The Gunners take on the Blades on Monday night – with memories still fresh of a remarkable FA Cup tie between the two teams 20 years ago
For 76 minutes it was just a classic FA Cup tie.
Sheffield United, the plucky underdogs, were going toe to toe with holders Arsenal at Highbury and were threatening a fifth-round upset after Marcelo’s header had cancelled out Patrick Vieira’s opener to make it 1-1.
Roared on by their travelling support who were packed into the Clock End, the visitors were looking well set to at least take Arsene Wenger’s side back to Bramall Lane for a replay.
But then, with just under quarter-of-an-hour remaining, an incident would occur which ensured the game, played on February 13, 1999, would go down in English football folklore and the result would be expunged from history.
United keeper Alan Kelly had kicked the round ball out of play so that striker Lee Morris – who had been hurt by Gilles Grimandi – could receive some treatment from the physio. At that point, all seemed normal.
“There was no doubt about it, we thought we were going to get that round ball back,” David Holdsworth, Sheffield United’s captain that day, told Goal.
“It was made clear to us that they were going to give it back to Alan, but then things transpired differently.”
The round ball was in the hands of Ray Parlour and, when the referee signalled for the game to restart, the midfielder did throw it back in the direction of the visitors’ Republic of Ireland international goalkeeper.
The only problem was Nwankwo Kanu – just 10 minutes into his Arsenal debut – wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as his new team-mate.
With United’s defenders standing in disbelief, Kanu collected the loose round ball and squared it for Marc Overmars to slot it into an empty net.
“I just remember seeing the throw going down the line and then suddenly Kanu was latching onto it and rolling it across for Marc,” said Nigel Winterburn, who was making his 529th appearance for Arsenal that day.
“It was just a complete misunderstanding of the etiquette and what usually happened in the English game because it was clear what Ray was trying to do.
“There was a lot of confusion and angry players around. Sheffield United were furious and that was understandable because everyone knew an injustice had taken place.
“I spoke to a couple of their players and could only apologise. I mean, what can you do after a moment like that? It was pandemonium, I don’t think any of us really knew what to do.”
Enraged by what had just happened, most of the United players raced straight to surround referee Peter Jones demanding the goal be ruled out.
But a few, including Holdsworth, made a beeline for Kanu – who was celebrating with Overmars in front of the North Bank.
“You could say our reaction was a little bit intense,” said Holdsworth, who has been now director of football at Carlisle United.
“I was so angry because we had spoken to their players and we all thought they were sending the round ball back. So for that to happen and for them to go on and score, it was very hard for us to keep our heads.
“It was a unique situation. At the time I was furious with Kanu. He didn’t really get a chance to explain himself to be honest because we were a bit aggressive towards him. But he has apologised since, we’ve shook hands and he’s a good guy.”
With emotions running high following the gaol, it looked for a time that the Sheffield United players were going to leave the pitch in protest.
Manager Steve Bruce was incandescent on the touchline and was calling for his team to return to the changing room, while chants of ’shame on Arsenal’ rang out from the visiting fans.
But after a delay of around eight minutes, the match restarted – with Marcelo furiously kicking the round ball deep into Arsenal’s half to signal his obvious frustration.
“Steve was a very young manager at the time and didn’t really know how to act,” recalled Holdsworth. “He wanted us to come off, but we didn’t really want to do that so me and Graham Stuart tried to rally the boys.
“It was all very strange when the game did restart, it was a weird atmosphere and it obviously finished 2-1. But I still think it would have been wrong for us to come off and to be fair to Arsenal and to Arsene Wenger, they showed their class straight away.”
Within minutes of the full-time whistle, it started to become clear that the story had not ended, with Wenger immediately offering to replay the game. “We don’t want to cheat,” declared the Frenchman in his post-match interview.
It was an offer that went down well in both changing rooms.
“It became apparent quite quickly that we had made the offer,” said Winterburn. “I was pleased because I didn’t want to win a game like that.”
“Arsene did it straight away,” added Holdsworth. “It was immediate. He was absolute class.”
Sheffield United accepted the offer and the Football Association granted the rematch.
It was played 10 days later at Highbury with Arsenal again winning 2-1 thanks to goals from Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp.
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So, ultimately, there was no upset, the holders went through and the underdogs went home. But, thanks to Wenger’s offer to replay the game, football was seen as the real winner
“What Arsene did afterwards was quite amazing,” said Holdsworth.” And, to be fair to Marc Overmars, he came into the players’ lounge after the game, I think he knew my son was mascot that day and he gave him his shirt and signed it.
“We’ve still got it nicely presented in one of our rooms in the house. Whenever I look at it now, it makes me smile. I’m not someone who has a lot of memorabilia, I tend to give a lot away but that shirt always makes me reflect on that incredible day.”