Tonge is hopeful Blades can keep it tight

THE scorer of both Sheffield United’s goals on their only other appearance in a League Cup semi-final believes a draw or even a narrow defeat at Tottenham Hotspur tomorrow night will have his former club justifiably dreaming of another Wembley trip.

Sheffield United's two-goal first leg hero in 2003, Michael Tonge, shields the ball from Liverpools El Hadji Diouf at Bramall Lane (Picture: Gerard Binks).
Sheffield United's two-goal first leg hero in 2003, Michael Tonge, shields the ball from Liverpools El Hadji Diouf at Bramall Lane (Picture: Gerard Binks).

Michael Tonge netted twice as the Blades took a 2-1 lead over Liverpool in January, 2003, after a dramatic first leg at a packed Bramall Lane.

Unfortunately for the South Yorkshire outfit, the Reds hit back to triumph 3-2 on aggregate in the return before going on to lift the trophy courtesy of beating Manchester United in the Millennium Stadium.

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Twelve years on, Nigel Clough’s current crop are hoping to go one better than Neil Warnock’s side and reach the final of English football’s second knockout competition.

It will be a tall order, not least because Tottenham Hotspur are 46 places above United in the pyramid and bang in form after recently smashing Chelsea 5-3.

Nevertheless, Tonge, who spent seven years with the Blades, is adamant that his former club have a chance of making history.

“It won’t be easy and Spurs will be big favourites,” the 31-year-old Leeds United midfielder told The Yorkshire Post.

“Things are a bit different to when we got to the semi-finals as well.

“We were a team in what is now the Championship and going for promotion, whereas now Sheffield United are in League One.

“But I’d imagine they will be a little bit like us back then and feel they can beat anyone. They’ve earned that right, too, with the results that have been achieved.

“Southampton are having an excellent season and yet Sheffield United beat them comfortably, by all accounts.

“Of course, a big difference to 12 years ago is we played at home first. I honestly don’t know which is the best way round. But if Sheffield United can get a draw or even a one-goal defeat down there then everything will be to play for back up at Bramall Lane.

“I know from experience just how special those Cup nights can be under the lights. The supporters really get behind their team.

“Spurs are in good form right now but I doubt they’ll relish that atmosphere.

“I just hope Sheffield United are still in the tie going into the second leg. If they are, game on.”

Tonge’s own experience of reaching the League Cup semi-finals came 12 years ago this month when the Blades hosted Liverpool in the first leg.

Neil Mellor gave the Premier League side an early lead, but that was only the prelude to a late onslaught from United that saw Tonge, then a teenager, score twice in the final 15 minutes.

“That first leg was a great night for everyone,” he recalls. “A tough, tough game and one where we didn’t play particularly well in the first half.

“Liverpool scored early on and we never got going in the opening 45 minutes. Then, credit to the gaffer, he changed things at half-time.

“We’d kept it at 1-0 but we needed to try something different so went from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3. It definitely helped me, especially as I don’t think I would have been in the position I was to score the first goal without that change.

“I moved to the left side of a front three and that meant I was on the spot to take a great pass from Stuart McCall. I put it between Chris Kirkland’s legs, I think.

“For the second, I was going to hit it first time but then I got blocked. So, I took a touch and then had a go. Bramall Lane was bouncing that night.

“It was just a shame there was a second leg or we would have gone through to the final.”

Goals from El Hadji Diouf and Michael Owen in the return saw Liverpool through to Cardiff. United, meanwhile, went on to reach the FA Cup semi-final and the play-off final only to lose both games.

“It was so disappointing to miss out on everything,” said Tonge. “The memories, though, stay with you for life.

“The funny thing about that season is we did really well in both competitions and yet we only played away twice in the Cups, and that was in both semi-finals.

“Otherwise, we had something like 10 draws at home. We were really strong at Bramall Lane, too.

“The current team seem the same so let’s hope they can keep the tie alive going into the return in Sheffield.”