boots he took the assistant manager’s position at the Dons under Dario Gradi. Then in 1981, Bassett was pushed into the hot seat.

Despite being relegated in the first season under his stewardship, Wimbledon bounced back and then began their march to the First Division. Bassett led the team to a sixth-place finish in their first year in the top tier before leaving for Watford.

However, he was only in charge of the Hornets for six months before being relieved of his duties.

Meanwhile, the Blades had dropped out of the First Division in 1976 and by 1981 were in Division Four. Moving back into the Second Division during the mid-1980s, United consolidated their place over two seasons but at the beginning of 1988 the side were close to the relegation places after a poor first half of the campaign.

Following the resignation of first-time manager Billy McEwan, United’s board drew up a short list of candidates, which included Bassett, Ken Brown, Keith Burkinshaw and Cyril Knowles. The appointment of the former Wimbledon man was made on January 21, 1988.

Bassett said upon his arrival: “I could have done with a rest from the game but when a club as big as United comes along you have to wonder if it will still be on the market when you are ready to start again.

“You can be out of football too long and quickly become forgotten.”

He added the location of the club had also been a factor in his acceptance of the post: “There is a love of the game up here that is perhaps missing in London and the south.

“Frankly, if there had been a job going on London right now I would not have taken it.”

The arrival of the new man did not have an immediate effect on results. The Blades lost 2-1 to First Division Portsmouth in the FA Cup fourth round, then two 1-0 defeats were recorded in the league against Stoke and Shrewsbury.

After the loss to the latter Bassett said: “On that evidence the team is not good enough. There is a battle ahead and I need players who will battle. They did not have enough fire in their bellies.”

Bassett managed to get two performances out of the team in the next two fixtures against Yorkshire rivals Barnsley and Hull City as wins of 1-0 and 2-1 were recorded respectively.

However, only three more wins, against Ipswich, Plymouth and Huddersfield, and a draw at home to West Brom, from 11 games left United to play Bristol City from the Third Division in the play-offs.

The Blades lost the away tie 1-0 and could only draw 1-1 at Bramall Lane, condemning them to relegation.

Bassett shook up the dressing room in the summer and brought in, among others, Brian Deane from Doncaster Rovers at a price of £50,000. He was to form a formidable strike force with Tony Agana, who Bassett had bought earlier in the year for £40,000 from Watford.

The Blades got off to a winning start in Division Three and only two defeats occurred in the first 10 games, placing the team at the top of the table.

The next 10 games saw the side fall to fourth, which was their lowest position of the season. However, Bassett’s men soon went on a 10-game unbeaten streak in the league from early January to mid-March 1989.

The team were perhaps spurred on after Bassett was tied down to a three-year contract in mid-February.

United had a somewhat indifferent end to the season but the team had enough to finish in second place as runners-up to Wolverhampton Wanderers and above Port Vale, if only on goal difference.

United had scored double the amount of goals registered in the 1987-1988 league campaign, with Deane and Agana contributing more than 20 each.

Bassett and his team then shocked Division Two in the 1989-1990 season by gaining promotion to Division One at the first time of asking.

The side was top of the league for the first half of the season and spent much of the second behind Leeds United, eventual winners on goal difference.

The champagne had been flowing a few days before the final game against Leicester, which the Blades won 5-2, as the team celebrated the successful campaign.

Bassett said: “We’ve reached the FA Cup quarter finals, made plenty of dough, reached the play-offs and might go up with our last game. That to me is success.”

United’s rise was not to continue, however, as by December 1990 the team were propping up Division One, having drawn four and lost 12 of the opening 16 matches.

Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest was the first scalp for Bassett and his men on December 22, providing the 20,000 fans that watched the 3-2 win (two goals from Bryson and one from Deane) with an early Christmas present.

Survival still seemed impossible but from the end of January the Blades won seven games consecutively and were unbeaten in nine which pulled the team up to 12th place.

Bassett was able to have some more champagne in April as he received the manager of the month award for March. He also go the seal of approval from Clough, who said: “If I had a vote he would not only be manager of the month but miracle worker of the season.”

Two wins, two draws and three defeats saw United finish in 13th place and well away from the relegation spots.

The 1991-1992 season followed a similar pattern but United managed a ninth-place finish and Bassett was awarded a new four-year contract to guide the team into the newly-formed Premier League.

Bassett also noted this about his first five years at the helm: “I can say it has been brilliant with more exciting times than lows. We have come up from the Third to the Premier League; Sheffield United have not disappointed me and I hope I have not disappointed them.”