Dave “Harry” Bassett became known as something of a relegation firefighter throughout his managerial career, occasionally saving teams from the drop against all the odds and even gaining a reputation as the escapologist of English football - Harry Houdini many called him. But in 1988 the magic somewhat eluded him as he was credited with taking not one side down, but two.
Bassett’s introduction to football management came when he was promoted to boss of Wimbledon, the club he had played for when they were a non-league outfit before they made their bow in the Football League in 1975, and as gaffer he was responsible for continuing their meteoric rise up the football pyramid.
Taking over in 1981 Bassett oversaw an incredible three promotions in four seasons to take Wimbledon to the top-flight in English football for the first time ever, just nine years after being a non-league side, while developing the likes of Dave Beasant, John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones, Lawrie Sanchez and Dennis Wise who would ultimately go on to become legends at the club by winning the FA Cup in 1988.
But a year earlier Bassett felt he had taken the club as far as he could and jumped at the chance of a new challenge by taking the reins at Watford after Graham Taylor, a man who had also taken an unfancied club from the Fourth to the First Division, had been named the new Aston Villa manager.
However, Bassett was unable to recreate the same spark with the Hornets that he had at Wimbledon and struggled with a group of players who were trying to adapt to a passing style of play having adopted the long-ball approach for much of Taylor’s time at the club; unfortunately for Bassett he still favoured direct football even if his squad were all for changing.
Along with John Barnes, one of the club’s greatest players who had recently been sold to Liverpool prior to Taylor’s departure, Bassett also offloaded several other first-team favourites, including Kevin Richardson, David Bardsley and Lee Sinnott; but the experiment failed.
By the autumn Watford were bottom of the league having won just one of their first 15 games as the Watford faithful began to turn on their new boss. “If the fans don’t want you, it makes it difficult,” he told the Guardian. “You have to think about whether you can win them over.”
Off the field things weren’t going well at Vicarage Road either as club Chairman Elton John tried to sell his shares in the club to a company owned by Robert Maxwell, only for the Football League to block the move due to Maxwell’s interest in Derby County and Oxford United.
By Christmas, things hadn’t got much better and in the New Year Elton John had given his beleaguered manager a get out, offering him something of a cordial departure including a holiday to Barbados thrown in as well as the option of keeping his company Jaguar in return for vacating his post.
Something else which somewhat softened the blow was the fact that 150 miles up the M1 Sheffield United were struggling at the foot of Division Two and were now without a manager after sacking Billy McEwan. With almost 20 games of the season remaining Bassett felt that was ample time to save the Blades while also giving Watford half a chance of survival under his replacement.
The stars had aligned for “Harry” or so he thought as he strolled into Bramall Lane to take charge of a club sixth from bottom in the table who had just lost three games in a row, though he probably didn’t do himself any favours by declaring “This is a bigger club than either Watford or Wimbledon.”
Calling upon the services of his former Wimbledon right-hand-man, Wally Downs, Bassett set about signing a number of players who he thought would give his side the best chance of survival, including Tony Agana who would go on to become a fan favourite, but the transformation had little effect with United only winning four games under his tenure for the remainder of that season.
Having finished third from bottom of the old Second Division Bassett’s Blades faced Bristol City, who had come fifth in the Third Division, in an experimental winner takes all play-off final and eventually lost 2-1 on aggregate; a defeat which not only confirmed their relegation but along with Watford, sealed the demotion of the second team managed by Bassett during the 1987/88 season.