The Bassett Years: It Wasn't All Bad
Mark Evans looks at Dave Bassett’s time at Vicarage Road, and the arrival of Glyn Hodges
Mention Dave Bassett to Watford fans of a certain age and it will almost certainly provoke a hostile reaction. Bassett was brought in from Wimbledon as Graham Taylor’s replacement in the summer of 1987, and superficially the two managers had plenty in common. Both teams had used Charles Reep as an analyst, and played variations of long-ball football. Like Watford, Wimbledon had gone from the 4th to 1st Division (actually from the Southern League for the Dons). However, Watford were more refined, despite Fleet Street criticism. Their discipline was much better, and GT would never have endorsed using intimidating behaviour to unsettle opponents, whereas John Fashanu was handy with his elbows, Vinnie Jones would take out the opposing dangerman, and team unity was based on high jinks and even fights between team mates – one example of the dressing room banter involved cutting up a team mate’s clothes. Individually though, when sold, Wimbledon players like Dennis Wise and Nigel Winterburn fitted perfectly into ‘footballing’ sides.
Bassett took Sheffield United into the First Division after leaving Watford, and it was more ‘wrong club, wrong time’ than that he wasn’t a good manager. He had Watford connections – he had been a junior at the club, and his father-in-law was ex-Watford goalkeeper Tommy Carpenter. As a semi-pro Bassett won ten amateur England caps and then went on to captain Wimbledon into the Football League. He was a lively character and could speak without taking a breath! There was much to admire, but at Watford it just didn’t work out. Somehow it always seemed to be a grey, drizzly day at the Vic when Bassett was manager. I was an indefatigable youth during his reign, and remember singing his name at a few away games, but generally it was a dismal time to support the club. Had Elton consulted his board, who apparently resented his haste in appointing Bassett, they might have put forward John Ward or Steve Harrison to maintain continuity. Bassett felt Watford fans weren’t passionate enough, and over-critical, given he had inherited a team that had lost John Barnes and Mark Falco, but he weakened it further with his own changes, selling playmaker Kevin Richardson (to Arsenal) and others (such as David Bardsley), with their replacements failing (at least in the short-term). Ultimately, he alienated Watford fans through his style of play, bad results, and probably simply by not being GT.
However, one positive legacy of the era was Glyn Hodges, signed in October 1987. He had played in all four divisions with Wimbledon under Bassett, but unlike his mentor, a rugged defender nicknamed ‘Dirty Harry’, Hodges was a left winger with skill.
He joined after an unhappy spell at Newcastle, where he was deployed on the right rather than his favoured left side. He had close control, put pinpoint crosses into the box, and had long-distance shooting ability, which twice won him the Goal of the Season award. He was even Player of the Season in 1988/89 despite missing most of the campaign with injury. He lacked pace (something referred to by the first-ever Watford fanzine Mud, Sweat and Beers on the cover of Issue 1) and sometimes wasn’t too keen on tracking back, in contrast to the athletic John Barnes, but was described as having ‘a level of skill and vision equal to that of his illustrious predecessor’ by Trefor Jones in his 1996 Watford Who’s Who.
One of his spectacular (wind-assisted) goals came at Oakwell on a night so blustery and wet the hardy band of away fans were allowed to leave the away end for the seats, given that the conditions were unseasonally bleak even for Barnsley in winter. Mike Vince commentated on another, on a club highlights video from 1989, gasping his Alan Partridge-style “ooh my word” as Hodges curls a shot into the corner of the Oldham net from the edge of the penalty area and capturing the excitement. It’s on YouTube if you want a watch – you can also find him playing against Newcastle in the Soccer Six.
Hodges was a Welsh international – despite being born in Streatham, he had a Welsh father, like Kenny Jackett. Being of Welsh descent myself, I had the Hummel Wales shirt he wore on international duty. Looking back, it wasn’t a good time to wear it to games, as some of our fans didn’t seem to like the Welsh much! I recall nearly being thumped at Dean Court by a couple of stroppy Watford fans. I wonder if they still go?
It’s an indication of how good he was that Howard Wilkinson sent out Mel Sterland to man-mark him in a game. We don’t see that tactic so much these days, but it was common back then. He was like Craig Ramage – a relatively short-term Hornet, but one with skill levels that created things, and a fan favourite – and not just at Watford. Palace fans raised the funds for his £450,000 transfer fee by setting up a Grand National sweepstake, while he was compared to Tony Currie at Sheffield United.
He made 86 Watford appearances, scoring 15 goals. He also won 18 Wales caps. He ended his playing career with Scarborough in 1999, going on to manage AFC Wimbledon, and twice serving as Barnsley’s caretaker manager. He coached Wales U-21s, and has been reserve manager or first-team coach at Manchester City, Blackburn, Fulham, Stoke and QPR. He’s currently Bradford City’s assistant manager. Much more importantly, though, he was one of my favourite Hornets – despite his connection with Bassett.