It might be three decades since it terrorised English football but Dave Bassett, the architect of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang, is convinced the story of how an unfancied group of players reached the very pinnacle of the game is still relevant today.
*WARNING - Video contains strong language* Especially, he told The Star last night, for Sheffield United and Barnsley as they prepare for tomorrow’s pivotal South Yorkshire derby at Oakwell.
“Both of them are under-performing, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Bassett said. “United are now going through their fifth season in League One. When I left Barnsley, they were mid-table in the Championship and weren’t happy with it. I don’t think they’ve been mid-table in the Championship since. I don’t enjoy saying it but that can only be because, over successive years, bad decisions have been made.”
United and Barnsley are two clubs Bassett, co-author of a new book chronicling Wimbledon’s remarkable rise through the divisions, knows well. His career at
Bramall Lane did not enjoy the most auspicious of starts, with the team he inherited from Billy McEwan in 1988 being relegated from the second tier. Remarkably, it proved to be the catalyst for one of the most successful periods in United’s recent history, provoking the change of playing style and personnel which, two promotions and three years later, saw them become founder members of the Premier League. A reminder, as Nigel Adkins and his team sift through the wreckage of Tuesday’s 4-2 defeat by Shrewsbury Town, that good can come from bad.
“Identity is vital,” Bassett, who later managed Barnsley between 1999 and 2000, said. “Knowing what you are and what people want to see. Every club should stand for something, not try and emulate Barcelona as everybody these days seems to try and do. They conveniently forget they don’t have the players and that Barcelona have their own identity that’s distinct. They also seem to forget that Barcelona, for all the pretty football they play, work harder than anyone else as well.”
“Sheffield and Barnsley are both hard-working areas,” Bassett continued. “That’s what people want to see from their players. Graft. United have tried too hard to be like, say, Arsenal in recent years. And at Barnsley there’s all this stuff about being Brazil. Basically, just be yourselves. Reflect the areas that you represent and stay true to that.”
Adkins relayed a similar message after taking charge of United in June. Piecing together a squad capable of delivering consistently effective performances, however, has proved easier said than done. Last season’s play-off semi-finalists enter the 26th match of his reign 12th in the League One table, 10 places above Barnsley, and without a win in four games. Bassett understands the scale and complexity of the challenge having faced something similar 26 years ago.
“Basically, you’ve just got to drag people with you,” he explained. “Not just players, but directors and supporters too. Grab the whole club by the scruff of the neck and say, ‘right, this is how we’re doing things from now on. Believe in me.’ You might have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and there’s always an element of pragmatism involved. When I went to Barnsley, for example, we played an entirely different game to the one we used at United back then, but it was based around the tools we had.”
Inevitably, Bassett warned, there will be casualties. But the end results make the collateral damage worthwhile.
“I remember telling the lads at United that we were going to play a certain way and then saying if there was anyone in the room who didn’t want to do it, to speak-up now. Mark Dempsey, to be fair, admitted he didn’t fancy playing that way, he wouldn’t enjoy it and that it wouldn’t suit him. So he left. For Rotherham I think but I respected him for that. I’d much rather that happen than having people getting all snide and carping away behind the scenes. Once you get a ‘me’ culture in a squad rather than ‘us’ then you’ve got problems.”
“Wally Downes and Glyn Hodges, to be fair, weren’t that keen on the idea either. But they stayed and bought-in. When the results came, then people understood it and could see the point.”
Bassett’s experiences at United and Plough Lane, where he achieved four promotions and achieved the highest win percentage of his managerial career before joining Watford in 1987, also highlight the importance of establishing an infrangible relationship between and team and its support.
“Teams should be afraid to come to Bramall Lane and, to be fair, I don’t really think that’s been the case for years,” he said. “But it can happen again, no question. I always remember Sir Alex Ferguson telling me that Manchester United would have rather played Spurs than Sheffield United away from home. That was because they new they were coming up against a group which, might not have been as talented as them, but was going to give everything for each other. And, rather than just defend, gamble a bit to try and get at them.”
*The Crazy Gang: The True Inside Story of Football’s Greatest Miracle, by Dave Bassett and Wally Downes. Bantam Press, priced £18.99.