Sheffield United: Bramall Lane legend delivers a message to the fans ahead of a crunch weekend in the race for promotion

First, before he begins discussing his former club's latest push for the top-flight and the one he successfully masterminded 29 years ago, Dave Bassett wants to get one thing straight.

By James Shield
Thursday, 18 April, 2019, 19:54
Former Sheffield United manager Dave Bassett

"I think Sheffield United will go up," he says, with absolute conviction. "I really do believe they'll get that second spot."

Bassett, Chris Wilder's friend, mentor and confident, knows every inch of the terrain United must cross to win automatic promotion. After all, he traversed it seven times before. But one of those journeys bears a striking resemblance to the one Wilder's team are attempting to complete now.

Sheffield United are third in the table: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

In 1990, towards the end of a nail-biting Division Two campaign, United found themselves in a dog-fight with Leeds ahead of a visit to Elland Road. The 4-0 defeat they suffered appeared to be pivotal. But only one month later, following a memorable win over Leicester City, champagne corks were popping in the away dressing room at Filbert Street.

Reflecting upon events back then, Bassett is struck by the similarities between the challenge his squad faced and the task confronting Wilder's players ahead of their meeting with Nottingham Forest tomorrow lunchtime. Last weekend's draw with Millwall, which left them three points behind Marcelo Bielsa's second-placed side with only four matches remaining, has been described by some as the moment the race to join leaders Norwich City in the Premier League next term swung decisively in Leeds' favour.

But Bassett knows from experience it was nothing of the sort.

"Everyone back then was telling us we'd blown it," he remembers. "But we sat down and said we hadn't come this far just to curl up and die. Everyone came out fighting and that's what has got to happen now. It stirred something in us, especially when everyone was writing us off."

Chris Wilder: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

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Bassett, aged 74, has been tracing United's progress with interest in recent months. His relationship with Wilder - the two men speak on a regular basis - affords him a unique insight into how their season is unfolding, together with an appreciation of how intangible factors such as mood and atmosphere might influence future results.

Given United's record in play-off competition, which reads 'Played Eight, Lost Eight', Bassett appreciates why some supporters fear the worst if they fail to claw back Leeds. But he also recognises something in Wilder's team which instils him with confidence; a spirit which makes them worthy of unequivocal support.

"I understand the twitchiness," Bassett says. "But all I'd tell the fans is don't sell these lads short. The backing we got back then, how everybody rallied behind us, made a huge difference to how things turned out. We won together, we lost together and we drew together. That's how it's got to be now."

"Footballers are flesh and blood," he continues. "They want to be loved and yes, there's things they've got to do to get the crowd on their feet. But if they know people are with them, that drives them on. If all they hear if cheers, not moans and groans if a pass goes wrong or something happens in a game, it helps them dig in and come through.

"If you look at all the great teams, including our own, they have that from the stands."

When United went up under Bassett, with a young defender named Wilder ensconced within in their ranks, Leeds were promoted too. Nearly three decades on, with City four points clear at the summit, it will take a remarkable chain of events for them to finish first and second this time around. But if United do find themselves in the end of season knockouts, Bassett still sees nothing to fear.

"Statistics mean nothing," he says. "You see all these figures about 'so and so not beating so and so' for however many years. What does that guarantee? Zilch, that's what. If that's what it is, then it's a great shot and brilliant opportunity with a different manager and a different set of players to before."