Neil Warnock Week: The Battle of Bramall Lane — 13 years on
When scouring our memories for a figure who might be seen to best epitomise the lower leagues of English football, several names came to mind. Despite his having recently managed on several occasions in the Premier League, our thoughts kept on coming back to one man – Mr. Neil Warnock. Over the sequence of a few days, we shall be analysing Warnock in a number of posts, some of which will be critical and some admiring. To kick it all off, we go back 13 years to an infamous day at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground.
“I’ve never ever witnessed anything as disgraceful as that.” — Gary Megson.
“I wouldn’t imagine Gary will be having a drink with me tonight.” — Neil Warnock.
The reactions of the opposing managers after the ‘Battle of Bramall Lane‘, as the match between Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion on 13 March 2002 has become known, sums up the depth of ill-feeling the game generated.
It was the first time an English professional football match had been abandoned due to a lack of players. Such was its notoriety, it made the national news headlines that evening.
The events of the game have been widely documented. Blades keeper Simon Tracey’s sending off for handball, Albion going two-nil up, including a goal of the season contender from skipper Derek McInnes, and then on 65 minutes, pandemonium: Georges Santos launched a two-footed challenge on Andy Johnson, presumably seeking revenge for a previous incident between the pair, and in the ensuing all-in brawl, Patrick Suffo was sent off for head-butting McInnes.
United captain Keith Curle — a ‘hero’ to Albion fans for his own goal in the derby with Wolves five years earlier — did his best to earn a red card with a few haymakers aimed at McInnes. Albion added a third goal. Then two United players, Rob Ullathorne and Michael Brown, went off injured, and under the letter of the law, referee Eddie Wolstenholme abandoned the match. The International Football Association Board states that “a match should not continue if there are fewer than seven players in either team”.
It’s worth providing a bit more context to appreciate why this game proved so incendiary.
Firstly, Albion boss Megson is an Owl — a supporter of the Blades’ city rivals Sheffield Wednesday as a boy, then a player for the club (and later a manager too). It added needle to the head-to-head with Warnock — himself a boyhood United fan — with neither man known for taking a backward step in any confrontation.
And Megson had made a team in his own mould. Albion had been a soft touch in the 1990s.
Megson built a team of captains who would stand up for themselves and their team mates, as their reaction to the Santos tackle illustrated. Rarely has born-again Christian centre half Darren Moore looked angrier.
Warnock’s rough house tactics might have intimidated other opposition that day. Not Megson’s Albion — though few expected the events that followed.
The supporter perspective is also worth recalling. As the atmosphere grew more toxic during the game, a Blades fan charged into the Albion end and attempted to steal a flag, which hardly poured oil on troubled waters.
Albion fans leaving the ground described the scenes as “hairy”, though visits to Bramall Lane in the 1990s had rarely been garden parties either.
There was a sense of chaos about the outcome. In those pre smart phone days, supporters called home on their Nokias to find out what had happened, and what the result was. With no precedent, few people had a clue.
The fall-out from the game rumbled on over the next week. Megson was adamant that the result should stand: “There will be no replay. If we are called back to Bramall Lane we shall kick-off and then walk off the pitch.”
Five days later, the Football League awarded the game 3-0 to Albion. Sheffield United were later fined £10,000, with Santos, Curle and Suffo receiving individual fines, and Warnock paying £300 for “improper conduct” towards the fourth official.
But did he deliberately get the game called off? We may never know, but as a manager who has courted controversy, Warnock probably enjoys the speculation that he did.
Apart from at Sheffield United, he has gone on to have a very good record against Albion, for Crystal Palace and Queen’s Park Rangers, and usually acknowledges the taunts that come his way on a visit to The Hawthorns.
But football would be dull if every visiting manager was politely applauded as he emerged from the tunnel.
And as supporters ourselves, we would be disappointed if one of our kind was manager, and didn’t occasionally get more fired up than the authorities deemed acceptable…
Besides, Albion fans have fond memories of the Battle of Bramall Lane. It kick-started a barnstorming end to the 2001/02 campaign, which saw the Baggies overhaul an 11-point gap on Wolves with just eight games left, and pip their Black Country rivals to promotion.