PHYSIO Derek French had his work cut out in Wimbledon’s madcap Crazy Gang era. In this interview with WDSA ‘Frenchie’ talks about working under Dave Bassett, his role in bringing Vinnie Jones to the Dons and his times afterwards under Bassett at Sheffield United.
(i) Let’s start back to when you first joined Wimbledon FC, back in 1982 from your part-time duties at Barnet FC, you were driving a mini-cab to make ends meet. Give us a sense of those times, how you felt becoming part of the Dons after their relegation back to the old Division 4, what were your expectations?
Frenchie: There I was a humble cab driver from Watford, working as a part-time physiotherapist at Barnet FC with the amazing Barry Fry when I got a phone call from Alan Gillett “Frenchie, we’ve heard some good things about you and we’d like to interview you for the Physio’s job we have coming up. Would you be interested?” I replied ” YES…. What’s the money like?” .. “Same as everyone else’s. SHIT!” I then said “‘Yes, I’d love too….” And that was the beginning of the end for me. I can’t tell you how excited I was going into professional football full time, (my dream came true) but I soon realised it wasn’t going to be easy….. Wally Downes, who was, of course, Mr Wimbledon, decided to take me under his wing, but in truth he was manipulating me as the fall guy. After several attempts on my life which culminated with me being hung over the side of the ocean-going ferry by ankles I realised that I had to look after myself. Being at Wimbledon was all about survival. I got back at most of the players by rubbing deep heat cream in their underpants whilst they were out training. Happy revenge when they were driving home.
(ii) What was it like under Dave ‘Harry’ Bassett in those days? He says you were born to be part of the zany Crazy Gang days of Wimbledon FC. Wally Downes believes you were Harry’s best-ever ‘signing’. What were you doing apart from your physio duties at the club?
Frenchie: Working for Dave Bassett was a real eye- opener for me, he was the total opposite to Barry Fry and was determined to be successful and demanded that everyone around him have the same attitude and his dedication to that end had no bounds. He was a hard man, with little sympathy for the weak, short on praise he expected total loyalty to the Wimbledon cause. He very rarely had a ‘well done’ to the players after games, if they didn’t get a bollocking, they knew they’d done okay. He was never one to put his arm round you, but he has this charisma so that you loved and hated him at the same time. He’s the best people’s person I have worked with in all time. His favourite phrase was ‘Never give a mug a chance.’
(iii) You were very influential in Vinnie Jones joining Wimbledon from Wealdstone. Can you give us the background to how that all came about?
Frenchie: Vinnie and I lived in the same village, Bedmond, just outside Watford. It must of been the hardest village in the world, there was so many tough characters. I played with and got to know Vinnie during that time, although I’d knew him since he was about 11. At the age of about 16 he started to blossom as a player and was on Watford’s books at the time which he has chronicled in his book. Things started to go wrong for him at Watford, I thought he would suit Wimbledon well, and managed to get Dave Bassett to give him a go.
(iv) Vinnie is certainly one who wore his heart on his sleeve on the football pitch. What about the time you had to ‘blow your top’ to intervene and prevent Vinnie from chinning Harry Bassett after he was substituted during a high-octane match with Portsmouth? Vinnie later said in his autobiography that you regarded him as ‘his boy, his prodigy’. You must have had a close bond with him. Do you still have contact with him?
Frenchie: I used to drive him into Wimbledon for first six months, until Dave Bassett lent him the money to buy a car, the rest is history. I still go out to LA to see him, I love him like a son, he’s a very generous and caring person. The only time we fell out, was when he was going to chin Harry after he’d been substituted and I completely lost it with him, he was pretty volatile anyway, but like Dave Bassett he was determined to be a success.
(v) And care to fill us on the time opposition manager Billy McNeill chased you down the players tunnel at Manchester City and you barricaded yourself in the team dressing room after you gave him some stick on the sidelines?
Frenchie: The Billy McNeill story was a strange one really, we were playing Man City away, and we were sitting in the dug-outs and I was looking to my left towards their bench, when Kevin Gage took out their winger on the touchline, McNeill went mad and looked at our bench as I was the nearest to him, he shouted at me saying ” What are you F****** laughing at!” Which I was. At half-time as we were walking down the tunnel, he came after me like a mad man, and he was a big guy. I jumped into the dressing room, and pushed the metal kit skip against the door to stop him getting in, I was pushing the door from the inside to make sure he wasn’t getting in. After he’d gone, Harry came in and thought it was absolutely hilarious, no more was said but I didn’t go in for a drink with him after the game.
(vi) Harry upped and left Wimbledon firstly for an ill-fated time at Watford and then on to Sheffield United where he brought in several players and staff (including you) from his Wimbledon days. How did you adapt? The dressing room soon divided so poisonously north v south that five-a-sides were banned in training. What was the gaffer’s solution and the outcome?
Frenchie: Sheffield United was a really exciting time for me, of course it was a complete change to what we had at Wimbledon. Big crowds, big expectations. It became a new way of life for me and I’ve stayed in Sheffield ever since and started a new family. The Sheffield lads are brilliant, but we did start to get some unrest in the dressing room between those from the north and those from the south, which had started as a joke, but was starting to get out of hand. Bassett’s idea of a cure was to get the players away and to get it sorted out. So myself and John Greaves the kit man, were told we were driving two minibuses to some god forsaken army camp in Wales with the first team squad. This was straight after a reserve game at Rotherham, and by the time we got to Wales I was as tired as I’ve ever been in my life. We had four days down there, but there was never any sign of Harry. So myself and the kit man were left to sort it out. There are too many strands to tell all of the stories that occurred at the camp but sufficed to say it ended in a punch up with some of the players making their own way home, after that the Blades went on a great run and calm was restored. Well done me and John Greaves.
(vii) I’ve been nudged by a Sheffield United fan to ask you about the Christmas parties in August!!, your famous pink cap and sharing a bed and a haunted flat with Wally Downes and Bob Booker?
Frenchie: The Christmas party was actually my idea, we were having a drink one Friday after training. I said to Harry we never seem to get going until after Christmas, so why don’t we have a Christmas party. Harry seemed to think it was a good idea, and the next day the party was planned. People often asked me why I wore a pink cap, this started when I wanted to get some new golf clubs. So Vinnie said to me, I’ll get you sponsored so you can have some new clubs, but you’ll have to wear a cap with the golf clubs name on it. Hello pink cap. The haunted house in Sheffield where about 12 of us stayed, players and staff. Bob Booker and Me, shared a double bed, one night we both woke up at the same time as we felt the bed was moving, as we looked down there was a figure bouncing on the end of the bed, it frightened both of us to death. We think the figure, may have been the landlord Ian Whitehorne, as perhaps the club hadn’t paid the rent and was getting his revenge. Bob was so scared, he moved out and went to live with Chris Wilder and left me on my own.
Respect to the fans of both clubs.
**** The Derek French interview is reproduced from the Wombles Downunder fanzine. Details on how you can subscribe to Wombles Downunder.