"Was it set up?" - Remembering the 'Battle of Bramall Lane' between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion
It has been described as the most unbelievable game ever witnessed at Bramall Lane and it unfolded 18 years ago this very week.
In fact, it’s fair to say there’s been no game like the second tier clash between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion on March 16 2002 in the history of the professional game in this country.
It will go down in English football folklore as the first match to be abandoned due to a lack of players and will always be infamously known as the Battle of Bramall Lane.
It was the day when Neil Warnock’s United side were left with just six players on the field, having had three men sent off and two more leaving the field injured.
It was a day of shame and violence which led to referee Eddie Wolstenholme abandoning the game after 82 minutes with Gary Megson’s West Bromwich Albion leading 3-0.
Here’s how the drama unfolded on a day which will live long in the memory of those who were there.
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;
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
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. It left United down to eight men with no substitutes left.
79th minute: Michael Brown limped off injured.
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’.
Eighteen years on and 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 latest edition of 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 wages.
Suffo was placed on the transfer list with immediate effect.
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.