Asked IF Michael Tonge had made any impression on him, Gérard Houllier replied gracelessly: "Yes, he scored two goals." The Liverpool manager did not elaborate.
At Anfield, they had long been tracking a teenager regarded as probably the finest talent in the First Division and in the semi-final of the Worthington Cup he had just scored twice against them. His manager, Neil Warnock, bluntly commented that, whatever Sheffield United did in the cup competitions, they would have to win promotion to the Premiership or resign themselves to losing Tonge. He reckoned they could probably get £6m for him.
Warnock, for once, was being unduly pessimistic. Unlike Michael Brown, who will wait to see what division Sheffield United are playing in next season before committing himself to the club, Tonge put his name to a three-year contract before Monday's First Division play-off final with Wolverhampton Wanderers.
"Sheffield United as a club are moving forward. I'm getting games, which is what I need at this stage of my career, and if I move to a Premiership side, I'm not necessarily going to play," he said.
Tonge, who turned 20 last month although his maturity and intelligence make him seem older, rather agreed with Houllier's grudging assessment. "I don't think I played particularly well but goals take headlines. There was a lot of publicity and people complaining about us," he said recalling the occasion on which Houllier's assistant, Phil Thompson, made threatening noises to the United bench about what kind of revenge Liverpool would exact in the second leg at Anfield.
"We felt a little bit hard done by. Maybe they thought we would show them more respect, but if you stand off teams like Liverpool and Arsenal they will beat you because technically they are better. I didn't think it was an over-physical game, but that's the way it's worked for us this year and if we go up I don't think we'll change. The difference in the Premiership is up front, with the forwards, and this season we have found that our strikers have done very well."
The team themselves have surpassed the expectations of everyone at the club, bar one man. Before United, who had finished last season 15 points adrift of a play-off place, set off for their first game of the season against Coventry, Warnock told them they would be promoted. "A lot of players thought to themselves: 'Are you serious?' We didn't think it was realistic. Maybe we didn't realise how good we can be and as the season's gone on we've started to believe in ourselves a lot more."
This was never more true than in the second leg of the play-off semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Sheffield United had been frankly outplayed in a 1-1 draw at the City Ground, where there had been another altercation in the tunnel, this time involving Dean Windass, Kenny Burns, the hard man in Brian Clough's European Cup-winning side, and a bottle of water. At Bramall Lane, Forest stormed into a two-goal lead and, in the words of Carl Asaba, were "bragging that it was not when they scored but how many." United fought back to equalise and won 4-3 in extra time.
"Even at half time the gaffer was telling us that it would only take us a minute to score two goals," Tonge said. "We've come from behind a lot. Nobody thought it was over and when we got one back, everybody had that gut feeling we could do it."
Play-off finals are football's harshest places; nine months' work judged in 90 minutes. Asaba has tasted both sides with Gillingham. Four years ago he scored once and "was already spending my win bonus" when Manchester City (the team Tonge supports) dragged back a two-goal deficit and won the Second Division play-off final on penalties. The following year Asaba was back at Wembley and, although Gillingham played worse against Wigan than they had against City, they won.
"I know George Ndah well," Asaba said of the Wolves striker. "But if we lose and he phones me up gloating, then the friendship's out the window, it's that important. When we beat Wigan we didn't go in their dressing-room. We just gave them our shirts. We weren't jumping around in their faces because there's a lot of hurt. Just get back to your hotel and enjoy the moment."
In his first full season in the senior side, sharing a house with Phil Jagielka, whom Asaba believes is good enough one day to play left-back for England, Tonge has enjoyed plenty of moments.
"I've played a few big games now and I know how to deal with it better. You don't realise how massive the FA Cup semi-final is until you play in it. When you go down on the bus and see the fans, it absolutely hits you. People might have said that we weren't expected to win and it wouldn't have mattered too much.
"If we had been beaten 4-0 by Arsenal we could have accepted it, but because it was so close and because of the way Seaman saved Paul Peschisolido's header at the end, it was hard. You ask yourselves: Will you ever get this far again?"
Sheffield United did get this far again, a month after the bitterness of defeat had seeped away. After three dramatic semi-finals, they deserved a final and this one probably matters more than the other two.
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