Bygones: Dean Saunders is Sheffield United’s hero over Paul Gascoigne’s Middlesbrough

Dean Saunders: Match-winner for Blades.
Dean Saunders: Match-winner for Blades.
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THIS week’s encounter between two White Rose teams in pursuit of top-flight football allows us to harp back to a similar scenario just over two decades ago.

Just as they are currently, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough are battling it out for promotion to the Premier League.

Paul Gascoigne, on the day he signed for Middlesbrough.

Paul Gascoigne, on the day he signed for Middlesbrough.

Back in the 1997-98 season, both teams were in contention for elevation heading into the business end of the campaign and a crucial encounter pitted the two against each other at Bramall Lane.

The game marked only a second outing in a Boro shirt for Paul Gascoigne, who had joined from Glasgow Rangers only a month prior.

The mercurial midfielder had arrived on Teesside for a fee of £3.45m and had been tasked with aiding Boro’s hopes of an immediate return to the top tier.

‘Gazza’, who was still held in high esteem following his exploits with the Three Lions at Euro ’96, had enjoyed three prosperous years north of the border.

Back in the 1997-98 season, both teams were in contention for elevation heading into the business end of the campaign and a crucial encounter pitted the two against each other at Bramall Lane.

But Gascoigne, who would go on to make just three more outings for England following his transfer to Boro, put in a below-par showing in this game against a Blades team led by caretaker Steve Thompson.

His evening got worse when he limped off with a foot injury towards the end of the encounter.

Earlier, a poked finish from Dean Saunders had given United the lead before Boro were handed a golden chance to level matters from 12 yards out.

David Holdsworth tripped Hamilton Ricard in the area but another Three Lions star, Paul Merson, blotted his copybook by blazing the spot-kick high and over the bar.

Thompson enthused after the victory: “The players’ attitude at this football club is exemplary. We’ve played three games in less than a week and the lads have run their socks off every time.”

Boro manager Bryan Robson conceded after this slip-up in South Yorkshire that Boro would have to post an exemplary end to the season with six games to go.

Robson, who would go on to manage the Blades six years after departing the Riverside, said: “We’ve put pressure on ourselves because we’ve got to set our stall out to win all six of our games to give us a chance of going straight up.”

His players were certainly taking notice of his comments.

They duly went on to claim 16 points from a possible 18 and seal automatic promotion by finishing in second place.

Long-time leaders Nottingham Forest went up as champions that season and the Blades ultimately sneaked into the top six only on the final day.

Their play-off campaign proved unsuccessful, however, with Sunderland edging them out 3-2 on aggregate.

The two teams do battle again on Wednesday evening at Bramall Lane, with both clubs sitting handsomely inside the top six.

The Blades will be hoping that they can go one better this time around as they look to end a 12-year absence from football’s top table.