To the uninitiated, it appeared to be just a routine match between two teams from the second division of English football.
West Brom’s trip to Sheffield United on March 16, 2002 was certainly not the most notable match in the south that day. That was Manchester United’s trip to West Ham (a 3-5 thriller).
In fact, it was not even the most important game in the old First Division. This is how Manchester City received Crystal Palace (1-0) and got closer to the title.
But the events that took place that afternoon in South Yorkshire ensured the match became one of the most infamous in history. And one that will no doubt be revisited this week as two of its central characters, Derek McInnes and Neil Warnock, prepare to meet at Rugby Park on Saturday as coaches of Kilmarnock and Aberdeen respectively.
Dubbed The Battle of Bramall Lane, somewhat unfairly given that there was only one side fighting, the prologue to some unpleasant scenes had taken place at the same location a year earlier.
Neil Warnock, now Aberdeen manager, will face an old enemy on Saturday
Kilmarnock boss Derek McInnes previously captained West Brom in the infamous Battle of Bramall Lane.
Sheffield United and West Brom players clash during the infamous ‘Battle of Bramall Lane’ which occurred almost 22 years ago.
Your browser does not support iframes.
Sheffield United’s clash with Nottingham Forest was stopped after eight minutes due to an aerial collision between home team Georges Santos and visitor Andy Johnson.
Warnock, the Blades manager, was dismayed to learn why no action was taken against Johnson. Santos had to undergo five hours of surgery for a double fracture in his eye socket and considered legal action.
Johnson claimed he was “totally innocent.” Warnock questioned this. “A quarter of an inch more and you’re blind,” he said from Santos’ hospital bed.
Later that year, Johnson signed for West Brom, although he was injured when Warnock’s team, including Santos, won 1–0 at The Hawthorns on 8 December 2001.
When the corresponding match arrived three months later, the Baggies were third in the table and United were 15th. Adding spice to the occasion was the fact that Warnock had only got the job after his counterpart Gary Megson rejected it, citing an affinity with Sheffield Wednesday.
What followed was amazing. Nine minutes later, United goalkeeper Simon Tracey was sent off by referee Eddie Wolstenholme for deliberately touching the ball outside his penalty area. Warnock sent on goalkeeper Wilko de Vogt in place of Peter Ndlovu.
With 18 minutes gone, Albion made their numerical advantage count when Scott Dobie, about to be called up by Scotland coach Berti Vogts, headed in a cross delivered by none other than Johnson.
Only when the time came did the fireworks begin. West Brom captain McInnes’ spectacular strike from outside the area left De Vogt no chance and effectively sealed the victory.
Referee Eddie Wolstenholme attempts to restore order as United’s Keith Curle and West Brom’s Scott Dobie clash during a match that was eventually abandoned.
The Baggies players watch in disbelief as the match is later abandoned.
Sheffield United’s Keith Curle heads the ball as the hosts try to find a decisive goal
Warnock responded by withdrawing Gus Uhlenbeek and Michael Tongue. Patrick Suffo and Santos entered. “It will be interesting to see what the first confrontation between Santos and Johnson is like,” said the BBC match commentator.
Santos’ first action was to charge toward a loose ball like a bull attacking a red rag. Out of control, his heels caught Johnson in the shin, sending him flying through the air. It was an act of violent retaliation.
This caused a massive fight between both groups of players. Any number could have been sent off, but Suffo’s header on McInnes was the only thing Wolstenholme was sure he had seen.
With McInnes receiving stitches on a wound over his eye, his attacker became the third local player to receive his marching orders. Keith Curle could easily have been the next to throw a punch at the Scot. Likewise, Michael Brown for a cynical foul to stop a counterattack.
Wolstenholme would later admit that he pocketed his cards in hopes of finishing the game. That was an illusion.
In the 77th minute, thanks to a touch from Dobie, Albion’s third goal was academic. But not so much what happened next.
Two minutes later, Brown limped away, holding his groin. Three minutes later, his teammate Robert Ullathorne also left the field complaining of muscle spasms. With only six United players on the pitch, for the first time in the history of English professional football, the referee abandoned the match because one team did not have enough players to continue.
Despite being the better team and having only Larus Sigurdsson booked, Albion’s post-match celebrations were cut short by the match’s unique finish.
The words of a spokesman for the football league did not help to alleviate his discomfort. “The Football League has the authority to allow the result to stand or order the match to be replayed,” he said.
Fearing the outcome of a crisis meeting scheduled for Thursday, Megson fumed: “There will be no repeat.” If we are called to return to Bramall Lane, we will kick off and then walk off the field.
“I’ve been in professional football since I was 16 and now I’m 42. I’ve never witnessed anything as embarrassing as that. Warnock’s initial response was to plead ignorance about the fact that Ullathorne’s withdrawal meant the game would be abandoned. The fact that he was a qualified referee rather undermined this.
“I would have liked the referee to have told me what would happen if we were left with six men,” he said.
“I would have brought a lawn chair to the field to have one of them sit.”
The war of words escalated quickly. Sensing Warnock was looking for a repeat, Megson came back in.
‘The authorities have to do the right thing. Otherwise, they reward cheating,” he criticized.
“Sheffield United didn’t cause that, one person did. The things that happened both on the field and on the line were embarrassing and have no place in football. The FA should punish them severely.
“People were told to go down, to leave, and the referee was told to dismiss them knowing that it would mean the game couldn’t continue. It was very difficult to keep your temper.
By the next morning, Warnock had taken a step back. Belatedly recognizing that West Brom should take the three points, he included Suffo and Santos on the transfer list.
However, by flatly denying Megson’s cheating accusations, he launched another broadside.
“I totally deny it and it is shameful that it was even said,” he said. “I can say 100 percent that I didn’t tell my players to stand down. I wasn’t trying to cancel the game.
‘The way everything has turned out so far, you would think I was guilty of committing more crimes than Bin Laden. Anyone who knows Gary Megson knows that he is one of the biggest complainers out there. The way he performs on the bench is sometimes an absolute disgrace.”
West Brom’s Dobie struggles to try and win the ball back from Sheffield United’s Robert Page
Blades captain Keith Curle argues with West Brom’s McInnes
While Megson’s team received the three points after the Football League fixture, he did not lay Warnock’s head on a plate. The Sheffield United manager was fined £300 by the FA for inappropriate conduct towards the fourth official, but he was cleared of deliberately engineering the abandonment. His club was fined £10,000.
In fact, Brown missed the rest of the season, with Ullathorne sidelined for a month. Johnson, who accused Santos of trying to end his career, returned to the Albion team three weeks later.
Neither Santos nor Suffo, both of whom were suspended for six games, played for United again. Suffo soon joined Numancia and Santos moved to Grimsby in the summer.
By then Albion had enjoyed the last laugh – finishing second to earn automatic promotion, with United stuck in 13th place.
Warnock, naturally, had the last word. “I thought in this country people are innocent until proven guilty,” he said.