Sheffield United: Carl Asaba on The Blades, Stoke City and his painful return to Bramall Lane
“I remember shouting ‘Mate, what have you done that for?’ But he just gave me one of those looks and told me it was an accident,” Carl Asaba winces, describing the moment the studs made contact with his flesh. “I knew it would be a battle and I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. What I definitely didn’t know was that I was going to get a boot on my head.”
Seventeen years might have passed but Asaba can still remember every vivid detail of his first return to Bramall Lane, eight months after leaving Sheffield United. Or “my football club” as he prefers to call them now.
It was an emotional experience, with the usually dispassionate Tony Pulis making him Stoke City’s captain for the day. And, thanks to his former team mate Chris Morgan, it turned out to be an excruciatingly painful one too even though the visitors prevailed by the slimmest of margins.
“Morgs, he’s a lovely bloke - a top, top guy off the pitch - but on it he saw the ball and it was like a bull going for a rag, nothing was ever going to stop him,” Asaba laughs, rubbing his forehead for effect as he picks up the story. “We went up for a challenge, landed in a heap and as I was rolling around on the floor like - well, a footballer I suppose - he trod on me. We’ve always kept in touch and we speak quite a lot. The funny thing is though, he swears blind now it never even happened. He tells me I must be remembering things. But it definitely did. And that was Morgs - he’d run through a brick wall or anyone who was in his way to get a result for his team. What a competitor and what a brilliant friend he’s become. He’s just totally genuine.”
Asaba will be an interested and not entirely impartial observer on Saturday afternoon, when his two old clubs renew their rivalry in a contest he believes will be a test of brain as well as brawn. Now aged 48, Asaba played for eight different teams during a career which saw him win promotion at Gillingham and reach a play-off final with Brentford after rising to prominence at Dulwich Hamlet. But it was United, his home for two and a bit seasons before joining City in 2003, where Asaba enjoyed the happiest and most rewarding period of his time in the sport. It explains why, after retiring as a player following a brief stint with Millwall, he returned to the area and put down roots.
“This is my club,” says Asaba, whose soft London accent has survived two decades in the north. “I grew up an Arsenal fan but this is my club now. Definitely. No doubt about it. My boys are United fans and they speak Sheffield. We’ve actually got season tickets and it’s great to sit together, whenever I’m not doing bits and pieces for the media.
“Everything just fell into place for me when I came here. I love the place and I love the people because they’ve all got time for each other. I spend as much time talking to total strangers as I do people I know. That tells you a lot, I think.”
“I like the fact people are hard-working and, no matter what else, they respect people who work hard,” he continues. “I had it tough when I was young. I slept in my mum and dad’s room until I was 10 because there wasn’t any room in our flat and we shared a bathroom with three other families.
“Everything I’ve ever achieved, I’ve had to work for. When I got my first football contract I was willing to do anything - extra running, extra training, play wherever - because that’s the way I was brought up and people here are the same. They have that same ethic and they respect it.”
Asaba confesses he was ill-prepared for what awaited him at United when Neil Warnock, impressed by his performances at Priestfield, signed him for a shade over £90,000.
“My dad actually told me I was going to United. I didn’t know what money I’d be getting and there was interest from two or three other teams but he said ‘This guy really wants you’ and that decided it.”
But if the modest transfer fee created the impression there were doubts about Asaba’s ability to perform, it was a misleading one. Only a month after the deal was processed, a manager whose nose for unfulfilled potential is still legendary pitched him straight into the 100th Steel City derby. Asaba responded by netting the decisive goal. It was the second and most treasured of the 24 he would score for United.
“I’d been in some big games, and played in front of 80,000 people at Wembley, but there’s nothing like that match,” admits Asaba, who had also been on target for Gillingham during their Second Division play-off final against Manchester City. “We got the coach to Hillsborough and when we set off, on our side of town, it was like a victory parade. We were getting cheered by people on the streets.
“Then, when we got over to the other, the cheers turned to insults and abuse. It was like being at a pantomime and we were the villains.
“You always have pre-match nerves. But we were sitting in the dressing room and the ceiling, seriously, it was bouncing. It was shaking because of the noise. The atmosphere in the warm-up, balloons and all the rest, that was better than most actual games elsewhere in itself.”
“I just loved all that, mind,” Asaba adds. “I remember coming to Bramall Lane with Gillingham before I joined United - it was packed, we got beat and the whole of our team was intimidated by the support. But I was always someone who needed that. I would score goals in matches than I could never manage in training, because I wanted that feeling of having a crowd like that behind me. When I actually came up here I was really looking forward to having that support behind me because I knew what it would do for me, how much I’d enjoy it. I needed to be in that kind of environment.”
Asaba required camaraderie to produce his best performances too. Which explains why, when the time came to sever his ties with United, he resurrected his partnership with Pulis who had managed him at Priestfield.
“United and Stoke, they’re two different clubs but they have similar personalities,” Asaba explains. “Particularly back then I think, with Neil and Tony in charge. I was sulking when I left United, I didn’t want to go but what made it worse was that I understood the reasons - the gaffer wanted to move to the next level and he wanted to bring another forward in.”
“I always played my best at places where it was all about the team, and that’s what Neil and Tony encouraged,” he adds. “They’re both very different to how people perceive them. Everyone always asks me if Neil was constantly giving us a rocket. The answer is ‘no’. The only time he got annoyed was when he thought you weren’t producing what you were capable of, because he’d put his name on the line to sign you. But if you think about it, doing that was actually a form of praise because he believed you could do better. And he would praise you a lot. Tony was actually the same. I’m really proud of the fact he signed me twice, because he knows what he wants from you as a person as well as a player. I know Tony wanted me to do my badges and be part of his coaching set-up eventually but that aspect of the game never really excited me to be honest.”