Memorable campaign sees Blades left with nothing but admiration

ASK any Sheffield United fan about the 2002-03 season and it would be hard to predict whether you’d be met by smiles or tears.

so close: A dejected Stuart McCall and Peter Ndlovu applaud the Sheffield United fans at Anfield in 2003 after losing 3-2 to Liverpool over two legs in extra time in the semi-finals of the Worthington Cup.

It was a remarkable campaign. Neil Warnock’s side not only reached the League Cup semi-final, but the FA Cup semi-final, too, and the Division One play-off final as well. Heady days indeed.

The only problem was, though, they cruelly lost all three of the crucial ties.

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Effectively, the Blades emerged with nothing, just goodwill, admiration and credit for the manner in which they had shrugged off their underdog status to attempt such an incredible treble.

Tomorrow night the present United side will look to reach the semi-finals of the League Cup – now in its Capital One guise not the 2003 Worthington version – for only the second time in their 125 year history.

If they do defeat Premier League high-fliers Southampton at Bramall Lane to make the last four – possible given the Saints’ recent poor run – it will be a more notable feat than 12 years ago given the Blades currently reside in League One.

In 2002, United defeated Crystal Palace 3-1 at this stage to set up a semi-final meeting with giants Liverpool.

There, they were on the brink of footballing immortality when Michael Tonge’s late double fired them into a 2-1 lead after a dramatic first leg at a rocking Bramall Lane.

In the quarter-final, Carl Asaba’s opener had been cancelled out by a Robert Page own goal but Paul Peschisolido arrived to strike twice in the last four minutes to progress the South Yorkshire club.

However, when it came to the second leg with Liverpool at Anfield, there was heartache as El Hadji Diouf levelled the tie and then England star Michael Owen scored the extra-time winner in the 107th minute.

Liverpool went on to defeat Manchester United in the final but, as Page recalled to The Yorkshire Post, it largely remains a time he looks back on fondly.

“It was such a terrific run in both competitions,” said the former Wales centre-half, who made more than 100 appearances for the Blades between 2001-04 following a £350,000 switch from Watford.

“We’d been going really well in the league and then came up against Liverpool in what was a memorable game.

“Tongy was magnificent that night as were all the boys but he really stole the headlines with a quality brace.

“We missed out in the next one, though, and, looking back, playing such a considerable number of games, I think it was inevitable it was going to have an impact on us.

“Unfortunately it did at the wrong time in that play-off final.”

United featured in an incredible 61 matches that campaign but, having gone 15 games unbeaten before the loss at Anfield, won just four of their last 13 fixtures culminating in that disastrous 3-0 play-off final defeat to Wolves.

Page, now manager at United’s League One rivals Port Vale, admitted: “Just the sheer number of games we’d played that season caught up with us in that play-off final at the Millennium Stadium.

“To be 3-0 down at half-time against a very good team like Wolves was extremely disappointing. It was a loss I really struggled to come to terms with over that year.”

Although their Premier League hopes were dashed, the team Warnock had honed was a pleasure to watch.

Full of tyros like Tonge, the 19-year-old midfielder who had such dare and trickery, plus fellow youngster Phil Jagielka allied to steely veterans such as ex-Scotland international Stuart McCall and Wayne Allison, they were an entertaining force.

In the FA Cup semi-final they fell 1-0 to Arsenal following Freddie Ljungberg’s goal but they defeated Premier League side and Yorkshire rivals Leeds United on the way and in the League Cup, too.

“It was fantastic watching so many of the young lads come through the ranks – Nick Montgomery, Michael Tonge, Phil Jagielka, so many,” said Page.

“It’s brilliant to see what they’ve done since, too, especially ‘Jags’ playing for England.

“It was a fantastic bunch and we really enjoyed it. That season was great for the fans, to see the club in big games like that, and it was great for the game itself, too.

“The best for me was the FA Cup semi playing Arsenal at Old Trafford with the likes of David Seaman and Thierry Henry.

“Everything that day from the drive into the stadium and seeing all those Blades fans waiting for us all the way through. We more than held our own against a very, very good Arsenal side.

“I had a great time at Watford with two consecutive promotions into the Premier League, but United was memorable as well.

“The Sheffield people were tremendous to me and my family.

“I watched them recently against Plymouth; Nigel Clough has them playing well again.”