There are moments in football fandom that, in retrospect, you realise were the emotional high-water mark. The time when it mattered that much more, when the blade, now long dulled by experience, cut right through to the core. For me, that peak came at Bramall Lane on 15 May 2003.
In truth I can’t recall much about events surrounding the game. Googling the date today reveals – unexpectedly – that it was a Thursday. So I must have got the train up from London where I was at university. My dad would’ve driven up from Derby with my brother, uncle and cousin, parking up near Heeley City Farm in an awkward traffic-bothering style that had long been known as The Manoeuvre. At that time my uncle’s superstition was, I think, at the everybody-has-to-have-a-lucky-mint stage.
And that season the mints had been working wonders. Neil Warnock’s cobbled-together Blades had reached the League Cup semi-finals (losing against Liverpool over two legs), the FA Cup semi-finals (losing against Arsenal at Old Trafford) and finished (a pretty distant) third in Division One behind a very useful Leicester and a cracking Portsmouth side.
And it had all come from nowhere. Warnock, in his fourth season at Bramall Lane, had done a decent job of keeping the club competitive in the division on a shoestring budget and had reforged a connection with the fans. This was a side of dogged old pros and free transfers buoyed by a pair of terrific youngsters (Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge) and a midfielder having the season of his life. In Michael Brown’s 650-game career he scored 58 goals – 22 of them came in that campaign alone.
The first semi-final leg, at the City Ground, had finished 1-1 – David Johnson (another player on a never-to-be-repeated season-long scoring spree) opening the scoring, Brown equalising from the spot – so the advantage lay with Warnock’s side as they emerged with the packed Kop bathed in late-spring evening sunshine.
At first it all went horribly wrong. Thirty minutes in John Curtis’s miscued clearance fell straight to Johnson, who thundered the ball past Paddy Kenny. Thirteen minutes into the second half Andy Reid volleyed home to make it 2-0. Semi-final heartache was on the cards once more.
But seconds later (Sky Sports was still showing replays of Reid’s goal) Des Walker tripped Carl Asaba on the edge of the box. Brown’s free-kick deflected past Darren Ward in the Forest goal: 2-1. Then came Steve Kabba. Kenny, genuinely an early, glitchy version of a sweeper-keeper, booted long; Kabba flicked the bouncing ball up and crashed his volley home.
Two-two. Extra time. Into the 112th minute. Kenny thumped the ball forward again. Paul Peschisolido chested down, 25 yards from goal. Inside. Outside. Inside? Again? A scuff. Perhaps the most beautiful scuff you’ll ever see. Ward going the wrong way. And then. Oh my god! Oh MY GOD! OH MY GOD!!!
Peschisolido’s celebration has gone down in Blades folklore but despite it taking place right in front of me in the John Street Stand I can’t say I saw any of it. As the ball trundled over the line, the terraces exploded. The three of us (my dad was on the Kop; my uncle, it transpired later, had abandoned his seat at the end of our row and was sprinting gleefully along the concourse) formed a tiny part of a huge broiling, cavorting mass of joy.
There was still time for Walker to score an own goal and Robert Page to set nerves fluttering with one of his own but the team that had fallen just short against Liverpool, that had been denied by David Seaman’s wonder-save at Old Trafford, this time wouldn’t be denied. It ended 4-3. It was the best I ever felt in a football ground. I’m pretty certain it always will be.
Let’s not mention the final.