by Richard DJJ Bowdery.
When is a replay not a replay? When it’s the result of a sporting gesture. But before the gesture came controversy which gave TV’s football pundits a field day. And for fans in pubs and clubs across the country it was the number one topic of conversation.
It was 13 February 1999. Arsenal were hosting Sheffield United in the FA Cup fifth round. The game was one apiece when a United player went down injured. Goalkeeper Alan Kelly kicked the ball out of play so his teammate could receive attention.
Ray Parlour took the resulting throw-in aiming the ball towards an opposing player, as is customary in these situations. However, Arsenal’s Kanu intercepted the throw, raced towards goal and squared the ball to Marc Overmars who scored the Gunner’s winner. Sheffield United’s players and bench were in uproar but to no avail. The referee, applying the letter of the law, gave the goal. It was legal but wasn’t in the spirit of the game.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners and were heading towards the Cup quarter-finals.
In Kanu’s defence, it was his first game in English football. He was later reported as saying that he had ‘misunderstood’ the situation.
With the debate still raging, Arsène Wenger, to his credit, contacted Sheffield United manager Steve Bruce and offered to replay the game. His offer was gratefully accepted by the South Yorkshire side and, with no objection raised by the FA, the match was replayed at Highbury.
For Sheffield United the outcome was still the same. They lost by the same margin and their Cup run was over for a second time.
Did Wenger set a precedent for the rest of football? Perhaps. But as money exercises an ever tighter grip on our national sport, making it more cut-throat than ever, I wouldn’t bet on it!
Though, one thing can be said with certainty: his decision has gone down in FA Cup folklore.