Wembley return on horizon for Reds fan Steele

Danny Rose is congratulated by Luke Steele
Danny Rose is congratulated by Luke Steele
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Barnsley goalkeeper Luke Steele has an added incentive to help his club through to the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley as it would come at ‘the enemy’s’ expense. Leon Wobschall explains.

THE toast of the red half of Manchester – not once, but twice five seasons ago – Barnsley goalkeeper and Manchester United fan Luke Steele is seeking to provide a pick-me-up for the deflated Old Trafford legions at a venue which still haunts the Red Devils.

The exploits of former Old Trafford custodian Steele and his Tykes team-mates provided the enduring FA Cup story of 2007-08.

In a captivating campaign when big-hitters fell by the wayside, Barnsley vanquished two of United’s big rivals in Liverpool and Chelsea en route to the semi-final.

Barnsley’s class of 2012-13 will see their own names in lights if they claim the big-name scalp of Manchester City tomorrow tea-time at the Etihad Stadium, a venue now synonymous with the last-gasp exploits of Sergio Aguero in May, with his ‘94th-minute’ strike against QPR famously denying United the title.

If Barnsley do prevail tomorrow, expect any sagging spirits still prevalent across the Red section of Manchester to lift partially in the wake of United’s controversial midweek exit from the Champions League, which nailed their hopes of repeating the club’s unprecedented 1999 Treble.

That was also famously denied them on a seismic Saturday in early March in 2008 when the Red Devils bowed out to eventual Cup winners Portsmouth, only for the sense of embarrassment to be eased at the sight of Chelsea losing their quarter-final at Oakwell later that day,

Barnsley captain Steele, who failed to play a first-team game at Old Trafford after being transferred from home-town club Peterborough United in a £500,000 deal in 2002, stood tall that night and on his debut at Anfield in the previous round.

That will be required again at the Etihad, where Steele is hoping to provide the drama at City’s expense.

He said: “I watched the title decider at my friend’s house and five out of the six lads there were Man United fans.

“We couldn’t believe it. I thought we had it in the bag and Aguero popped up and spoiled the day.

“But this year is different, United are looking like they will get it back. It would be nice to reward them further (with a win) on Saturday. I am sure United fans were rooting for us against Liverpool five years ago.

“United were my team then and still are. I would have loved the opportunity to play for them, but it did not happen. That is fair enough, (Edwin) van der Sar was the best goalkeeper in the country at the time, I have no arguments. I knew I had to move on, he had years left in him.”

Aspiring young professionals rarely forget their first-team debuts for clubs and memories of Steele’s first outing for Barnsley, at Anfield on February 16, 2008. will never fade.

The goalkeeper, newly-signed on loan by former Oakwell chief Simon Davey from West Brom, staged an at times one-man crusade to thwart the hosts before Brian Howard fired in a dramatic stoppage-time winner to down Rafa Benitez’s men in a famous 2-1 win.

Steele’s wonder show earned him the Player of the Round accolade and you sense something resembling a repeat will be needed if Barnsley are to book a return to Wembley in the Cup semi-finals.

If there is a joyous re-run, expect a celebration slide from Steele akin to that afternoon on Merseyside.

Recalling that red letter day, Steele said: “I came to Barnsley on the Wednesday and trained on the Thursday and Friday.

“I remember me and Fozie (Steve Foster) shared a room in Liverpool on the Friday night, and I did say to him, ‘Look, give me the names of the team. What is his name, what is his name? Especially the back four’ – I needed to know who I was talking to.

“I remember thinking to myself it was my last chance to prove myself as a goalkeeper. I was probably wrong, but I had been at West Brom, played a couple of games, been on the bench at United, but I felt I needed to play well in a first team. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but things went perfectly.

“It probably helped us conceding that goal quite early on. It settled us down, it settled me down.

“They changed their game a bit and after that it went amazingly. I just felt invincible that day.

“When we got the goal... I never slide on my knees, and never have since that day, but did when Brian scored. I slid in front of our fans. The roar was incredible. Maybe if we score a goal like that on Saturday, you’ll get something similar.”

Championship safety may be Barnsley’s overriding priority, with their run to the last eight of the Cup being a bonus.

But Steele is intent on exorcising a few Wembley demons by getting past City and booking a return to the home of football where he and Reds team-mates cut dejected figures after their semi-final loss to Cardiff City in April, 2008, when Barnsley ‘did not turn up’ on the day.

Steele, a survivor from that famous Cup run along with Bobby Hassell and Stephen Foster, said: “As good as day as it was, the game was horrible. It is tough to lose a semi-final, and in a game where we had a good chance to win. I was devastated. It took me a while to get over that and I wanted to get back as soon as possible to replace those demons.

“This is an opportunity where we are close to playing there again; it would be a dream.”