The 2001/02 season was not the most thrilling for Sheffield United fans.
Marked by inconsistency, there was not even a cup run to savour.
Neil Warnock called on his side to respond well to defeat by Grimsby last time out when they travelled to Crystal Palace on 23 February 2002.
Blades defender Shaun Murphy was on loan at Selhurst Park so he sat out the game but up-and-coming youngster Phil Jagielka was given a starting spot in midfield. Patrick Suffo was on the bench after returning from six weeks on international duty as Cameroon successfully defended their African Nations Cup title with Suffo converting a penalty in the Indomitable Lions’ success over Senegal in Mali.
Michael Brown had been the subject of much attention given his fine form and Palace boss Trevor Francis had made firm enquiries before baulking at the £3million price tag, instead acquiring Leicester striker Ade Akinbiyi for £2.4million, a move that had so far not worked at all as the player had become the target of the Eagles boo-boys.
The opening exchanges were scrappy with neither side able to impose themselves in midfield and the moans and groans from the home fans will have been music to Warnock’s ears. United created the first real chance from a set-piece but Furlong’s header from Ullathorne’s centre comfortably smothered by goalkeeper Matt Clarke. Furlong should have done better and he was almost made to pay only for Clinton Morrison to fluff a chance at the other end.
The Blades grew in confidence and their play became more fluent but come half-time there had been little in terms of any threats to the opponents’ goal by either team.
Neither side made a change after the break but it was United who settled better, Furlong sending a powerful strike at the keeper with Ndlovu also hitting a long-range effort but all to no avail.
Palace were looking disjointed and Akinbiyi was the subject of ironic cheers when he managed to control a high ball but then made a hash of the pass to Morrison.
United had not been pretty but after an hour they got the reward their industry merited when Brown scored an absolute thunderbolt.
There appeared to be little danger when Brown pounced on David Hopkin’s pass deep in his own half. But after showing Hayden Mullins a clean pair of heels, the midfielder set off on a surging run before curling a sweetly-struck shot past Clarke who was helpless in the Palace goal.
Palace could have levelled immediately when both Ndlovu and Simon Tracey were fooled by Jovan Kirovski’s corner which came back off the woodwork, the Blades keeper then punching clear under pressure from Hopkin.
The Eagles produced the best spell of pressure they had in the entire game but they could not breach the Blades, Morrison fluffing his lines when he did get the opportunity.
Warnock gushed about Brown’s goal. “It was worthy of any stage. You can see why Trevor is interested in him but we don’t want him to go and Michael enjoys himself here that much that I don’t think he will leave.
“In any case, if he was to go anywhere the only place it should be is the Premiership because he’s certainly got enough quality.
“I actually through he was a litle bit quiet but he’s been carrying a knock on his ankle after injuring himself on probably the worst set-piece routine I’ve ever seen in the Grimsby game last week.”