On the face of it a match between promotion contending West Bromwich Albion and midtable Sheffield United in the second tier of the English professional game had nothing to suggest that it would become infamous throughout world football.
The date was Saturday 16th March 2002. The home team, Sheffield United managed by boyhood Blade, Neil Warnock squared off against Gary Megson’s West Brom. Megson himself a son of Sheffield and a vocal supporter of Sheffield Wednesday. It’s fair to offer some conjecture right from the off that Warnock and Megson didn’t like each other and even fairer to assume this at full time!
Things began badly for the Blades and would get steadily worse from there. United’s goalkeeping stalwart of 14 years Simon Tracey was sent off by referee Eddie Wolstenholme after just 9 minutes for deliberately handling the ball outside of the penalty area. The fans favourite denied WBA a shot on goal and Tracey trudged dejectedly off the pitch. The writing was on the wall for the home side and the Baggies, already heavy favourites, would watch on as United’s most exciting and creative player, Peter Ndlovu, was withdrawn. Dutch back-up keeper Wilko de Vogt was Ndlovu’s replacement and it wasn’t long before he was picking the ball up from the back of his onion bag.
West Brom took the lead on 18 minutes with a well worked goal as Scott Dobie headed home following a cross from Andy Johnson, more on him later.
The second, another quality goal, came on 63 minutes from WBA captain Derek McInnes as his fired in a first time shot from the edge of the area following a corner, it was a net buster and the away side were cruising to victory, many would have assumed this match would have petered out into a fairly forgettable affair but two Blades substitutes had other ideas.
On 64 minutes Blades boss Neil Warnock brought off defender Gus Uhlenbeek and somewhat surprisingly attacking midfielder Michael Tonge. On came Patrick Suffo the Cameroonian international and Georges Santos. Suffo, who had arrived at Bramall Lane following a lengthy ban for lashing out at a referee whilst playing in France. Whereas French born Cape Verde international Georges Santos the was in his second season at Bramall Lane after joining from West Bromwich Albion. He was only recently back to full fitness having suffered a terrible facial injury courtesy of a clash with then Nottingham Forest midfielder Andy Johnson (now at West Brom). Johnson’s elbow had connected with Santos’s face from a jump and fractured his cheekbone as well as damaging his eye socket. There was genuine fear that Santos would lose the sight in that eye. Santos was furious with Johnson and felt he hadn’t received a proper apology. This was the first time both were on the same football pitch since that incident. The fire was lit!
One minute later McInnes played a ball in towards Johnson in the middle of the park. It would later be described by Blades striker Laurent D’Jaffo as a “pass from God” and Santos lunged two footed towards Johnson and the ball. The Baggies midfielder flew into the air and came down in a crumpled heap. Despite the protestations from Blades defenders Robert Page and Keith Curle, the referee Eddie Wolstenholme instantly produced the red card and Santos was given his marching orders. Johnson had to be restrained on the deck by teammates and his physio.
Unsurprisingly a melee ensued with seemingly every player on both sides having their say. Santos’s fellow sub and close friend, Suffo would also see red in both senses of the word, he head-butted McInnes with such force as to draw blood from the Scotsman, Suffo could have no complaints, committing his act of violence right in front of the referee. United were down to eight men.
Play resumed but after those red cards it wasn’t much of a contest and Blades star man Michael Brown was lucky to escape with a caution after wrestling the bandaged McInnes to the ground in midfield. Brown had already been booked earlier in the game and many would have expected a second caution for this indiscretion.
Andy Johnson was substituted on 71 minutes to audible boos from the home fans and a few words from Neil Warnock as he left the field. Blades supporters certainly feeling Johnson didn’t handle himself well after the elbow incident with Santos before, whether Johnson intended to hurt Santos is something only he will know but the aftermath left a bitter taste in the mouth for many who felt Johnson could have done more to check on Santos’s welfare.
Blades captain 38-year-old Keith Curle went in hard on McInnes who was by now glancing at the clock for that magical 90 minutes. The away side were incensed with Curle’s actions feeling he purposefully left a bit on McInnes after the ball had gone. Another melee in the middle and again Wolstenholme called in to defuse the situation, giving Curle a yellow. There were some in the Baggies camp suggesting that prior to this Curle had thrown punches at McInnes but this wasn’t picked up by the referee and went unpunished.
It was the 77th minute when West Brom made it three. An untidy goal forced in on the line from Dobie with his second.
Minutes later Dobie and Curle clashed at the byline but attention was turned to Michael Brown who sustained an injury off the ball which would rule him out for the rest of the season and the midfielder limped off the pitch. With no subs left United were down to just seven players.
Rob Ullathorne, the Blades left back, went down in agony on 82 minutes with muscle spasms and the match was abandoned. Eddie Wolstenholme was left with no option as due to too few players being on the Blades side, the game could not be completed. Both sides left the field to a chorus of boos and a spattering of applause.
This was the first time in English football that a game had been abandoned for too few players. It could be a record that lasts for some time. The result was later allowed to stand following a week of uncertainty. Warnock and Megson would fight the aftermath out in the press, Megson suggesting Warnock had tried to get the game abandoned, an accusation that Warnock vehemently denies to this day.
The Blades were fined £10,000 by the Football Association, Patrick Suffo and Georges Santos were both given six match bans and fined, Keith Curle was given a two match ban and fined £500 and Neil Warnock was ordered to pay £300 for improper conduct towards the fourth official.
Santos and Suffo would never play for Sheffield United again. Suffo, in a World Cup year, was left devastated by the decision but managed to engineer a loan to Numancia in order to get the game time to make the Cameroon World Cup squad, something he achieved, before being sent off in the final group game! Santos was not so lucky and remained without a club until the end of the year, eventually joining Grimsby Town.
The Baggies would finish the season in 2nd on 89 points winning promotion to the Premier League. United would end the season in 13th some 29 points further behind. In what was a largely forgettable season for Sheffield United, this game would live long in the memory and created a rivalry with West Brom that remains to this day.
Watch the Battle of Bramall Lane below (over 18’s only)
Written by Hal Stewart – Sheff United Way YouTube channel and Podcast