Sheffield United v West Brom: Headbutts, red cards and a ref who nearly drowned himself - the story of the Battle of Bramall Lane

Whatever happens when Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion set foot onto the pitch tonight, it's probably safe to say that it won't match the incredible events that unfolded when the two sides met at Bramall Lane in 2002.

By Danny Hall
Wednesday, 9th February 2022, 1:06 pm

That game went down in folklore as the first to ever be abandoned due to a lack of players, and has since infamously been dubbed 'The Battle of Bramall Lane'.

That nickname probably gives some indication of the nature of the match, which was abandoned when Neil Warnock' s Blades were reduced to SIX players by a combination of injury and, let's say, ill-discipline.

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In reality, the blue touch paper was lit by one of the worst challenges seen at Bramall Lane for many a year, as United's Georges Santos enacted his unique style of revenge on Andy Johnson after a collision between the two the previous season left Santos with a fractured cheekbone and a damaged eye socket.

What followed left referee Eddie Wolstenholme with no choice but to call off the game after 82 minutes, with Gary Megson's Baggies 3-0 ahead.

Here’s how the drama unfolded...

Sheffield United's Patrick Suffo sees red against West Brom as The Battle of Bramall Lane boils over.

Ninth minute: United keeper Simon Tracey was sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area, denying Albion a goalscoring opportunity. Warnock sent on substitute goalkeeper Wilko de Vogt, taking off outfield player Peter Ndlovu. Blades down to 10 men

65th minute: The match turned ugly with the Blades trailing 2-0. Within a minute of coming on as a substitute, Georges Santos was sent off for a two-footed lunge on Baggies midfielder Andy Johnson. The pair had clashed the previous season when Johnson, then with Nottingham Forest, had fractured Santos’ cheekbone and badly damaged his eye socket with a swinging elbow. Blades down to nine men.

66th minute: It kicked off and a mass brawl ensued as United players believed Johnson was feigning injury. Patrick Suffo - who had only come on as sub alongside Santos - was dismissed for headbutting Derek McKinnes. Blades down to eight men with no substitutes left.

The notorious 'Battle of Bramall Lane' involving United and West Bromwich Albion players in March 2002.

79th minute: Michael Brown limped off injured and didn’t play again all season. Blades down to seven men.

82nd minute: Rob Ullathorne also goes off injured. Following FA guidelines “that a match should not continue if there are fewer than seven players left in either team,” referee Wolstenholme abandons the match.

Megson accused United of deliberately trying to get the game called off, a claim Warnock refuted as ‘absolute nonsense’.

In the years that have passed since, some of the key figures involved in the Battle of Bramall have spoken about their memories of that eventful early spring day back in 2002.

Former Blades defender Keith Curle recalled how the atmosphere in the home dressing room was one of disbelief.

"When you look back on it now, it's surreal. It was farcical,” said Curle, speaking to The Sun.

"In the dressing room after there was just sheer disbelief about what had happened.

“A lot ask if it was calculated. Was it set up? No. Was it set up for Warnock to bring George on to get revenge? No.

"They got lip-reading experts to try and pick up the conversation I had with Neil. There was a debate about what Neil had said to me, whether I instructed to get another man sent off or get another man off the pitch? It was nowhere near the case.

"I can't remember what Warnock said. In no way shape or form was it to get the game abandoned."

Michael Brown, one of two players who went off injured after the sending offs, also dismissed claims Warnock and his teammates deliberately tried to get the game halted.

“I think we were coming towards the end of the season, they were going for promotion and we were sat in in 12th so it was never a case of us wanting another game,” said Brown, speaking on BT Sport.

“When you’ve got nothing to fight for going towards the back end of the season, the last thing you want is another game.

“But you do regret being involved in such a game. [Warnock] obviously didn’t condone what George Santos went on and did. He tried to get that revenge situation. It was just a crazy afternoon.”

As for the man the middle, Eddie Wolstenholme, he revealed how he received a dressing down after the game from the referee’s assessor for failing to book Brown earlier in the game.

“When I was in the dressing room afterwards, the assessor came in and I nearly drowned myself because he did tell me when I was in the bath that I’d missed a caution on Michael Brown and he should have been sent off,” he told the The Broken Metatarsal.

“I thought: 'Brilliant, I’ve just had World War III on my hands and I’m being told I missed a caution’.

“After the game I got a phone call from a newspaper within 10 minutes offering to buy the story on it, which I refused straight away obviously because I didn’t think it was credible to do anything like that and I wanted to carry on my career.

“We finished in the 83rd minute and I think it’s the latest I’ve got home from Sheffield. I arrived home about 10 o’clock. My daughter was a teenager then and it was like somebody had bombed the place. I couldn’t believe what a mess she’d left it in.

“So I was more steaming about that because there was nothing I could do about the other circumstances.”

Neither Santos nor Suffo played for United again and both were fined the maximum of two weeks of wages.

The result was allowed to stand and the FA called an inquiry into the match that has been known ever since as the Battle of Bramall Lane.