It was a goal that never should have been in a game that never was, at least in the eyes of the record books. But Arsenal’s clash with Sheffield United on 13 February 1999 will always remain part of FA Cup folklore.
In an age when it appears managers will do pretty much anything to avoid a replay, it’s almost inconceivable to think that two teams would voluntarily play each other again when the outcome has already been decided.
But that is exactly what happened when Nwankwo Kanu drew a helpless Alan Kelly and squared the ball for Marc Overmars to score in the 76th minute of the fifth-round tie at Highbury 21 years ago. It ought to have secured the Gunners’ place in the quarter-finals but instead sparked scenes like nothing witnessed before on an English football ground.
Arsene Wenger’s side had won the league and cup double the previous season in his first full campaign as Arsenal manager and entered the match on a run of nine games without defeat as they battled with Manchester United for the Premier League title once more.
Sheffield United, managed by former Manchester United defender Steve Bruce, were sitting comfortably in mid-table in the old First Division and headed to north London with nothing to lose and backed by 5,000 noisy fans.
It appeared to be business as usual when Patrick Vieira headed home Dennis Bergkamp’s free-kick, but United levelled just two minutes after the break when Marcelo glanced a superb header past David Seaman right in front of the travelling Blades fans.
The game then exploded into life as United threatened at one end and new-boy Kanu came on for Arsenal and almost scored with his first touch in English football.
But with 15 minutes to go an incident occurred which turned a relatively nondescript FA Cup encounter into one of the most talked-about and controversial fixtures for years.
When United’s Lee Morris went down in the Arsenal area he appeared to be seriously hurt, leading Blades keeper Alan Kelly to put the ball out in the belief that his side would then be given possession back when play restarted.
But as Ray Parlour threw the ball towards the United goalkeeper, Kanu, seemingly oblivious to this unwritten piece of football sportsmanship, nipped in and gave the ball to Overmars, who almost apologetically put the ball into an empty net.
Referee Peter Jones was besieged with furious Sheffield United players, but with no Arsenal player having broken any rules and nothing in the laws of the game stating that the ball must be returned to the opposition in such circumstances, the goal stood.
Steve Bruce was so furious that he began to beckon his players to the touchline, initially threatening to call a halt to the game. It took the intervention of midfielder Graham Stuart and assistant boss John Deehan for Bruce to allow a resumption after a six-minute delay during which five United players were booked.
“Most of the crowd had switched off while treatment was being given,” Arsenal fan and author of ‘Stuck on You: The Rise & Fall... & Rise of Panini Stickers,’ Greg Lansdowne tells The Sportsman of his memories of that day at Highbury.
“When play re-started there was probably even more confusion in the crowd than on the pitch as, once the goal went in and all hell broke loose, we all needed to work out exactly what had gone on as confusion reigned.”
Arsenal saw out the game with their 2-1 lead intact but even before the final whistle there were moves by the Arsenal hierarchy for the match to be restaged, an offer which was later confirmed by Wenger.
“When we left the ground it was clear that wasn’t going to be the end of it,” recalls Lansdowne, a Gunners follower of almost 50 years. “Remember, we’re talking about 1999 and media uproar then wasn’t what it is now, so when I got home and saw [Arsenal vice-chair] David Dein being interviewed on Sky Sports, I knew something was afoot.”
The match was eventually replayed 10 days later with Wenger claiming, “I offered the replay because it wasn’t right to win that way. It wasn’t the Arsenal way. We want to win all our games but nobody cheated on purpose.”
Bruce was more than grateful for the opportunity to play the game again, revealing after the initial match, “I could not understand what was happening, and if any of my players had done anything like that I would have sorted them out straightaway.
"At the time it was perhaps the most sickening moment of my entire career, certainly of my managerial experience.”
Fittingly, like the first game, the result of the rematch was 2-1 to Arsenal, but minus the controversy as the Gunners progressed to the last eight at the expense of the Blades and their loyal band of fans who had once again travelled to the capital in their numbers.
“If memory serves me right we had to pay again,” explains Greg of the replay for which tickets were half the usual cost. “We’d seen a game in its entirety first time round so this was another 90 minutes. Essentially it was just another game, though the Sheffield United fans who had to trawl back down to London again probably saw it another way!
“In terms of the replayed match, a Dennis Bergkamp chip is really the only thing worth recalling, though with similar ‘inadvertent’ goals seeing the wronged team being allowed to walk the ball into the net in subsequent years, I think it would have made things a lot easier had they agreed to do that in the first game!”
With convention having caught up in the last 21 years, the scenes at Highbury that day will probably never be repeated.