Sixty-five minutes in, this was looking like like your standard-issue disappointing season-grinding-to-a-halt, not-going-up-not-going-down 2-0 home defeat.
And then along came Georges Santos with, quite simply, the greatest-worst two-footed tackle of all time. Just look at this absolute monster of a clear-out:
Look at how far it sends Andy Johnson up in the air. It’s majestic. Of course, it’s utterly indefensible, it could have ended his career. But that doesn’t make it any less compelling to watch.
After this moment, all hell broke loose, culminating in the first, and only time in English league history that a game has been abandoned because one team – Sheffield United – did not have enough players on the pitch to complete the match, as specified under Law Three of the game. Yes, that thing you do on FIFA when you get angry because you’re losing and get loads of players sent off to get the match called off – that actually happened for real, kids.
But first, let’s rewind.
On 16 March 2002, a First Division (second tier) game between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion took place which was to go down in history as the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’. Albion were the favourites to win, lying in third place in the table, while the Blades languished in 15th, safe from relegation and with little realistic chance of threatening the play-off places.
It began in a fairly thrilling manner, with Blades keeper Simon Tracey sent off after just nine minutes for handling the ball outside the penalty area. United’s ever-likeable manager Neil Warnock thus used his first substitute, with sub keeper Wilko de Vogt replacing Peter Ndlovu, sacrificed having completed a very short day at the office.
As their league position, and numerical advantage (slim compared to what was to come) hinted, West Brom soon asserted their superiority, taking the lead through Scott Dobie on 18 minutes.
The Blades held firm though, with the second goal not coming until the 62nd minute – an absolute screamer from Derek McInnes. 2-0 and down to 10 men, Blades fans probably thought, “Oh well, I’ll see it out for a bit and then maybe leave ten minutes early to beat the traffic”.
In the 64th minute, Neil Warnock uses up his two remaining substitutes, putting on Georges Santos and Patrick Suffo.
In traditional ‘bet you can’t guess what’s coming next’ highlights commentary, the man on the mic explains for a full minute the beef that existed between Santos and West Brom’s midfielder Andy Johnson going into the match. He explains, obviously completely by chance as he definitely hasn’t already seen this footage and knows exactly what’s coming, how Johnson had fractured Santos’ cheekbone and seriously damaged his eye socket with an elbow when playing for Nottingham Forest the previous season. But he’s at pains to explain that it was an accidental collision (Santos had considered legal action after the incident required a five-and-a-half-hour operation and the insertion of a titanium plate in his face) and, besides, that piece of information is almost certainly not going to play any part in what’s coming next, it’s just a bit of background info, right?
“This’ll be the first time that he and Johnson have met since… as I say it was an accidental clash... but it’ll be interesting to see what that first challenge is like.”
“Interesting.” Oh mate. How did you say that with a straight face.
The best bit about it is that you get a brief glimpse of Santos in the few seconds he has on the pitch before launching his assault. This is a man with only one objective for the day: to exact sweet, sweet revenge in the form of a borderline criminal flying two-footed tackle.
In Santos’ eyes, revenge is a dish best served by jumping off the ground and taking full, brutal, perpendicular aim at another man’s legs.
Let’s watch it again:
And then: chaos. A good old-fashioned everyone-piling-in brawl.
In the ensuing melee (definitely a melee, this), the other substitute Patrick Suffo is sent off for headbutting Derek McInnes, who seconds earlier had scored probably the best goal of his career.
Yes, that’s right. Two substitutes sent on, and two substitutes sent off within 90 seconds. Now that’s management.
Soon after, Blades captain Keith Curle narrowly avoided a fourth red card after appearing to throw punches at McInnes – an incident not picked up by the cameraman, who frankly had a job keeping up.
Apparently convinced that having eight players on the pitch was simply too many, Blades midfielder Michael Brown should have received a second yellow card for this challenge, with the referee, perhaps in an attempt to not let things spiral out of control (probably missed the boat on that one mate), letting it go.
The ref probably thought that was the end of things, but he’d reckoned without Neil Warnock.
West Brom, with their three-man advantage, duly added a third goal in the 77th minute with Scott Dobie tapping in, but then two minutes later, Brown departed the pitch, limping off. With all three subs used already, United were down to 7. Three minutes later, off goes Robert Ullathorne with ‘back spasms’.
And then there were 6.
Too few players to carry on with the game, and referee Eddie Wolstenholme abandoned the game and took the players off, while a bemused, but thoroughly entertained Bramall Lane crowd looked on.
Never mind Andy Johnson, there were other casualties of war. Wolstenholme retired just over a year later. According to the Birmingham Mail, one reporter, “overcome with stress due to the overwhelming chaos, was physically unable to file his post-match copy.” Meanwhile, there were allegations of racial abuse toward Baggies midfielder Adam Chambers.
No one knew what to do. Would the game have to be replayed? Why had it happened?
In a glorious post-match interview, the furious West Brom manager Gary Megson laid waste to the idea of any sort of libel considerations and let the Blades – and Neil Warnock – have both barrels.
“They had a few players left on, enough to finish the game. They were being told by certain people to go down, come off… Michael Brown wasn’t injured. I was absolutely infuriated with it, the stuff that I was hearing. Everybody’s heard it, everybody knows what was going on on that line… There will be no replay. If we are called back to Bramall Lane we shall kick-off and then walk off the pitch.”
Neil Warnock’s response?
“He [Brown] had a groin in the first half, and he should have come off at half-time but because we were losing 1-0, he wanted to come on and… y’know obviously I don’t want him to aggravate it… we’ve got a tough match on Tuesday night as well… There’s been a lot of accusations which, if, at the right time, we will take… because there’s a lot of things we’ve not been happy [with] today…”
Yes Neil. That’s right. That’s right mate. You’re the ones who have been wronged today. Definitely you guys.
Eventually – eventually – sanity ruled, with Warnock saying that the FA should give the points to West Brom, which they duly did. They also fined Sheffield United £10,000, Suffo £3,000, plus a six-match ban, Santos a six-match ban, Keith Curle £500 and a two-match ban and Warnock £300 for improper conduct towards the 4th official.
Georges Santos and Patrick Suffo never played for United again.
Warnock’s final comment in his post-match interview?
“I wouldn’t imagine Gary will be having a drink with me tonight, no.”
And then, with absolutely perfect comic timing:
“But… not many managers do.”