The phrase “nobody likes to see that” is seared deep into the minds of many a football fan, not only as it remains the competent commentators’ sole phrase of choice – turned to instinctively on any occasion they may spy, from their lofty position on the gantry, an unsavoury scene unfolding before them – but because despite what they may say, and whatever picture of depravity it is that has brought the commentator to pour scorn on proceedings, it is, almost certainly, exactly what spectators do indeed like to see.
On 16 March 2002, one such succession of immoral incidents, perhaps British football’s most infamous, rendered commentators and an astonished crowd at Bramall Lane speechless as an absorbing display of petulance and violence saw a routine First Division fixture between two previously thought harmless rivals degenerate into historic abandonment, as the home side were reduced, by injury and dismissal, to just six men.
The 2001/02 season was entering its final straight with plenty at stake for most of the First Division’s sides. One of the few teams for whom little remained on the line, however, was Sheffield United. Cast somewhat adrift in 15th place, the Blades knew they’d finish their season involved in neither a dramatic relegation scrap nor an ambitious attempt at playoff glory. West Bromwich Albion, meanwhile, were sat in third, gazing upwards at local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers whose 11-point advantage they remained desperate to dismantle over the course of the final eight fixtures.
The madness began after just nine minutes. A neat pass lifted over the hosts’ back line was received by West Brom striker Scott Dobie, who attempted to chip the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper. His attempted lob was quickly batted away by a pair of gloved hands; an odd decision given that ‘keeper Simon Tracey was no fewer than two yards outside of his area at the time.
With no choice but to send him off, referee Eddie Wolstenholme flashed his first red card of the afternoon. Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock immediately signalled for forward Peter Ndlovu to leave the pitch, to be replaced by back-up goalie Wilko de Vogt.
The game soon settled into a familiar rhythm, West Brom dominating proceedings despite being the away side, with few foreshadow-worthy flashpoints beyond a booking for the visitors’ Lárus Sigurðsson to speak of. Gary Megson’s charges made good on their numerical advantage in the 18th minute when Dobie became the first to get his name on the scoresheet.
The game was made to wait until after the hour mark for its second goal; on 63 minutes West Brom captain Derek McInnes collected a short corner and thumped a first-time shot from the edge of the area, which flew off the outside of his right foot and tested the strength of the net behind De Vogt.
Unwittingly signalling an end to the calm before the storm, the encounter erupted just three minutes later. In response to his new two-goal deficit, Warnock rung the changes and hooked Gus Uhlenbeek and Michael Tonge, replacing them with a more attack-minded duo in Georges Santos and Patrick Suffo, blissfully unaware of the fleeting yet unforgettable cameos the pair were set to play.
On the pitch for a matter of seconds, Georges Santos sensed an immediate opportunity to swing the momentum in his team’s favour and manhandle the initiative back into home territory, as an underhit pass trundled harmlessly into midfield. With twice the ground of his nearest opponent to make up, Santos charged. The ball reached Andy Johnson and so too did Santos – at shin-height, horizontal and with studs raised. Johnson span upwards, sent into the air with the force of the challenge, before clattering back down on the turf in a heap like a collapsed clothesline.
Santos, self-cast in the role of the improvised matador, had arrived and instantly waved his scarlet muleta, enraging an entire pitch of bulls. In a swirling kaleidoscope of striped fury, the players clashed, both sides leaping to the defence of their kin, and in the resulting fracas Santos’ fellow substitute, Suffo, thought it necessary to end a swift disagreement with Derek McInnes by headbutting the Scot in the face.
As blood streamed from the cut above McInnes’ left eye, the referee struggled to regain control over the game. With little time required for revised assessments on the scene he had just witnessed, two more flashes of scarlet, this time in the form of red cards, were handed to both Santos and Suffo for their respective contributions.
United captain Keith Curle also appeared to have punched McInnes amidst the tumult and, consequently, could count himself lucky not to have been similarly dismissed. Tethered to the sideline, Warnock seethed, cursing and spitting, unsure as to whom exactly deserved his torrent of rage; friend or foe. Even so, Santos and Suffo were not spared his vitriol as they trudged off the pitch.
To those with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game and its many players, or simply an affinity with Sheffield United, Santos’ actions were slightly less surprisingly, as he and the victim of his two-footed assault, Andy Johnson, had recent history. In the opening stages of a game at the same ground, a little over a year before, with the latter playing for Nottingham Forest, the two players had clashed and Johnson’s swinging elbow had dealt some serious damage to Santos, leaving him with a fractured cheekbone, a damaged eye socket and requiring the insertion of a titanium plate. An understanding of this made it virtually impossible to view his so-called ‘tackle’ on Johnson as simply mistimed or overeager.
Sections of the media would later speculate that, believing Warnock to have been in dire need of a catalyst to spark his losing team back into life, and knowing of the bad blood between Santos and Johnson, it was a tactic of the manager’s to introduce a little more incendiary materials into the mix, though perhaps unaware of the manner in which his lit fuse would cause the game to erupt.
After a lengthy and most necessary pause, the game resumed once more, with United’s eight remaining players left panting as they were made to chase West Brom’s 11. To no surprise, the away side soon worked a third goal, dispatched again by Dobie. This, however, came only after the referee seemed to take pity on the home team, refusing to deliver a second yellow – and a subsequent fourth red – to the Blades’ Michael Brown, as the clambered all over McInnes, who led a quick breakaway through midfield.
Brown, though, would nevertheless end the game on the sidelines. Believing he had torn something in his stomach, United’s number 7 made the referee aware of his ailment and simply walked himself off the field. Sheffield were down yet another man. Then, with just eight minutes remaining, full-back Robert Ullathorne felt his hamstring go and, with no permitted substitutes able to replace him, six-man United were informed they could not continue to the end and Wolstenholme brought the game to a premature conclusion.
Understandably, 17,000 spectators watched on in bemusement, taken aback by both the conduct of the players and the ensuing implementation of a rule thought by many to be unique to video game imitations of the real thing. But, as the referee well knew, “the minimum number of players in a team is left to the discretion of member associations,” reads Law 3 of the International Football Association Board’s guidelines. “The Board is of the opinion, however, that a match should not continue if there are fewer than seven players in either team.”
And so, for the first time in the vast history of English football, a professional game was abandoned on account of one team lacking sufficient players to complete the match. Sheffield United had made astonishing, unwanted history.
Amidst the game’s highly-fraught fallout, tempers continued to flare. “It was disgraceful, to be perfectly honest with you,” West Brom boss Gary Megson fumed, in his post-match interview. “I have been in football since I was 16, and I’m 42 now, and I have never ever seen anything as disgraceful as that.” In a retort delivered to rumours of a potential replay, Megson continued: “There will be no replay. If we are called back to Bramall Lane we shall kick-off and then walk off the pitch.” Much to Megson’s relief, the Football League sided with the Baggies and ordered their 3-0 result to stand, with no replay required.
It was also deemed necessary for United to be fined £10,000, with Patrick Suffo billed £3,000, Keith Curle £500, and Warnock himself being fined to the tune of £300 for “improper conduct towards the fourth official” as the Football Association worded it. Furthermore, while Curle would serve a two-match ban, Santos and Suffo would both be handed six-game bans that neither would see out at United: both were informed they would never be chosen to represent the club again. Santos was soon sold to Grimsby while Suffo was shipped off to Spanish second-tier side, Numancia.
Come the season’s end, while Sheffield United would end their league campaign in 13th-place, a buoyant West Brom, perhaps empowered by their bloody triumph at the Battle at Bramall Lane, would steal a march on local foes Wolves and pip them to second-place, earning automatic promotion to the Premier League at their dear rivals’ expense.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp