Sheffield United v Millwall: 'The Rumble in the Tunnel' with one of those in the thick of the action

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“It was all going mental, totally mental, and that’s why I probably decided to hit it if I’m being honest,” Derek Geary says, remembering probably his most talked about contribution in a Sheffield United shirt.

It came 17 years ago, during the ‘Rumble in the Tunnel’ with Millwall - an extraordinary fixture settled, thanks to Geary’s right boot, by an extraordinary goal.

A professional for the best part of a decade and a half, the Irishman achieved plenty during an eventful and at times excruciating career eventually cut short by injury. Part of a select band of players to represent both Sheffield clubs, Geary’s CV at Bramall Lane includes a promotion from the Championship, nearly 30 Premier League appearances and three outings in the Steel City derby. But for sheer unadulterated drama few, if any, of those contests could hold a candle to the one he took part in on a crisp December afternoon in south London.

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“It started okay, but then things started to get a bit niggly and a few words were getting exchanged out there,” Geary admits, casting his mind back to a game which saw both sides reduced to 10 men following a half-time bust up and then finish with his fellow defender Phil Jagielka pulling on the gloves for the visitors.

“I was one of the last to come off the pitch at the break and, as I was making my way to the dressing room, I suddenly heard this roar going up and it was all kicking off.

“I got in there for our team talk and Paddy (Kenny) our ‘keeper was sat there with this massive lump on his head.

"He’d had an exchange of words with Kevin Muscat, the Millwall lad, and ended up being headbutted. But Paddy could handle himself and given him a load back. If Muscat was wanting a reaction then, out of all of us, he definitely picked the right person because Paddy would never ignore something like that.

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“The gaffer didn’t realise it straight away I don’t think, but Paddy and Muscat had both got red cards from the referee.

Neil Warnock congratulates Derek Geary on his goal against MillwallNeil Warnock congratulates Derek Geary on his goal against Millwall
Neil Warnock congratulates Derek Geary on his goal against Millwall

"When it did dawn on him, there was a bit of panic but we knew Jags could do a job in the net and so we weren’t too worried. We just settled ourselves down, thought ‘Let’s go out there and show them’ but then things took another twist.”

Geary, now aged 41, is referring to the remarkable chain of events which saw him score his first and only goal in United colours. Mark Phillips headed Millwall in front early in the second period before Andy Liddell levelled with less than a quarter of an hour remaining. Seven minutes later, and with his team mates gathering momentum, Geary delivered a victory Warnock would later describe as “amazing” by smashing an unstoppable 30 yard volley beyond Graham Stack.

It was a piece of clarity amid the chaos and, given that he had only joined them two months earlier, a defining moment in the full-back’s love affair with United, where he still works as a youth team coach.

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Winning over Blades fans

Sheffield United's Derek Geary looks back on that famous match with MillwallSheffield United's Derek Geary looks back on that famous match with Millwall
Sheffield United's Derek Geary looks back on that famous match with Millwall

“Because I was ex-Wednesday, I really felt I’d got a lot to prove,” Geary confesses. “Okay, a couple of lads - Leigh Bromby and Quinny (Alan Quinn) had come straight over from Hillsborough and I’d played briefly at Stockport County before Neil signed me too. But because I know I’d been pretty popular with the Wednesdayites, I always felt the United supporters wouldn’t take to me straight away. I didn’t feel like I’d totally won over the boys in the dressing room either. But that was the second when, for me at least, everything changed.”

“To be honest,” Geary continues, “I got caught up in everything that was going on and that’s why I thought I’d shoot. So much had been going on, when the ball fell really nicely for me and because my body shape was set up perfect, I just thought ‘Anything could happen in this game so why not have a pop?’

"The minute I hit it I knew it was going in. I went running over to the fans and I think they appreciated that, they could see how happy I was. So that, for me at least, changed everything.”

Similarities between Sheffield United and Millwall

Derek Geary during his playing career: Gary M. Prior/Getty ImagesDerek Geary during his playing career: Gary M. Prior/Getty Images
Derek Geary during his playing career: Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Tomorrow night’s meeting between United and Millwall brings together two clubs which, despite being fierce rivals, Geary believes have more in common than either would care to admit.

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“I do see similarities, definitely. The Den, everyone knows that’s an intimidating place to go. When I was with Wednesday, I always felt the same way about coming to Bramall Lane. It was just that rawness. That feeling the crowd was giving everything to help their team.

“Paul Ifill, who played for Millwall in that match but joined us not long after, he always reckoned the same too. He said the dressing rooms were really similar, full of really strong characters who wouldn’t take a backwards step.”

Geary spent six years with United before a serious knee complaint eventually forced him into retirement. After returning to take up a position in their academy, the knowledge he acquired during more than a decade at the coalface of professional football is now being passed on to youngsters progressing through their development programme. One of its graduates, French midfielder Iliman Ndiaye, is expected to feature against Millwall tonight having impressed Slavisa Jokanovic, whose side are 13th in the table.

“There’s an identity here and we try and put that in all of the lads,” Geary says. “No matter what type of player you are, you need to show a certain personality and character to play for United. The one that the lads showed that day down there, where we fought to the bitter end and wouldn’t give an inch.”