LIFTING THE LID: We sat down with former Sheffield United midfielder Paul Devlin to relive one of the most famous FA Cup ties of all-time, ahead of the anniversary this weekend.
February 13, 1999. Arsenal 2-1 Sheffield United.
Just another FA Cup tie, as reigning Premier League and FA Cup winners Arsenal see off their lower-league opposition at Highbury thanks to a Marc Overmars winner to reach the quarter-finals. Except it wasn’t.
“At the time you never think it’s going to be talked about to the extent it has down the years,” former Sheffield United midfielder Paul Devlin tells BETDAQ. “I mean, 22 years, it only seems like yesterday. It’s a game that really does stand out in people’s memories because of how strange it was – the goings on in the game and us getting the replay.”
But how did a Sheffield United team managed by Steve Bruce on the wrong end of the result end up going home having secured a replay?
Some 76 minutes into the game and the tie was heading for a replay at Brammall Lane after Patrick Vieira’s opener had been cancelled out by Marcelo’s header.
But then something remarkable happened that would lead to this fixture having to played out again at Highbury, with the original match being deleted from the FA Cup history books.
“We kicked the ball out as someone had got injured,” Devlin recalls. “As we kicked it out, I think it was Ray Parlour who had the ball to take a throw-in. We’re just assuming he’s going to throw the ball back to our defenders, then we’re going to kick it back to the goalkeeper, as it happens 99.99% times out of 100. It’s a known thing, a gentleman’s agreement among players, if you kick a ball out for a member of the opposition, you throw it back to the team that kicked the ball out.
“So we’ve all moved up the pitch, but Parlour’s thrown the ball to [Nwankwo] Kanu – we thought he was going to take a touch and kick it back, but he’s gone for a run down the wing… We’ve all looked around, wondering what’s happened, and he’s crossed it for Overmars to tap it in!”
Off Arsenal went to celebrate. But despite Sheffield United’s outrage, referee Peter Jones awarded the home side the goal.
“There was uproar, it wasn’t the thing to do,” Devlin says. “Steve Bruce was absolutely livid, as were all the players, and I just remember for 10 minutes it was mayhem on the pitch, a big crowd around the referee, the two managers came on… Steve actually wanted to take us off the pitch and just walk off but David Holdsworth was the captain at the time and he managed to talk everyone round to just carry on.”
Devlin, who also played for the likes of Birmingham and Watford, added: “One or two Arsenal players muted the idea of us taking the kick-off and letting us walk through and score. A couple of their players, including Ray Parlour mentioned that, but then a couple said, ‘no we can’t do that, we can’t do that.’ A few of their players did realise it wasn’t the thing to do but it wasn’t a unanimous decision amongst their team and they ended up not allowing us to do that.”
There were to be no walk-offs or no letting Sheffield United score. The full-time whistle went and Arsenal had secured a 2-1 victory despite the controversy.
But as the frustrated visitors headed back to the changing room, it was clear that things were not done and dusted just yet.
Minutes after the match had ended, Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had offered to replay the game at Highbury – an act of sportsmanship that has often drawn praise in the years that have followed, though Devlin is not entirely convinced.
“Arsene Wenger said it wasn’t the right thing to do and gave us a replay,” Devlin recalls. “But the part that still narks me to this day, is if we’d have got the draw down there then they should have been coming back to Brammall Lane on a cold, wet Monday or Tuesday evening. As it happened they gave us a replay, we went back to Highbury and lost the game. People go on about how it was the right thing to do to give us a replay, to a certain extent it was, but I think we should have had the replay at Brammall Lane.”
Devlin added: “I think at the time, why did Wenger not tell his team to just let us walk through and let us score to even it up straight away, as I think he was one of the people who didn’t want us to do that. Yeah it was great we got the chance for a replay but he could have nipped it in the bud and it wouldn’t have come to anything near the kerfuffle it was by explaining to his players this isn’t the way we do things in England, let them go through and score. It was great that we got the replay but I wouldn’t go overboard and say thank you Arsene Wenger – he could have stopped it there and then on that day.”
Sheffield United went on to lose the replay at Highbury 2-1, with Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp getting on the scoresheet.
“They had an amazing team with Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams, Overmars, people like that, they were a top team. That was what was so annoying, we’d done so well in the first game,” Devlin says.
This time the Blades were really out of the FA Cup, but thanks to the unique circumstances surrounding this tie and that second Arsenal goal, the story of the FA Cup match deleted from history continues to live on.
“22 years is a long, long time ago but people are still interested in that game,” former Scotland international Devlin says. “I played 600-700 games in my career but that’s one of the ones that sticks out in my head as I never had anything similar to it happen before or after to me.”