Football is a game of emotions, and without it, the sport would be as hollow and meaningless as most other pastimes in our lives.
And that’s what separates our beautiful game from the rest, and what makes it impossible to describe to anyone who doesn’t ‘get’ football, exactly how it feels when your team scores a winning goal deep in injury time, or beats your biggest rivals in the dreaded local derby.
But the very thing that makes football the greatest sport on planet earth can also push it over the edge and transform it into a distasteful bloodbath. Tempers boil over across the pitch, and scuffles are blown up into gladiatorial standoffs.
But on 16 March 2002, we saw the most extreme case of ‘the red mist descending’ in a war now nicknamed, ‘The Battle of Bramall Lane’.
However, that result was awarded to them on 21 March – five days later – after referee Eddie Wolstenholme was forced to abandon the match due to the hosts’ inability to field more than six players – the first example of this rule being enforced in English football history.
But how did it all go down?
Neil Warnock’s Blades – yes, of course Warnock was in charge – got off on the wrong foot, when goalkeeper Simon Tracey received the first red card of the afternoon, having handled the ball outside of the penalty area. Sheffield United were down to ten men already.
Scott Dobie and Derek McInnes put West Brom two goals to the good by the 63rd minute, and that appeared to be curtains for the hosts. But they weren’t prepared to go down without a fight – literally.
Warnock introduced Georges Santos as a substitute on 64 minutes in an attempt to try and shore up the defence, but unfortunately for the coach, his player had some vengeance to seek. The Frenchman had suffered a broken eye socket at the hands – well, the elbow – of Baggies midfielder Andy Johnson the season before, and he was determined to make amends for that injustice.
So, seconds after stepping onto the pitch, Santos flung himself into a horrific two-footed challenge, scything down Johnson in what many describe as one of the worst ‘tackles’ ever seen on a football pitch.
Unsurprisingly, this assault brought about the second red card of the afternoon, and sparked an almighty brawl, the likes of which have rarely been seen. In amongst all the chaos, Blades striker Patrick Suffo landed a headbutt on a West Brom player, and referee Wolstenholme showed his third red card of the afternoon.
Sheffield United down to eight, now.
Dobie added salt to the wounds by notching West Brom’s third goal on 77 minutes, and everyone in the stadium must have been begging for the final whistle. It did arrive, and nine minutes earlier than expected.
Sheffield United players Michael Brown and Rob Ullathorne both limped off the pitch with injuries, and since the hosts had used all of their substitutions, that left them with only six players on the pitch after 81 minutes.
Under the laws of the game, which state that no team can field fewer than seven players at a time, Wolstenholme had no choice but to abandon the match, causing uproar around the football world.
The decision was taken on five days later to award West Brom the 3-0 victory with which they had ended the match, and led to the game being monikered ‘The Battle of Bramall Lane’.
The Blades were slapped with a £10,000 fine for failing to control their players, Warnock and captain Keith Curle were handed £300 and £500 fines respectively, while Suffo was fined £3,000 for his violent assault.
Both Suffo and Santos were banned for six matches for their actions, and neither took to the field for Sheffield United again.
West Brom boss Gary Megson labelled the events as ‘disgraceful’, and said he’d ‘never witnessed anything’ like it in all his career.
“I’ve been in professional football since 16 and I’m 42 now. I’ve never ever witnessed anything as disgraceful as that. There is no place for that in any game of football, let alone professional football.”
An unforgettable moment in football, but a painful one to remember.