What’s turned Seb Bassong from Championship outcast to vital Premier League cog at Norwich? Francis Kelly believes it’s the threat of Alex Neil going medieval on his ass
Medieval England: a hotbed for righteous teaching and soul redemption through the means of torture. From the rack to dunking, with a little bit of stake-burning occasionally lighting up events in between, those tunic-wearing ancestors believed any misdemeanor could be rectified through corrective punishment.
Stolen a lettuce? Have a week in the stocks. Taken the Lord’s name in vein? Off with your tongue. Whatever the incident, there was always an appropriate punishment to remedy the situation.
And the practice lives on today: comprehensively defeat Sunderland? Endure a befuddling 10-minute analysis of your team from Ian Wright on Match of the Day. Even Seb Bassong has been on the receiving end of 13th-century threats. In an interview with The Times, he revealed how Alex Neil made it clear in his first conversation with the defender that ball-breaking would take place if there was any more “fucking around”.
So don’t be surprised if he’s still experiencing Neil’s ‘nuts-in-a-vice’ reprimand right now for allowing Jamie Vardy to slither ahead of him, tumble to the ground in a most blatant manner, and secure a game-changing penalty on Saturday against Leicester. In truth, it was an uncharacteristic offence by Bassong; caught out by the sly cunning of Vardy, he got himself into a position of no return, much like a prize-winning poker veteran entranced into an easy score by taking on a novices’ Hail Mary all-in play only to find out there’s much more behind the loud mouth and wacky haircut.
It was an unfortunate error to make, though, coming at a crucial juncture in the match, as Norwich attempted to capitalise on their favourable start in front of their largest all-seater home crowd. It should also be noted that, in all probability, Neil is highly unlikely to inflict masochistic treatment on his players for mistakes, yet it is a curious respect that bonds Bassong and Neil together. Built upon the defender’s admiration of the manager’s hard-man persona and tough-love technique, boundaries are plainly set out.
“You can't mess with him,” Bassong once said of Neil. “He's straight, a fair man. I remember laughing a couple of times at the way he was putting people in their place. But he doesn't joke. You can't take liberties. He has standards.”
It’s an approach that’s clearly required to get the best out of Bassong, whose mischievous side can sometimes get the better of him. There are numerous instances where his misplaced antics have caused trouble. You only have to recall Bassong’s collaboration in the end-of-season drenching of his previous Tottenham boss, Harry Redknapp, live on TV to witness a man unknowingly jeopardising his future at the club. And, just like the Victorian tradition of hiding the master’s embarrassment by banishing their illegitimate pregnant mistress to the countryside, Bassong was eventually ushered out of Spurs to the green pastures of Norwich.
The tomfoolery continued nonetheless: first there was an Instagram picture of him holding a gun and then the infamous conduct that resulted in a loan to Watford last season.
However, since Neil’s arrival, Bassong has developed into a mature ball-playing centre-back. With the onus now on retaining possession and shifting play quickly, Bassong performs like the flippers in a pinball machine zipping the ball about. He leads Norwich’s defensive passing accuracy with 83%, and sits fifth-highest in the squad of those to have started in the Premier League behind the midfield quartet of Wes Hoolahan, Alex Tettey, Graham Dorrans and Jonny Howson.
He is a player who’s always been blessed with the necessary components to thrive in modern football, whose higher destiny has only been foiled by sporadic unsuspecting mind-farts. Strong, decisive, Bassong is programmed to make well-timed tackles rather than the occasionally successful crunching showpiece challenge; he seeks out danger and eliminates the threat with the clinical demeanor of the Terminator.
At his best, he’s a joy to watch, a Porsche housed in an American muscle car; pistons pumping, he glides in to remove any oncoming hazard, albeit with the occasional splutter and blowout that can cause an accident. Still the right side of 30, he’s got lots of years left in the engine.
Bassong has never had a steady existence at Norwich, although it is the side he’s made the most appearances for in his career. Arriving after a tortuous summer of Paul Lambert politics and Grant Holt rumours, he swung from player of the season under his old Newcastle manager Chris Hughton to outcast under Neil Adams.
Now onto his third Norwich manager, his ability to adjust has seen him become a vastly improved footballer and a crucial factor in the side’s success, even if it’s at the expense of a couple of broken balls.
Francis Kelly is a freelance sportswriter and broadcaster. You can follow him on Twitter at @_Franciskelly