The twentieth anniversary of the pugnacious Londoner’s Blades exit arrived on Saturday, with arguably the most fabled managerial reign ever at S2 ending in belligerent fashion – and almost in a car-park fight.
The date was December 12, 1995. The frost had been gathering at the Lane and it was nothing to do the weather, but everything to do with Bassett’s deteriorating relationship with the Blades board.
Bassett’s days were effectively numbered when Reg Brearley sold out to Manchester-based businessman Mike McDonald and it was McDonald’s acolyte, Charles Green, who wielded the axe and delivered news of his sacking that winter’s day.
A cash dispute then ensued between Bassett and Green – born in the tough mining village of Goldthorpe and an ex-Mexborough Sunday League footballer.
Details of the contratemps between Bassett, in the one corner, and Green – who later became chief executive of the Blades and who more recently has had his fair share of vicissitudes at Glasgow Rangers – was chronicled in a book entitled Fit and Proper?: Conflicts and Conscience in an English Football Club.
An excerpt read: “Bassett... claimed that his pay-off wasn’t the full amount owed to him and an argument ensued with Charles Green.
“The club’s management style of the time decreed that Green offered to settle the dispute by physical means in the car park; it wasn’t the first time he had employed this unique style of ‘diplomacy’.
“But Bassett called his bluff and Green backed down.”
Back in early 1993, Bassett had famously commented about football being a “volatile and moody business” and his exit from the club he had grown to love certainly underlined that.
It was a sad end to Bassett’s roller-coaster time at United, with plenty more ups than downs, it has to be said.
The Londoner remains the Blades’ longest-serving manager in modern times, with his tenure, which lasted seven years and 11 months putting the club back on the footballing map after some moribund days in the eighties.
Bassett arrived in January, 1988, with the Blades at a low ebb, with no cash, laden with debt and scant quality in their playing ranks and entrenched in 18th place in Division Two.
Not for the first time in his career, Bassett had to roll up his sleeves and adopt his best pugilistic stance. He was in for a fight and quickly ceded that his players did not have the “fire in their bellies” he took as a given.
It was Bassett’s drive and infectious enthusiasm which saw him get the nod ahead of the likes of Keith Burkinshaw, Ken Brown and Cyril Knowles with the revered Lane director Dooley enthusing: “He’s more than a breath of fresh air: he’s more like a hurricane.
“He could even have got me playing for him and I’ve only got one leg!”
As the saying goes, sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. Which they did with the Blades relegated to the third tier at the end of 1987-88 after a play-off loss to Bristol City.
After a 1-1 draw in the first leg in Bristol on May 15, 1988 – the day after a Wimbledon side featuring a host of Bassett’s ex players won the FA Cup – the Blades lost the second leg four days later. But it proved the point in which their fortunes crucially bottomed out.
That summer, a gangly, shy lad from Leeds called Brian Deane was brought in from Doncaster for £40,000 and paired with a Londoner in Tony Agana up top.
Throw in a goal-scoring winger in Ian ‘Jock’ Bryson and blend in the likes of legendary centre-half Paul Stancliffe and a few choice others and the rest was history. The Blades juggernaut powered back into the Second Division at the first time of asking – scoring goals left, right and centre and possessing the DNA that Unitedites demand.
Just like at Wimbledon, Bassett was onto something special, with his bunch of blue-collar grafters more akin to a band of sporting brothers.
They ripped through the Second Division before clinching promotion at Filbert Street on one of the most celebrated days in the club’s history in May, 1990.
The Blades’ exploits during that legendary 1989-90 season were captured in a documentary called ‘United!’ – including that sweltering day in Leicester when 10,000 Blades fans headed south.
Needing a win to clinch promotion, Bassett’s final words to his players just before kick-off were succinct: “If you’re shi**ing yourself, just imagine what me and Bag (nickname for his number two Geoff Taylor) are doing..” The Blades won 5-2.
The most tumultuous chapter in Bassett’s Blades story was still to come, though, in an infamous and downright crazy 1990-91.
It looked nailed on that the Blades would suffer a promotion or relegation for the fourth season in a row, with Bassett’s side desperately marooned at the foot of the First Division with seemingly no hope.
After 16 games, the rock-bottom Blades had no wins and just four points to their name and were 11 points adrift of safety. Then it happened.
December 22, 1990 proved the catalyst for United, who beat Nottingham Forest 3-2 to set off a scarcely believable chain of events which culminated in a 13th place finish.
The Blades’ renaissance included a seven-match winning streak from late January with Bassett earning the ‘manager of the month’ award for March, 1991 and a big tribute from the one and only Brian Clough – not one to distribute praise wantonly.
Clough reflected: “If I had a vote he would not only be manager of the month but miracle worker of the season.”
The next year, United were ninth, with Bassett’s stock such that he signed a new four-year deal in time for the inaugural Premier League season.
That 1992-93 campaign saw United finish 14th – and face Sheffield Wednesday in an all-Steel City FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. But the heartache that day was superseded by events in another destination in the capital in Stamford Bridge in May, 1994.
A cruel stoppage-time goal by Chelsea’s Mark Stein condemned the Blades to relegation in a shattering 3-2 final-day loss and saved the skins of Everton.
Bassett rued: “When you play ‘Russian Roulette’, you sometimes get the bullet.
Eighth place in the second tier in Bassett’s final full season was unremarkable with boardroom tension rising, having surfaced a few years earlier during the Sam Hashimi saga.
Brearley eventually sold up to McDonald with Bassett’s goose cooked just before Christmas 1995. True to form, he went out fighting.