When Sheffield United welcomed West Brom for a First Division game at Bramall Lane in 2002, most were expecting little more than a straightforward win for the visitors.
Albion were locked in a tussle for promotion to the Premier League, sitting third when kick-off came around in South Yorkshire on this spring afternoon. Under Gary Megson they were a disciplined outfit and were expecting little trouble against Neil Warnock’s side who were struggling in 15th place.
At the heart of the Baggies’ defence that day was Darren Moore, an imposing centre-back built for the rigours of the Football League. Once the Blades were reduced to ten men in the ninth minute when goalkeeper Simon Tracey was dismissed, Moore was confident that West Brom would cruise to three vital points in their promotion push.
“Simon got sent off and I knew we were a strong, disciplined team, well-drilled team in terms of getting results, so I knew with Sheffield United going a man down, it was going to be to their disadvantage.” Moore told The Set Pieces.
“We’d gone there gunning for three points with a team where Gary Megson had four or five changes from the previous line-up, but it didn’t weaken us in anyway as we had a strong squad.
“I just felt it was going to be a routine performance in terms of everyone doing their job to get a result. After they lost a man I thought if we keep the pressure on them, we’ll get the goals we need.”
West Brom raced into a two-goal lead thanks to strikes from Scott Dobie and captain Derek McInnes, and it seemed that would be that.
There was a subplot to the game, however, revolving around two midfielders, Sheffield United’s Georges Santos and West Brom’s Andy Johnson, who had fractured the Cape Verde international’s cheekbone and damaged his eye socket in an encounter the previous season when Johnson was playing for Nottingham Forest.
The introduction of Santos and striker Patrick Suffo on 64 minutes will go down in folklore.
“It was a niggly match, but it wasn’t a dirty match in any way, shape or form,” Moore explains.
“By the time the lads [Santos and Suffo] came on it was finished, to be honest. We were just trying to get more goals as they were down to ten men and there were massive spaces on the pitch. We were a massive team and we’d run over most sides with 11 players let alone a team a man down.
“The mere fact they had less numbers, with us running over teams all season, we were just looking to boost our goal tally and that was our mindset.”
But from the very second Santos entered the action, he sought revenge against Johnson. When the West Brom midfielder soon received the ball, Santos committed a heinous foul on his opponent, leading to all hell breaking loose in the middle of the park as referee Eddie Wolstenholme and his assistants struggled to control a 21-man melee.
Moore believes Sheffield United boss Warnock was somewhat callous in bringing on the midfielder, knowing his motivation, in a game that was almost certainly over at 2-0.
“We knew the history of George and Andy from previous clubs. The referee was well aware of the situation. I just think it was a stupid, silly idea for the management staff to bring him on.
“Obviously when you’re in that situation you want your players to be professional but Georges saw it as a chance to get retribution on Andy and it escalated from there.
“He’s been sat on the bench watching the game – seeing his team losing and the crowd was getting hostile as their team was being dominated, had a player sent off, the management team was really agitated and we were really in control of the day.
“You’d think as Sheffield United, you try and get through the game, plan for damage limitation and come back another day. From that, it just seemed to escalate even more. Georges had been watching, seeing Andy on the pitch doing his stuff and saw it as an opportunity to take revenge. Within 60 seconds he’d done it.”
Things could have been worse for Johnson, who luckily avoided serious injury, with Moore convinced the foul could have ended his career.
“I am just grateful to do this day that Andy Johnson was able to jump and ride the tackle. Had he had his foot planted he would be walking with a limp today as it was a horrendous tackle which boiled over into a frenzy.”
Santos was immediately shown a red card, but his team-mate Suffo – who had also been on the pitch for just a minute – then became the centre of attention when he confronted the opposition captain.
“Something that a lot of people didn’t see was a headbutt on our captain Derek McInnes by Patrick Suffo. Suffo gave Derek the headbutt in front of me and that angered me at the time, but I didn’t get involved.
“I was just quite angry by what he’d done and by what he said to Derek, which I’m not going to repeat. Derek scored a great goal that day and to see him hurt like that was uncalled for.
“It boiled over, but when it all settled down we tried to get on with the game but by that time the game was gone. They’d just seen red and we were just trying to keep our calm and do we could get out of Bramall Lane unharmed and with three points.”
Moore, who is now a good friend of Santos, knows his mate regrets the incident, acknowledging it was a moment of madness that defined his career, even though he has since gone on to work as a scout for Manchester City.
“I know Georges Santos quite well and when you speak to him, you can see what a really, really lovely man he is. It’s just that at the time he was just disappointed and angry about the time he had spent out of the game due to what had happened the previous season.”
The Blades were reduced to eight men with the dismissal of Santos and Suffo, whose involvement in the disgraceful scenes at Bramall Lane meant they would never play for the club again.
However, this was not the end of the departures from the pitch for Sheffield United, as injuries then took their toll, not before West Brom added a third through Dobie. Firstly, Michael Brown walked off with an injury and then Rob Ullathorne insisted he couldn’t carry on, leaving the Blades with just six men and the referee with no choice other than to call the game off.
“I knew that Michael Brown had gone off the pitch, but it was only when the ref blew up to end the game we realised it was being abandoned. I said to the ref there was only a few minutes to go, but he said ‘Darren we can’t play because it’s against the rules, as they have insufficient numbers’.
“I’d never been in this situation before so I assumed we’d keep the points, but we got into changing rooms and there was talk of the match being replayed and that’s when we needed to be professional and let the authorities make the decision. As it was, the result stood. I’m just glad that the league saw the result stood.
“What a sequence of events, which I am sure won’t be repeated again in football. It was just crazy.”
West Brom trudged back into the dressing room bewildered, not knowing if the 3-0 result would stand despite there being just seven minutes left on the clock. Megson left his side with a simple and defiant message as West Brom packed up and got out of Bramall Lane.
“He was very disappointed, but I think he was more disappointed with Neil Warnock. At the time he thanked us for our professionalism and promised us we wouldn’t have to come back to play a replay and if they made us, he’d come back with the youth team.
“It was nothing to do with West Brom and I’m pleased to say we were professional throughout and got the three points. We were told to get showered and changed and then we were escorted out onto the team bus and then we got another escort right out onto the M1 motorway.”
West Brom would go on to be promoted at the end of the season, but their most memorable win was a game that didn’t even make it to 90 minutes.
The Baggies were the victors in the Battle of Bramall Lane, maintaining their dignity amid an astounding collection of events, the like we’ll never seen again.