Sheffield United: '˜I'm not sure I'd do anything differently...' '“Â Patrick Suffo remembers '˜The Battle of Bramall Lane' as West Brom prepare to return to scene of infamous game
As the Championship's third and fifth-placed teams prepare to do battle tomorrow evening, the latest meeting between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion certainly promises much.
Chris Wilder's Blades innovators, with centre-backs flying forward at speed, against Darren Moore's great entertainers; both scoring and conceding more goals than any other side in the second tier this season.
Little wonder, then, that Sky TV have once again chosen this fixture for live broadcast, resulting in the kick-off change to a Friday evening. But, whatever the outcome, the game surely has some way to go to be remembered as fondly, or infamously, as the 2002 clash between these two sides in South Yorkshire.
Later dubbed '˜The Battle of Bramall Lane', the match was abandoned, with West Brom leading 3-0, after United were reduced to SIX men by a combination of injury and ill-discipline.
An on-field brawl saw two of Neil Warnock's substitutes, Georgos Santos and Patrick Suffo,Â sent off less than a minute after coming off the bench, and relations - especially between Warnock and his then-opposite number, Gary Megson '“Â were soured even further.
Moore, who will return to Bramall Lane tonight for the first time since being appointed as Albion boss, played at the back for the Baggies that day in March 2002. But the seeds for the chaos were sown the season previous, when United midfielder Santos was badly hurt after being elbowed by Andy Johnson and was forced to undergo a five-hour operation to insert a metal plate into his face.
Johnson, Santos alleges, didn't apologise for the incident and even attempted to suggest that the Frenchman was partly culpable, an episode that Santos wasn't in a hurry to forget as he was sent on by Warnock with United already down to ten men, after Simon Tracey's early red card, and West Brom already two goals ahead.
'Georges came on because our few chances in the game had come from set-plays and free-kicks, and he's a big lad,' Suffo remembers of the game.
'I don't think he was sent out there to smash Johnson. In my mind, we'd already lost the game and didn't do anything to get it abandoned or replayed.
'We were down to ten men after about ten minutes and everyone was very tired, having given more than they could in a normal game. It wasn't intentional to stop the game'¦Â they're only rumours.'
With Santos and Suffo on the field, what followed went down in football folklore.
A pass across midfield by Baggies captain Derek McInnes, towards Johnson, was woefully underhit '“Â althoughÂ Santos' United teammate, Laurent D'Jaffo, later described it as a '˜ball from God' '“Â and Santos wasn't about to pass up the invitation, crashing into Johnson with a horrendous challenge.
Cue mayhem. Suffo, United's Cameroonian striker, saw red for headbutting McInnes right in front of referee Eddie Wolstenholme and Keith Curle became heavily involved, while the normally mild-mannered Moore '˜had the devil in him trying to get at United's players' according to Johnson.
With Michael Brown and Rob Ullathorne later succumbing to injuries, the match was abandoned and the result was later allowed to stand by the FA.
'George made the tackle, which was very, very bad tackle, but he had the incident before in mind,' Suffo, speaking to theÂ Not The Top 20 podcast, added.
'Every player from West Brom jumped on George, and I wasn't going to leave my teammate to get smashed while I stand there.
'I jumped in, and McInnes came from behind and grabbed me in my face, so I reacted how I reacted. I turned round and headbutted him.
'I didn't go in there to try and kill anyone or hurt anyone'¦Â I tried to protect George.
'The ref was right next to me at the time but I didn't think about that at the time'¦Â I'm not proud of what happened but it was in the heat of the moment. I'm not even sure I touched the ball that day!
'When I look back at my career and at the highlights, that game is right up there with winning the Olympics and playing in the World Cup. These are moments to remember, and I can't speak about my career without mentioning that game.
'And, if I was back in the same situation, I don't know if I'd react any differently.'