I am well aware of the irony of a Dave Bassett interview appearing on a website called Watford Legends. Many supporters blame Bassett for dismantling Graham Taylor’s team almost overnight and setting the course for relegation and ten years in the doldrums, and with good reason. The summer and autumn of 1987 was a bewildering time. In short order, quality players were sold, inadequate replacements came in and the club’s identity built up over ten years evaporated.
But there are two sides to every story and I was keen to hear Bassett’s. I knew I wanted Enjoy the Game to at least cover the transition from one manager to the next, rather than end abruptly with Taylor’s departure to Villa. I wanted to explore the detail of what happened, how Bassett got the job and what went wrong. I wasn’t sure Bassett would be interested, though, and when we spoke on the phone he said, ‘A book about Watford isn’t going to do me any favours is it? As long as it’s not a stitch up.’
We met for coffee at a hotel in Gerrards Cross and the Dave Bassett I’d seen on television was exactly the same as the man sitting opposite me. He spoke quickly, bluntly and frankly about his time at Watford. He admitted his mistakes and, like anyone, tried to mitigate where he could.
As a Watford supporter I wanted to dislike Bassett but I couldn’t because he was entertaining and engaging to listen to and, as a journalist, I found his account of his biggest mistake fascinating.
[Laughs] Yeah, you could say that. They didn’t like me much at the time either! [Laughs]
It’s probably stating the obvious to say it didn’t turn out how you wanted either, but with 20-odd years’ of hindsight do you know what went wrong?
Whoever took over from Graham Taylor faced a massive task, and I didn’t give that enough thought and I don’t think Elton did either. We rushed into it. Yeah, perfect, this makes total sense. From a distance it did but when I think about it now I was making life very difficult for myself taking that job.
Graham had done 10 fantastic years and was rightly loved by the fans. He was their hero and quite rightly so. No one was going to go in there and match what he’d done. I look back now and the short answer is I didn’t give it [the prospect of following Taylor] enough attention.
Living in Northwood, just round the corner, it seemed the ideal move for me.
People think I came in and wrecked it but I had a lot of respect for Watford. I’d watched Watford over the years. I’d stood on those terraces. I thought it was the ideal job. I just didn’t look into it sufficiently enough and realise that there was a lot of change going on behind the scenes – not just Graham going.
It was a ridiculous situation really. I didn’t move for football reasons, I was going there to make a point.
What do you mean?
I ran Wimbledon, which was a totally different club. I ran Wimbledon the way Graham ran Watford, top to bottom. But Wimbledon was a small club. Watford was bigger and I didn’t realise the political side of bigger clubs. Directors that have been there 20, 30 years. People who work in the office who’ve been there years. Everyone used to one way of doing things.
My relationship with Sam Hamman [Wimbledon chairman and owner] had deteriorated and I was looking around. We’d gone up through all the divisions and finished sixth [in Division One]. We’d followed Watford in a lot of ways – done that same journey. I didn’t really want to leave but he [Hamman] felt he wasn’t getting the credit for what Wimbledon had done and he thought I was too big for the club. But that’s how it is. The manager, the players, they get the credit and the press. Sam got his bit. I’m sure Elton got a lot of credit but Elton was a global superstar in his own right so he got in the papers, but if you look back, the press was all about Graham and the players. Some owners don’t like that. I don’t think Sam liked it.
The thing was, I didn’t even have a contract at Wimbledon because we couldn’t agree on it. Hamman said he wanted a clause in the contract that said he could pick the team if he needed to. He said it would never come to that but I said ‘no, you must be joking, after all I’ve done for you.’ He thought that if I was working against the club. It was stupid. He said he’d invested money and if he felt I was working against the club he could come in and pick the team. It was a lot of nonsense really. He wanted me to go because he was not getting the credit. Bobby Gould came, signed that agreement and Sam never invoked it.
So you’d already left Wimbledon before Watford came in?
Not officially but I’d been to Manchester City for talks with Peter Swales [City’s chairman]. The sticking point was they wanted me to come by myself and work with Glyn Pardoe, Tony Book and Jimmy Frizzell, and I didn’t feel comfortable. I can’t go to Manchester by myself. I didn’t know these people. How would I know to trust them? I knew of them. They weren’t bad people but they weren’t my staff. I wanted to go with my staff and my people.
I went to the cup final at Wembley –Spurs v Coventry – come home and Elton John’s sitting in my house. He’d been chasing my wife round all day. When my wife opened the door and said there’s someone here to see you, to say I was gobsmacked is an understatement. There’s Elton John, sitting in the lounge, talking to my wife, having a cup of tea, with the kids watching the telly. He’d rung about four times and my wife explained where I was and eventually she said ‘If you want to speak to him that badly, you’d better come round’ and Elton said ‘I thought you’d never ask.’
Elton explained that Graham was going to Aston Villa on the Monday. Basically he said, ‘Would you like the job.’
Man City was still possible but here was an offer. It was fucking stupid really, for him [Elton] to offer it straight away and for me to accept it was stupid.
We had a good chat but he said, ‘I want to know tomorrow.’ Elton was impatient. Graham was going to be announced as Villa manager on the Monday. The Watford team were due to go to China on the Tuesday, and Elton wanted his new manager in place on the Monday afternoon. I could understand that but it was all a rush. It was a monumental error, and I didn’t see it. Elton said, ‘I want a press conference on the Monday at the RAC club in London.’
If I’d thought about it, I’d have said, ‘Well, hang on a minute, why do we need to do it in a hurry?’
He was going to China with the players and he wanted it sorted before he went. He said, ‘I want you to be the manager.’ When Elton John is sitting in your lounge saying he wants you to work for his football club – a very successful football club – who’s going to say no to that? Like I said, it felt perfect. Twenty minutes to work every day, a good team, a great club.
I should have said, ‘Hang on a minute, Graham’s not even gone yet. Let the dust settle, let the fans get used to the idea of Graham going first.’ I mean, the fans adored him, they’d be in a sort of state of shock. All of a sudden it’s cheerio, he’s buried and then announce the new fella is in on the same day? I can see the logic from Elton’s point of view but it was daft.
It’s like the break-up of a marriage. It’s like telling the kids, ‘Your dad’s left, oh and by the way I’m getting married to a new fella this afternoon.’
When I look back it was so stupid. I was mesmerized by Elton. He was so persuasive, well, forceful. He was a local lad, he was passionate about the team. He was talking about how he wanted to win a cup. Muff Winwood [one of Watford’s directors] was there saying how much they wanted us. My wife was delighted because her dad, Tom Carpenter, played in goal for Watford a few times [in 1950-51]. Watford was a progressive club.
But I didn’t really know that Elton was making the decision without telling Geoff Smith or Muir Stratford [vice-chairman and director]. And understandably, they got the hump because they didn’t know anything about it.
What should have happened, Elton should have said, ‘Let’s talk about it, let’s wait until after China.’
He was telling me John Barnes was going to go but that didn’t register with me either. If I’d thought about it, I’d have realised that was 50 per cent of the team gone, but I didn’t think about it.
When I took over I looked at the videos and saw how much of a contribution Barnesy made I realised I was in trouble. A lot of them were in decline. Luther Blissett, John McClelland, you know, they were in decline.
I learned a lesson from that. When I went to Sheffield United and other clubs I made sure we had proper interviews and I made sure I asked questions.
I didn’t even ask Elton what the budget was. I just thought ‘oh great, Watford, that seems ideal.’
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not blaming Elton, I’m blaming myself. I wasn’t political or strategic about it. It seemed to me it was the ideal move from heaven, well, there’s no such thing as an ideal move from heaven. And to be honest, it was a disaster from day one.
Did you really have a bad feeling about the decision so early on? You’d left Wimbledon before, gone to Crystal Palace for three or four days and gone back.
Ron Noades, who was the chairman at Palace, had been at Wimbledon. I’d played with his brother. Ron fancied me managing the Palace. Wimbledon had got promoted to the Second Division and my contract with Wimbledon was up [for renewal], and Ron knew that. So he got in touch with Sam. Ron convinced me – better club, bigger club, bigger stadium. Again, it seemed ideal. Once I’d done it, that night it seemed great but the next day I thought ‘what have I done this for? I don’t really want to go, Ron’s talked me into it. Now that sounds weak but he convinced me. He offered me more money, better training ground, better team. I shouldn’t have gone. I rang Ron up. I told him I’d make a mistake. It’s going to be wrong. It’s wrong for me to come. We may have bruised our relationship and I know we’ve announced it but it’s going to be wrong.
Now I’ve made a decision, it’s wrong to go to Palace. I want to go back to Wimbledon. I think the whole episode upset Sam. He never forgave me for going to Palace, albeit for three days. But he didn’t realise the relationship I had with Ron. Ron ran a youth team in Harrow. We had a relationship, a friendship. I put Ron in touch with Bernie Coleman the chairman at Wimbledon.
Did you have second thoughts about Watford then?
No. At Watford I didn’t have the same feeling. I had put Wimbledon behind me. But there was a problem I realised early. A couple of newspapers gave me a hard time, Tony Stenson at The Sun and a couple of others, because they thought I should have told them I was going to Watford, but I didn’t because Elton told me to keep it quiet because we were going to have the press conference at the RAC club. They hammered me in the press.
Then there was the Watford Observer. Now Oli [Phillips, who covered Watford for the paper] didn’t like me. Years before, 20 years before, I ran a team called Hills in the Watford Sunday League and we got a bit of a stick because we had a reputation. We had quite a few players from Middlesex. We did have some Watford lads but I got a few more to come and play. We had great battles with Riverside. I’d been sent off a few times. Oli dragged that up. We’d had trouble with the league over our discipline. Oli wrote all this stuff, ‘Do we want this bloke as manager?’ Oli was against me on day one.
What I didn’t realise was that Graham Taylor gave Oli stories and he sold them to the national papers. There’s nothing wrong in that. That’s how it used to work. A lot of local reporters would get stories and then ring up the nationals and do a bit on the side. But I didn’t need to do that. That wasn’t how I worked. It meant Graham didn’t have to deal with the national press. They’d get their stories and everyone was happy. But I didn’t have to do that.
Thing was, now Oli ain’t earning is he? I didn’t need him, because I knew the national paper guys myself. I wasn’t being anti-Oli or anti-Watford Observer but I didn’t have to tell Oli everything that was going on. It never happened to any other club I worked with. I dealt with the Sheffield Star and then with the nationals myself. I was happy doing it. I was going to deal with them direct. It’s got fuck all to do with Oli, to be honest, who I talk to.
Anyway, the press I got in the Watford Observer was shit.
If the team had been winning the criticism wouldn’t have been as bad, I guess.
Sure. Yeah, I get that. No one’s going to blow smoke up your arse if you’re losing but I don’t think I got a fair go. People had made up their minds before I even started.
Then I sussed out that Geoff Smith, Muir Stratford, Bertie Mee were all unhappy. I could sense they were miffed, because Elton had decided he wanted me without consulting them. Probably they had a point but that’s not my fault. Elton was the top man and he gave me the job. With hindsight I should have asked, ‘Are your board happy with this?’ but I didn’t.
What do you think Watford could have done to make it a smoother transition?
If we’d waited for three weeks. I could have gone on holiday, which was booked. I got a load of stick because I wasn’t going to China but I’d booked my holiday for my kids. I’m sorry but I had a new job to do when I got back, I wasn’t going to learn anything in China, and I wasn’t going to cancel my kids’ holiday.
Anyway, if we could do it all again, the team could have gone to China without a manager, and then some of the papers might have started floating Dave Bassett’s name as a good choice for Watford. Elton could have let a bit slip. Then people could have got used to the idea.
Eddie Plumley and Muff could have came back with Elton and they could have gone back and said to the board, ‘We’ve interviewed him, we think he’s the man, we like him.’
There was a bit of an anti-Bassett undercurrent from day one. There was me jumping into Graham Taylor’s shoes before he’d left the building.
I remember what Anne French said to me. She was married to Derek French, the Wimbledon physio, and they lived in Watford. On the Sunday night, the day after Elton’s offered me the job, we were at a do in Wimbledon and she said to me, ‘Harry it won’t work. The Watford people won’t take to you. You’re a Londoner and you’re too blunt.’
Derek said jokingly, ‘Oh give it a rest, what do you know about football.’
Well, I should have listened to her instead of him.
Later on, after it was over, Elton and I spoke about it and agreed we did it badly. But I think the board shit on him really. He made the decision on his own and they made sure he knew he’d made it on his own. Bad really, after all he’d done for them.
Graham had sussed out he’d taken his team as far as he could. I’m sure of that.
I’d seen Watford and Sheffield Wednesday play. At Wimbledon we played a long ball game under Allen Batsford when we won the Southern League. Not quite the same but direct. I played for the England amateur side with Charles Hughes [who went on to be head of coaching at the FA and supposedly a proponent of long ball football]. I’d got all my coaching badges. I had seen Watford play.
When I was at Wimbledon, in the Fourth Division, we had played with a sweeper for fun and I changed it to 4-4-2 and direct. I had to sell it to the players and I did and we won the championship.
Was it a style of play you enjoyed? And enjoyed the watch?
It won matches and everyone loves winning, fans, players, directors.
It was a style of play that worked. They were the facts. If you got a certain amount of corners and you were any good at them you’d score from a certain percentage of them. Same with free kicks, same with long throws. Most goals come when you regain the ball from the opposition in the final third.
We designed our own play where we had to get the ball forward, get it into the corners, get a certain amount of crosses in during the game.
We had a good pitch at Wimbledon. It takes high technique to kick the ball into the corners, keep it away from the opposition and keep it in play. Anyone can just boot it off the pitch, but that wasn’t what it was about.
What about the Crazy Gang reputation?
Yeah but that was the press. We were a boisterous group of players, we backed each other up, stuck together. We had loud music, but we didn’t do what John Beck did at Cambridge and flood the away dressing the room or anything like that.
Think of that Wimbledon team. How fucking good it was? [Dave] Beasant, sold for a million, Kevin Gage – Graham Taylor bought him for Villa – Nigel Winterburn went to Arsenal, Andy Thorn, played for England U21, Brian Gayle, went to Man City, Dennis Wise, played for England, Fash [John Fashanu], played for England.
I had a guy called Neil Lanham who analysed the game. How many shots we had, shots on target, off target, shots outside the back, how many breakdowns in our own half, crosses.
Did you set the players targets, the way Graham had done at Watford?
They had targets but I didn’t hammer them every week about it. If they weren’t doing it I’d let them know.
I had a guy called Vince Craven cutting up videos for me. It used to take him hours to cut these videos together. He had all this machinery in his house. He’d cut the videos together for me to show to the players. We weren’t stupid. Video was pretty new then but we knew that if you could show a player what you were talking about it was more effective. Freeze the screen, point at it and say, ‘You’re here but we need you there.’
So was the Wimbledon reputation unfair?
We were a professional club, not a bunch of wild animals. The players drunk more than they do now but they drank at Arsenal, Liverpool, Man United. There weren’t a teetotal club in the country. I was always on to the players about looking after themselves. In 1981 I was making sure the players were taking vitamins and eating the right food.
Where Oli had a go was that we played the offside more than Watford. When we beat Watford both times [in 1986-87] we caught them offside a stack of times. He didn’t like that. Okay, offside is a tool and we used it but if your forwards are that clever don’t get caught out by it every time. It’s in the rules of the game – not my fault if the forwards can’t see our defence is all going to step up a yard and play them offside.
I’d enjoyed beating Watford because they were a club we could measure ourselves against. We weren’t going to be the new Liverpool but we could be like Watford. We won at Vicarage Road, late goal from Glyn Hodges, and we went top of the table [in September 1986]. What a day that was. We felt we’d arrived.
But I had a lot of affection for Watford. I was at Watford as a player for a spell under Ken Furphy. Never played for the first team but I was on the books.
I wanted to do well at Watford. It wasn’t a great game, that one at Vicarage Road. Quite tight. Both sides were poor and one goal decided it. We beat them at Plough Lane and we beat them a lot more easily than I thought we would. We lost to Spurs in the quarter-final of the cup and I was gutted because we’d have fancied ourselves against Watford in the semi-final.
Oli thought we were more violent than Watford. We were competitive but we weren’t the thugs he thought we were. In fairness at that stage we were younger and Vinny [Jones] and Wisey could be a bit silly on one or two occasions. Our disciplinary record wasn’t as good as Watford’s so if you look at the facts probably yes, he had a point. Fash wasn’t dirty but he scared people. Defenders were frightened of him. Lawrie Sanchez wasn’t dirty, Glyn Hodges wasn’t dirty.
Did you want Watford to play the same way as Wimbledon had done?
I was going to do the best I could do with the players I had. I knew Barnes was going, so that would hurt us.
Elton told me that, to be fair to him, but I didn’t really realise how much that was going to be a problem. Elton just wanted me to come in and be the manager of his club and do the job the way I thought was best. He didn’t say any more than that. But I didn’t know Elton before I’d met him that day in my house. I didn’t know how much homework Elton had done on me. He didn’t mess about – he gave me the job but had he done his research? It could have been handled better. I’m not blaming Elton. Someone should have said, ‘Hold on a minute.’
It was all a rush. Saturday I’m at the cup final, then Elton’s in my house. Sunday we have the do at Wimbledon, end of season thing, then Monday I’m at the RAC club for the do there before the China trip and I’m the Watford manager.
I hadn’t done enough due diligence. I should have asked some questions behind the scenes and found out a lot more. There was a bit of money available but not a lot. I mean, I replaced John Barnes with Tony Agana. Tony did a great job for me but he wasn’t John Barnes. Tony had come out of non-league football. I was lucky Steve Harrison didn’t fancy him because he let him come with me to Sheffield United and we did well there.
I brought in Mark Morris from Wimbledon, who was a steady Eddie, but he wasn’t the right one because it became this Wimbledon thing. I should not have brought him because it didn’t do him any favours either. I thought he did well but people saw him as Bassett’s boy and he had to win them round.
I wanted to bring certain of my own staff. John Ward suffered. With hindsight I should have kept Ward because he was a good fella and a very good coach. Steve Harrison was going anyway [to Villa]. But yes, I accept we changed things around too quick.
If I’d gone to Watford three weeks later, the nationals would have sold the idea to the Watford fans. Bassett’s done alright at Wimbledon, we can understand the club considering him. That might have made all the difference, given us all a bit of time. Maybe I’d have calmed down a bit and made the changes a bit more gradually but when you come in you are under pressure straight away to make it your team. I didn’t have any problem with people looking back at what Graham had achieved and saying, ‘That was fantastic,’ because it was fantastic. But I couldn’t have people saying, ‘Graham used to do it this way.’ That was no use to anyone. ‘Yeah, well Graham’s not here now, is he, I am.’ People will hear that and think I’m wrong but I wasn’t Graham Taylor and to be fair I never said to anyone I was the new Graham Taylor. I had to do it my way.
Were you worried about the playing staff you had? They’d just finished ninth and reached the FA Cup semi-final. That was a good team.
We won a game in Sweden by about 16-0 and I thought ‘we’re going to get relegated.’ I don’t fancy this lot at all. There was a general malaise that I could tell. Maybe Graham leaving hit them hard too, I’m sure it did.
I had a lot of players coming to me saying ‘Graham promised me a new contract.’ Some of them were trying it on. The players were okay in training. Of course, different training methods meant they needed to adapt to what I wanted to do. I was horrified. We did the pre-season cross-country and I came in well in front of Richard Hill, Mark Falco and a few others and I thought ‘Fuck me, some of these can’t run.’
I think Graham was changing the style of play more. Again I forced one or two things I shouldn’t have done. I should have given Kevin Richardson more space. I think I tried to change too much too quick. I was impatient and bit inexperienced. In hindsight I shouldn’t have sold Richardson. He was a great player and that was a mistake.
There were some terrific lads. Tony [Coton] was a terrific keeper but we had a few rows. John McClelland was playing up and I think he wanted a move. Steve Terry’s missus had been unwell [with a heart transplant] and he needed time because he was coping with a young baby and his wife being unwell.
I made a mistake with Trevor Senior. That was a bad buy. He was a lovely guy Trevor. I needed a goalscorer but fuck all could happen for him. He wasn’t a great player but he’d scored a lot of goals. And he scored a lot of goals everywhere except at Watford. He went to Middlesbrough and when I was at Sheffield United he killed us, he scored four goals in a 6-0. I couldn’t believe it. I said to him afterwards, ‘Fuck me, Trevor, you scored more goals against me today than you did for me at Watford.’
Against Hull, in my last game, he went round the keeper and rolled it towards goal and it stopped on the line in the mud and we drew 1-1. And that sums up just about everything up for Trevor.
What about the other players you considered? And the ones you let go?
We had Dave Mitchell on trial in Sweden. Dave was alright. I liked him. He’s a manager in Australia now. But I don’t know, I wasn’t sure. He’d done okay at Rangers in Scotland but I wasn’t convinced.
Mark Falco had been tapped up by Graeme Souness and Rangers so we lost him but I wasn’t too worried because in my opinion he couldn’t run and wasn’t going to do for me.
I liked Hilly [Richard Hill] but he was so unfit, he couldn’t run. [See the Richard Hill interview for his account of events]. That was a bad buy by Graham. He can play as part of a three, but not part of a two in midfield. I wanted to play 4-4-2. He didn’t have the legs. I couldn’t believe it.
David Bardsley? I’d decided to go with Gibbsy [Nigel Gibbs]. Timmy Sherwood, Malcolm Allen, Roberts, the Holdsworths, there was half a team in the reserves but I had to put them in a bit early because of some of the others were playing up. Wilf [Rostron] was a terrific lad, so professional but he’d gone a bit over the top, although he was terrific for me at Sheffield United, but that wasn’t the First Division.
I didn’t dislike the Watford lads at all. Even when I dropped Coton and he stormed out of the training ground I still thought Tony was a decent bloke. He was brilliant early on but he got the hump.
Losing Barnesy was a major factor. How do you replace him?
Typical. You wonder how random it is when things like that happen. [Laughs]. When the fixtures come up I thought ‘Oh dear.’ I wanted to beat Wimbledon badly and we did but I knew it wasn’t going to work.
I could sense in two of the three first home games against Wimbledon and Norwich, I knew I was fucked.
Did you sense any unease from the directors?
They weren’t on side. Muir Stratford was a right ****. I’m sure he thought the same about me but I worked him out straight away. Sometimes you just know. I knew we were in for a relegation fight. They haven’t got the spirit, this lot. The bloke taking over Wimbledon has got a better side than I have.
I think Graham had kidded them they were playing more football than they actually were. They wanted to keep possession and play passing football because playing long ball like we did was fucking hard work. You’ve got to be fit, you’ve got to run, you’ve got to be strong. That’s why some players don’t like it. Playing long ball like Graham and I did was double hard work.
I should have sussed out why was Graham leaving. Elton wasn’t ever going to sack Graham. He’d have stayed if they’d got relegated. I think, Graham knew there’s a decent chance of Watford getting relegated eventually. He can’t keep them up for ever.
To be fair, very few of the signings you made worked out.
[Laughs] You don’t need to tell me that. But there wasn’t a load of money. Elton wasn’t bankrolling it. I think people thought, ‘You’ve got Elton John, you’ll have blank cheques.’ But it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t think it was like that with Graham either. What sort of money did he spend? It wasn’t fortunes I don’t think.
The problem was, I looked at them and I thought the Wimbledon players were better. I was intransigent about how we played. It’d been successful with Wimbledon and supposedly I was going to a club with better players. Well, they weren’t better players. Worrell Sterling wasn’t as good as Dennis Wise was he. Fashanu was better than Blissett and Falco. I thought Cally [Nigel Callaghan] was a good player but they’d already sold him. I wanted to get Cally him back. He would have done for me.
I had to get someone to score goals. Trevor had scored goals at Reading. He could be out of the game for long periods but he had a knack of scoring. It was the wrong club at the wrong time for him. He goes to Boro and helps them promoted.
He was crying when I left. He was so apologetic and said, ‘I’ve got you the sack.’ He was such a nice bloke. It didn’t matter what he did he wasn’t going to score. If he gambled and went one way, the ball went the other. If there was a bobble in the pitch he’d find it.
The Wimbledon win was papering over the cracks. We drew at home to Spurs and the crowd booed me, only my second home game and I thought, ‘We’ve not been great but we’ve not been that bad.’ Where were the crowd getting their information? Were they reading the local press and making their minds up before we even got going? We played quite well at Sheffield Wednesday and won.
I have got to be fair, it became evident. We’d lost to Southampton and Everton [away] and I thought ‘we’re going to get relegated.’ We couldn’t score goals.
Did you ‘lose the dressing room’ to quote the cliché.
[Laughs] Did I have the dressing room in the first place? Nah, that’s a bit unfair. They didn’t stitch me up completely but I don’t think they put 100 per cent into it either. Basically the boys got on with it but I did get the feeling that they half-knew I wasn’t going to be there for long.
Sherwood, Allen, Iwan, the Holdsworths, they were great and maybe I should have said, ‘Fuck it, I’m putting them all in and we’ll go down with the kids and come back up.’ It was more the older ones. They weren’t disobedient or anything but they were thinking ‘I’m not sure this is going too well.’ It wasn’t going well, we could all see that but when you’re in the shit you need the experienced ones to really put it in.
In the autumn there were rumours that Elton was trying to sell the club. Do you remember that?
Yeah. I got a phone call when we played at Liverpool. I was in the dressing room and it was Robert Maxwell calling and he said he was coming in. Then we lost 4-0. [Laughs]. Bloody hell, can you imagine if Maxwell had got it? He said he’d spoken with Elton, wished me well. That was the only time I’d spoken to him. Elton was trying to sell the club. Whether that was because I wasn’t a success, I don’t know. I heard he maybe had considered selling before but didn’t because Graham was there. Then he gave me the job and seemed full of enthusiasm again but it didn’t last.
I didn’t have any support from the board. Muff was good as gold. Geoff Smith was okay but not really supportive but Muir and Bertie didn’t like me. That’s fine but if you make life hard for your manager it’s not going to go well is it.
Come Christmas I decided to leave Coton, Blissett, Rostron, Gibbs out. I thought ‘Well, if we’re going down we’re going down my way.’ Last throw of the dice so I thought, ‘Fuck you, I’m letting you know what I think of you.’
We drew at Portsmouth and Trevor scored there, a perfectly good goal that was ruled offside. We lost at Spurs, with a dodgy offside goal. Agana killed Man United. They were hanging on at the death. We played really well in that but lost.
Wilf came to me and said to me, ‘they’re not enjoying it too much.’ We used to work on the back four a lot, work on the offside trap. But McClelland dropped me in the shit because he kept on dropping off and playing people onside. He was that quick, an international player, but he couldn’t do it. Or wouldn’t do it. Andy Thorn was brilliant at it, but McClelland was 15 times faster than Thorn and he kept getting caught out. He just didn’t fancy playing my way.
The players had the power. Really it was a problem. If I’d done my homework I’d have got rid of some more of them.
You’re not going to win many Watford fans over by suggesting selling John McClelland.
[Laughs] Fans don’t see it all though, do they. John wasn’t a bad bloke. I’m sure if I saw him we could say, ‘Well, that didn’t work did it?’ but as I saw it, it was his job to do what I wanted him to do. He was more than capable but he wouldn’t do it. I was completely autocratic at Wimbledon but I was too softly-softly at Watford. I let them train for a while and I watched but I should have come in and said, ‘Right, this is where we’re going. If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine, we’ll get you away.’ That’s what Graham did. He wouldn’t pander to a player who didn’t fancy doing what he wanted.
I was pandering to them for a while. When I went to Sheffield United I didn’t fuck about. I had a few players who said ‘we can’t play like this’ and I said ‘well, no offence, but you ain’t going to be here are you. I’ll help you get away, but there’s no point you being here if you don’t want to do it.’
No problem if they didn’t want to be part of it. In that sense, Watford was a great learning experience for me. I thought, I am not going to pander to anyone any more.
Instead of laying the challenge down. I could have sold McClelland to Sheffield Wednesday in pre-season. Howard Wilkinson wanted to take him. I’d seen him play. He thought he was a decent centre-half but the old dog didn’t want to change.
It wasn’t just the existing players, though, was it? The signings didn’t set the world on fire either.
They didn’t cost anything. Add it up – [Peter] Hetherston, Agana, [Gary] Chivers, Morris, hardly any money, less than a 100k on any of them. Maybe that was the problem – I tried to cover the gaps with half a dozen players when maybe I should have gone for two or three good ones and hope they’d be enough.
I knew [Glyn] Hodges would be a very good player. He was the most expensive but he was the best too. Even Watford fans would have to say he wasn’t a bad buy! Morris was a squad player, a good influence round the place, but he ended up playing every game. The Steve Terry situation was unfortunate. We missed him.
Like I say, perhaps I should have been totally uncompromising about it. ‘Look lads, what’s gone is gone, if you don’t want to do it, let’s not mess each other about. But you do it or you go. If you stay and you don’t do it, we’re going to fall out big style.’
Did certain players not make it obvious? Kevin Richardson wanted to leave, I think.
Maybe he did but he didn’t come to me direct and say, ‘Can you move me on?’ I’d have appreciated Kevin coming in and saying he wanted to go. That would have made life easier.
When I went to Sheffield United we got relegated [to Division Three]. I said I was going to do it my way, within reason. The players didn’t have it and we went down. Then I cleared everyone out and said, ‘Right, now we’re going to do it this way.’
I got Agana and Hetherston in and Watford did us a favour and took Martin Kuhl for 90 grand.
So when you eventually left Watford, how did it happen?
I heard the jungle drums. I knew it was coming. I had to win some games and even then I knew it might not be enough. I thought well if we can get a win at Pompey, a draw at Spurs maybe I’ll be okay, but I knew it was coming.
How did you know?
People are telling you! You lose 1-3 at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day and they’ll tell you! Losing at home to Luton a couple of weeks before that, they tell you. Once we came out of the Luton game having lost I thought, ‘Well, we’re done now.’
The mood round the place told me. One or two people were ducking and diving, people round the club not making eye contact. [Alan] Gillett, Frenchy, Geoff Taylor [Bassett’s staff] were hearing whispers.
I remember when we’d lost to Coventry 1-0 and a couple of days later I was asked to present something to the supporters’ club and the atmosphere was fucking hostile it really was. Derek French and his wife and my wife were, not to put too fine a point on it, shitting themselves.
I thought ‘fuck you, I’ll face up to you’. My missus said to me, ‘Christ, Harry, they hate you. You can’t survive here.’ She’d not realised it because she wasn’t at the club that regularly.
I said, ‘You’re probably right but we can try to win a few matches.’ But we were absolutely inept against Sheffield Wednesday and that was when I thought that I’d rather go down with my team and I dropped Coton, Blissett and a couple of others.
And when the axe finally fell?
I went to see Elton round at John Reid’s house after the Manchester United game. We’d lost 1-0 but we’d played well. He rung me up and said, ‘We need to have a chat.’ I had a few glasses of Champagne with him and it was all perfectly amicable. I understood, he couldn’t stand by me because the results were so bad. I’d been tapped up before this by Sheffield United anyway so I thought, well, I’m going one way or the other. He either sacks me or I leave so we were just straightforward about it.
Just before Christmas, Ron Noades rang me to see if I wanted the Sheffield United job so I knew I’d not be out of work.
So you were looking for the exit?
Well, I’d have stuck it out if there was an ounce of support for me but if you’re not wanted, you’re not wanted. They were going to sack me they were just waiting to get their replacement.
I got on well with Eddie Plumley [the chief executive]. On New Year’s Day I said to him, ‘Come clean with me, I’m struggling here aren’t I?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you are.’
I got on okay with Eddie. After the defeat at Spurs he didn’t say I was definitely gone but he said enough to let me know I was gone.
Elton was good as gold. He said, ‘It just ain’t meant to be.’
I was in a fortunate position that Sheffield United’s chairman Reg Brearley rang me after the Spurs game. I was going to panto in Richmond with my kids and Reg rang me and said, ‘I think you’re history at Watford.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I’m gone.’
The amazing thing was, I still hadn’t signed my contract at Watford yet. I trusted Elton. I didn’t think they’d stitch me up and they didn’t. He was absolutely straight with me. He could have tried to duck out of what the club owed and it would have been easy to do it because I had nothing signed, but he didn’t. I’ll always appreciate that.
After that Man United game [on January 2] he said, ‘Look, take the team on Saturday for the Hull game [in the FA Cup third round] and we’ll announce it [Bassett’s departure] then.’
I’d have loved to have beaten Hull, I’d have loved for Senior to score but his shot stopped on the line. Elton said to me afterwards, ‘Well, Harry, that just about sums you up doesn’t it.’
I’m looking at it now [we were referring to a list of the fixtures] and Christ, I didn’t have much chance did I? Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day, lost 3-1. Portsmouth two days after that, draw. Tottenham four days later, lost. Then Man United the next day, lost. You’ve got Tottenham and Man United on consecutive days. When your luck’s out your luck’s out. And when you’re crap and you’ve got four games in, what, a week, you’ve got no chance. We could have won all those games but it was never going to be a turning point. Even if we’d won those games if we’d have had another bad run I’d have been gone then. Me and Watford just wasn’t meant to work out.
What did Elton do for you?
I had a Jag, he bought that from the club to give to me. He paid for my wife and kids to go to California that summer to Disneyland and all that. He looked after me and we parted on good terms.
Did you say anything to the players when you left?
Not really, I was out the door. Tony [Coton] did say to me, he did admit to me that he was being a bit of a ****. The thing was, I liked Tony.
At least you learned something from the whole experience.
Yeah, but don’t get me wrong, I’d have preferred it to work out, no matter what the fans think. I wasn’t fucking it up on purpose. But I learned a lot. At Sheffield United I had three interviews. I met them, I talked to them. They asked me to work with the existing staff and I said ‘Okay, but if at the end of the season if I want my own people, I’ll sack ’em.’ One was Danny Bergara, lovely fella but not my cup of tea.
Had I done my due diligence I would have turned Watford down. I’d have realised that following GT was a bad idea. You can’t do that. It’s like going on after the Beatles. A newspaper sports editor said to me a bit later, ‘Harry, I can’t believe you didn’t ring round a few of us and ask us because we’d have told you to steer clear. Following Graham at Watford was the impossible job.’
The three days I had at Palace I went to the Sports Writers dinner and a sports editor said to me, ‘What do you want to go there for now, at this stage of your career? You’re doing brilliantly at Wimbledon.’ I was half thinking it but he actually said it. It had a big effect on me. He said he was looking from the outside in and sometimes you have to look at it from a distance. With Watford I had no one advising me. No one saying, ‘Hang on, have you thought this through?’
When Aidy Boothroyd was manager you were back working for Watford.
I did a bit of work for Aidy, yeah. We got on well on a [coaching] course. I was a little bit of a mentor for him. He asked my advice. Some fans said ‘well, you fucked this club up we can do without your help,’ but that’s not how football works. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Ah it didn’t work out at Watford before so I’ll not touch that.’ I wanted to help Aidy and he did well.
So the wounds had healed a bit?
I’ll not lie, I had a big hatred for Watford when I left. Not Elton and some of the others who were good to me. But in general I never had a chance. I blame Oli Phillips a lot. I quite like Oli in a way but I wasn’t his cup of tea. He dug up some stuff. His stories were nonsense. He did one saying ‘Bassett’s allowing players to wear jeans to training.’ Well, fuck me, what’s wrong with a pair of jeans? We didn’t allow them to have jeans with holes in. What’s wrong with a smart pair of jeans? Manchester United players go to training in jeans. It was a build-up of everything and I felt that things were being invented – or made a big deal of – to paint me in a bad light.
When Sheffied United beat you in the cup, I fucking loved that. We got promoted, you didn’t. I loved that too.
That was because what happened at Watford hurt. I was gutted when Steve Harrison took over and said the players weren’t fit. He apologised later, but he knew that was wrong because those players were fit. The ones in the team were fit and they worked hard. They may have done more for Graham than for me but I know those players were fit because we timed them on the runs and we knew if they weren’t fit. We weren’t stupid. I pulled Steve Harrison for that and said, ‘You know that’s not true,’ and he did apologise for that. Even if you think the team isn’t fit you keep it to yourself.
It worked out for me in the end. I had a great eight years at Sheffield United. They’re a much bigger club than Wimbledon or Watford. I’m loved in Sheffield.
Gradually my hurt and hatred diminished. I mellowed maybe and I forgot about the bad days. In a way it helped me because I’d had more or less constant success at Wimbledon and thought I could do no wrong.
What’s your relationship with the supporters like now?
Well, I don’t think there’s too many that like me. Yes, I got a bit of grief from the fans but I never got threatened by them. I got some stick. You had letters in the paper. I was getting grief. I knew I wasn’t popular.
But now I see comments about ‘the disastrous Bassett era.’ It wasn’t an era – it was only six months! We didn’t have a chance to have an era.
I keep going back to the same things but people say I sold all the best players, but they weren’t my type of players. Barnes leaving was nothing to do with me – I tried to stop it. We had a conversation but it was done and Elton had told me he was going to Liverpool. There was no way I was going to stop that. Tony and McClelland were trying to go. I wouldn’t have kept Falco. Mark was quite technically good but he was so fucking slow. He wasn’t my type of player so there was no point trying to keep him. We got money for Richardson, we got money for Hill, Bardsley, we made money on.
My missus won’t go near the place. She really hates the place. She probably heard a bit more of it behind the scenes because she’d be in the bar and overhear stuff. The day we left she said, ‘I’m never going back.’ Still today, she loves it when they lose. [Laughs] When I worked for Aidy she did soften a bit because she liked Aidy and his wife.
But you live and learn. Don’t let your emotions make decisions for you.