Three goals, two red cards and, courtesy of Derek Geary’s sweet right foot, one extraordinary collectors’ item.
Sheffield United’s visit to Millwall 12 years ago was a match, the former defender admitted earlier this week, which pretty much had it all.
“It was probably the craziest game of football I was ever involved in. I’m not sure anything else came close.
“I’ll never forget it for a whole host of different reasons but mostly because it was when I scored for the first and last time.”
Despite the high stakes and impact a defeat could have on their respective seasons, tomorrow’s meeting between these two clubs is unlikely to rival ‘The Rumble in the Tunnel’ for either controversy or drama. That fixture, which took place on December 4, 2004, was unfolding in fairly routine fashion until a confrontation, involving serial offender Kevin Muscat and Paddy Kenny, sparked a mass half-time brawl. Referee Iain Williamson dismissed both, United manager Neil Warnock blew a gasket and Andy Liddell cancelled-out Mark Phillips’ opening goal.
Then, much to the South Yorkshire club’s delight, came Geary’s spectacular coup-de-grace.
“I remember walking off at the break and then, just in front of the dressing rooms, there was this mass of bodies,” Geary told The Star. “It was carnage everywhere you looked.
“Danny Cadamarteri, who was on the bench for us, came in and told the gaffer Muscat had been given a red card. Well, Neil thought that was it. He was telling-us ‘You’ve got ‘em now.’ Or at least he was until the ref knocked on the door and said Paddy would be going as well. I think it’s fair to say his whole mood changed then, because we didn’t have a ‘keeper on the bench.
“But Jags (Phil Jagielka) was a really good shot-stopper and did well. We were drawing and then, towards the end, the ball came to me and I just smashed it from 30 odd yards out. If you are only going to score once then it’s best to make it memorable I suppose.”
Not that Graham Stack, who watched helplessly as Geary’s volley thundered into the back of Millwall’s net, would agree.
“I saw Graham on holiday in Marbella that summer,” he said. “And, whenever I spotted him out and about in the resort, I’d always give him a shout and make the same shape I did when I struck the ball. I didn’t tire of it but I think Graham did. First, he’d cross the road if he saw me coming and then I stopped bumping into him at all.”
“Joking aside, though, the thing that turned that game was our attitude,” Geary continued. “Because we didn’t have a goalie out there we just went for it, we didn’t have anything to lose. And that spirit, that never-say-die attitude, carried us through.”
Nigel Adkins’ squad could do a lot worse than tear a leaf out of their predecessors’ playbook as the battle for a top six finish enters a critical phase. United travel to London 11th in the League One table, seven points behind fifth-placed Millwall and knowing there are only 10 fixtures left to make-up the gap.
“The team spirit we had back then was ridiculous,” Geary said. “Everybody probably thinks we were all best mates but, off the pitch, actually we weren’t. I was a young, single lad at the time and so didn’t have much in common with someone like Paul Shaw who was married with kids. We were never going to hang around away from football but, out there when it mattered, we all had this great bond.
“There was a real affinity between us and it came from winning. I don’t have Jon Harley’s number who was also in that team but he added me on Facebook the other day. Even though we might not all be in touch, we all share that bond. And there’s nothing better than hearing someone who isn’t a close friend saying: ‘There’s nobody I’d rather have alongside me, in the heat of battle, out there.’ That’s special and that, together with some damn good players, is what we had.”
United finished eighth in the Championship that season. Twelve months and a few personnel tweaks later, they were celebrating promotion to the Premier League. Geary, who retired due to injury in 2010, is now passing on the knowledge he accumulated during 13 years in football to United’s next generation after being appointed to the Steelphalt Academy’s coaching staff.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “I’m working with great guys like Jordan Broadbent and Lee Dunn on the Futures development programme, with the under-12’s and a little bit with the under-18’s. Everybody takes a different route through and, if I can give them an inch worth of advantage through my experience, then hopefully it might end-up making a mile’s worth of difference. There’s nothing better than seeing a young, home-grown lad, come through.”
Geary progressed through the ranks at Sheffield Wednesday before arriving at Bramall Lane, following a brief spell with Stockport County, in October 2004. One of only 28 players to represent both United and their arch-rivals, the Dublin-born full-back made 115 appearances for his present employers. But, he told The Star on Tuesday afternoon, Jamal Campbell-Ryce nearly ensured it was none.
“Neil had brought Leigh (Bromby) and Alan (Quinn) over from Hillsborough earlier that season and I don’t think he thought he could get away with three,” Geary said. “So I went to Stockport after leaving Wednesday and, funnily enough, we got drawn together in the League Cup. I had a good game that night and I knew Neil was interested. He came to watch me against Chesterfield but Jamal, who is here at United now of course, was playing for them at the time and he absolutely had me on toast. I thought ‘that’s it, that’s the move over’ but Neil still signed me. I do remember him telling me though: ‘It’s just as well I knew you could play because you were bloody s**t against Jamal. He (Campbell-Ryce) still has a laugh about it when I see him around the training ground.”
“I remember warming-up for my first game with United, at Crewe, and I was getting so much stick from the United fans it was untrue. Usually, when you join a new club you get a really good reception but that definitely wasn’t the case then. Because I’d been at Wednesday they were telling me ‘Go back to Hillsborough’ or words to that effect but I just thought ‘Great, this is going to be a challenge.’ That’s the way I approached it, I gave everything and winning them over made me so proud. It was the biggest achievement of my career.”
Bigger, even, than that goal.