As the world’s oldest football competition, the FA Cup has produced many great and glorious moments since its inception in 1871. One of the most unusual and moving of them all coming during a 1999 quarter-final between then-holders Arsenal and second-division Sheffield United. Though the Londoners eventually came out on top, this was one tie in which the game of football emerged the clear winner.
The tie went to a replay, which took place 15 years ago today. What was unusual about this particular rematch was that it came after the first meeting between the two sides, played at Highbury ten days earlier, had finished with Arsenal leading 2-1.
So why the need for a replay? To answer that question you have to go back to the moment when United keeper Alan Kelly kicked the ball into touch so that team-mate Lee Morris could receive treatment for an injury he had picked up at the other end of the pitch. When play restarted, Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour sportingly threw the ball back towards the opposition, as is the custom in such situations.
Seemingly unaware of Parlour’s intentions, Gunners front man Nwankwo Kanu, who had just joined Arsenal from Inter Milan and was making his debut for the club, latched on to the loose ball near the United box. The Nigerian then squared it to the unmarked Marc Overmars, who showed a similar lack of awareness and simply rolled the ball into the empty net.
A bitter taste
Though perhaps reluctant to do so, referee Peter Jones had no option but to award the goal, which put Arsenal 2-1 up with ten minutes remaining. Furious at seeing the goal stand, Blades coach Steve Bruce responded by asking his players to leave the pitch.
Though play eventually restarted, the atmosphere was decidedly tense and there was no mistaking the bitter mood on both sides when the final whistle blew. Concerned at the unusual turn of events, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger wasted little time in offering to replay the match in its entirety.
“It’s the only thing I can do. I’m trying to make up for an accident,” said the Frenchman, who added, “Kanu and the whole team feel very sad about what happened.”
With his team very much in the league title race and still involved in Europe, Wenger was no doubt reluctant to face yet another fixture, but decided that upholding the spirit of fair play was the only course of action open to him. In doing so, he offered a response to the criticism the north London club had long attracted for their disciplinary record and their supposedly dirty play.
“That’s not the Arsenal way,” he countered. “We want to win all our matches but no one deliberately goes out to cheat.”
The English FA and FIFA accepted his proposal, with the replay taking place at Highbury on 23 February, much to the satisfaction of Bruce, who believed a return match was the only possible solution.
“The sad thing about the whole episode is we were only 12 or 13 minutes away from a proper replay back at our ground,” said the former Manchester United centre-back in the days between the two games. “The players gave their all and they deserve this second game.”
Bruce was entitled to feel somewhat peeved, his Brazilian striker Marcelo having cancelled out Patrick Vieira’s opener and then hitting the post before the unfortunate incident that overshadowed his side’s battling performance.
Their FA Cup hopes came to an end, however, when Arsenal won the replay by a repeat 2-1 scoreline, this time without any controversy. Though 15 years have elapsed since that second game, Wenger remains firmly ensconced in the Gunners dugout, having added considerably to his glowing CV, which includes a UEFA Fair Play Award, presented to him that very year in recognition of his sporting gesture.