‘People will talk about this for years to come,’ declared Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock after his cobbled together team knocked the rising stars of Nottingham Forest out of the Championship play-offs almost two decades ago.
Warnock was not wrong. The Blades edged a thrilling semi-final, coming back from 2-0 down in the second leg at Bramall Lane to win 4-3 in extra time – and 5-4 on aggregate.
Some United fans rank that night in May 2003 as their best ever in a football ground.
David Johnson and Phil Jagielka (left) had key roles in the epic encounter 19 years ago
And so do the Blades’ players, who are still savouring every moment. The memories are undimmed despite a monumental celebration after the match, which was still going in the team hotel when other guests came down for breakfast.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Forest players are less forthcoming, having squandered a precious shot at the big time, despite a team that boasted talented academy graduates, including Andy Reid, Gareth Williams, Marlon Harewood and John Thompson, as well as David Johnson and Darren Huckerby, who was on loan from Manchester City.
But now Forest scent the opportunity for revenge, playing the first leg of this season’s Championship play-off semi-final in Sheffield on Saturday, with the return fixture at the City Ground on Tuesday.
Neil Warnock and his team were celebrating in 2003, but Forest want revenge this time
Reid’s reaction to the rematch was captured live on-air last weekend, as Hull City’s 94th minute equaliser meant Forest were suddenly destined to meet their old rivals again.
‘Let’s not talk about that,’ quipped the Irishman, when asked about the game nineteen years ago on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Reid, who spent 10 years at the City Ground in two spells, admitted ‘a bit of revenge’ would be sweet, adding: ‘We were 2-0 up. It finished 4-3. There was a decent rivalry between us then, we always had really good games against each other.’
That night, Forest were mugged by some wily pros, who had been gathered around the Blades’ own promising youngsters, like Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge, and who simply refused to give up.
The tie was delicately poised at 1-1 following the first leg in Nottingham, but crucially Forest’s up and coming defender, Michael Dawson, had been sent off seven minutes from the end of that game and was suspended for the second leg.
Both teams have finished the season in good form overall and it is tipped to be a close game
In some ways, the semi-final turned on the Dawson red card, since it seriously weakened the Reds. Well, that and Paul Peschisolido’s twisting, turning run and scuffed shot that put the Blades ahead in extra time and cued wild celebrations around Bramall Lane.
Peschisolido tore about the pitch shirt off, pursued by his team mates, while pandemonium broke out in the stands.
‘It’s kind of embarrassing,’ Peschisolido told Yorkshire Live. ‘I just completely lost my head, I lost everything. I didn’t know what I was doing. I have never pulled my shirt off before. I didn’t know what came over me.’
Michael Brown, who made 151 league appearances for the Blades over five years scored the equaliser in the first leg and launched the comeback in the second, with a free kick to make the score 2-1.
‘That was the Championship classic game,’ recalled the midfielder.
‘Yes, when you are on the receiving end not so much but winning it for us, it was a remarkable day and a remarkable night. None of us can forget,’ Brown told the BBC.
‘The history is there between the two football clubs. Two huge clubs desperate to get in there. It is remarkable it’s happening again. There is a bit of history, there is a bit of spice in it.’
In 2003, a key moment in the tie was the sending off of Michael Dawson in the first leg
Goalkeeper Paddy Kenny remembers every minute of the match.
‘When I look back now it was the best atmosphere I have ever played in,’ Kenny told Sportsmail.
‘When we went two nil down, I could not believe it because we had got a good draw away from home and we thought we would go on to win it.
‘But Neil Warnock knew we had good steel about us and that bunch of players stuck together and could fight back.’
United had enjoyed runs to the semi-finals of the League Cup and FA Cup that season and were used to digging deep.
Nearly two decades on, Kenny is claiming two assists.
Sheffield United goalkeeper Paddy Kenny knew his team could come back in 2003
Firstly, for the equaliser, his long punt downfield on 68 minutes, was controlled by Kabba, who turned Des Walker, back at Forest for his second spell, inside out before volleying home.
And then for Peschisolido, with another long ball, but there was an awful lot of work to be done once the tricky forward was in possession.
As the ball rolled over the line at one end, Kenny and Jagielka were rolling around on the floor in celebration at the other, before Robert Page told them to cut it out.
‘Pagey came over and said ‘F***ing get back up the pair of you, ‘cos we haven’t done this yet,’ Kenny later told the Sheffield Star, noting the Welsh international centre back was ‘as hard as nails’.
Kenny, who is a Sheffield United fan and watches the current crop of Blades home and away, has been impressed with them this season.
‘They have to go out there and just do what they have been doing,’ said Kenny, who now runs a transport business and does speaking engagements.
Both matches between Forest and Sheffield United have finished 1-1 this season
After Peschisolido’s goal the ground was in tumult, but the United fans’ incredible night was about to get even better. Walker, who had played 310 league games for arch rivals, Sheffield Wednesday, headed into his own goal to make it 4-2.
‘That was an extra pleasure,’ noted Amanda Ball, a lifelong Blades fan, who was at the game. ‘Not only did he score an own goal but he effectively won it for us.’
For Forest, the defeat was bewildering. Paul Hart sounded shell-shocked in his after-match comments.
‘I feel for the boys…’ he said. ‘We did well to get 2-0 up… but it kicked them into gear.’
Forest’s manager Steve Cooper has engineered a remarkable run of form in the Championship
The night had started so well. David Johnson, whose son, Brennan, has taken the Championship by storm for Forest this season and will be pivotal if the Reds are to succeed this time around, opened the scoring after half-an-hour with a thumping strike that wrong-footed Kenny.
And on 58 minutes, Reid smashed in a volley from five yards. At that point Forest fans were planning their away day at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
‘We were in dreamland,’ recalled Paul Severn, 41, an organiser in the Nottingham Forest Supporters’ Trust.
‘They got one back immediately and it all unravelled from there. Des Walker’s own goal made it ten times worse. He had returned [to the club]. It was such a shame for him.’
By the end Forest hearts were broken and Johnson, who scored 29 goals that season, including one in the first leg, left the pitch in tears, recalled Severn grimly.
He admits there is now ‘some trepidation’ ahead of another Sheffield United showdown, with whom Forest share a long-standing rivalry, which was enhanced in that play-off defeat.
‘There is an element of… can that be avenged. It will be interesting to see if [Johnson’s] son [Brennan] can do that.’
David Johnson opened the scoring for Forest at Bramall Lane in 2003, this time his son, Brennan, will play for the Reds and try to succeed where his father did not
Forest fans see similarities between this team and the one that failed last time, with academy graduates, like Joe Worrall, Ryan Yates and Johnson making their names and staking their claims, with a manager, Steve Cooper, renowned for managing young talent, as Hart is.
And the team, which was rock bottom of the Championship after seven games has the City Ground bouncing again. Forest finally seem unencumbered by the incredible achievements of the past, including two European Cups in 1979 and 1980.
‘The success was a long, long time ago,’ added Severn.’ I remember the back end of Brian Clough, but people under 30 do not remember any of it and this is the best football they have seen in their lifetime.
‘Even some of the old timers say they have not seen an atmosphere like this. There has been so much disappointment but to have a team that can give Arsenal and Liverpool a game and Leicester a hiding… There is a real buzz around the city. It is the best it’s been for years.’
Both clubs would be well advised not to look to far ahead. Their supporters are painfully aware of their abysmal records in play-offs.
Forest fans have enjoyed the ride this season and the club and city are buzzing with their team’s resurgence
In 2003, Sheffield United were 3-0 down to Wolves by half-time in the final. In eight attempts they are yet to achieve promotion by the play off route.
Since crashing out to the Blades, Forest have failed at the semi final stage on three more occasions.
But they could do worse than look back for inspiration.
Following Sheffield United’s famous win in that epic encounter 19 years ago, Warnock vowed: ‘I’ll watch the video as many times as I can.’
And there is motivation to be found for both teams in Warnock’s old VHS tape.