'The most sickening moment of my career' - Arsenal and Sheffield United meet in the FA Cup 21 years on from one of the competition's greatest controversies

Arsenal take on Sheffield United in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday with the match available exclusively live on BT Sport.

Published: 29 June 2020 - 12.12pm

Arsenal travel to Sheffield United in the FA Cup quarter-finals on Sunday with their season on the line.

Mikel Arteta’s men have lost two from two since the resumption of Premier League football – 3-0 at Manchester City and 2-1 at Brighton – in damaging defeats to their hopes of European qualification.

The FA Cup has been Arsenal’s salvation in recent seasons under Arsene Wenger and Arteta will be counting on his side to produce some magic in the world’s oldest football competition with a place in the semi-finals at stake. 

Find out how to watch the match exclusively live on BT Sport by clicking here.

Arsenal have taken just a point from their two Premier League games against The Blades this campaign with John Fleck’s late equaliser at the Emirates denying them victory most recently back in January.

But Gunners fans with longer memories will cast their mind back to an infamous clash between the two sides fully 21 years ago in what went down as one of the most controversial matches in FA Cup history.

Drawn against First Division United at Highbury in the fifth round of the FA Cup, Wenger named a strong line-up as Arsenal continued the defence of the trophy they’d won in the Frenchman’s first full season in England.

A beautifully-weighted Dennis Bergkamp free-kick allowed Patrick Vieira to climb highest and nod Arsenal into the lead on the half-hour mark.

But despite chances for Kaba Diawara, Ray Parlour and Marc Overmars, Wenger’s men were unable to get the second and kill the tie off.

They were punished at the start of the second half when Paul Devlin’s cross from the right-hand side was met by a towering header from Brazilian forward Marcelo to draw the visitors level.

Yet the match will be remembered for one moment and one moment only. With 14 minutes to go, United’s Lee Morris suffered an injury and goalkeeper Alan Kelly booted the ball into touch to allow his team-mate to receive treatment.

Sportingly Parlour attempted to throw the ball back to Kelly upon the restart but Nwankwo Kanu, on as a substitute for his debut in English football, didn’t get the memo.

The Nigerian, newly-signed from Inter Milan, latched onto the throw-in and advanced down the right flank before crossing for Overmars to slot home what proved to be winner.

Cue fury from the United players who surrounded referee Peter Jones and demanded the goal be disallowed. At one point their manager Steve Bruce even attempted to beckon his players off the pitch and during a six-minute delay in which five Sheffield United players were booked, the game was in doubt.

Sheffield United players surround referee Peter Jones after the controversial Marc Overmars goal
Sheffield United players surround referee Peter Jones after the controversial Marc Overmars goal

However Bruce’s assistant John Deehan stepped in and persuaded them to stay on and the remainder of the match was played under a cloud of controversy.

'YOU KANU BE SERIOUS' read the back-page headline in The Sheffield Star the next day.

Arsenal were mortified and after discussions between Wenger and chairman David Dein, resolved to offer United a rematch. It is the only time in the modern era that an FA Cup match has been voluntarily replayed under such circumstances.

Wenger explained: “The second goal is a controversial goal and we feel that it is not right. We have the feeling that we didn't win the game like we want to win our games.”

While bemoaning the fact his side were so close to securing a replay in Sheffield, Wenger’s opposite number Bruce was full of praise for Arsenal’s decision.

“Justice is done or nearly done and we are playing Arsenal again,” Bruce said.

“I could not believe my eyes... if any of my players had done anything like that I would have sorted them out straightaway”
- Steve Bruce

"I wanted the second match at Bramall Lane but maybe that is asking too much.

"Perhaps that’s being a bit greedy. I could not believe my eyes, 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.

“My gut reaction at the end was that we had been robbed. It is hard enough for any team to go to Highbury and play a great club like this and survive. But we looked like doing it until that goal I will never forget as long as I live.”

He later added: “I will accept it and the actions of Arsenal’s senior players has to be applauded – including Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn and David Seaman.

“They didn’t want that result and to win the game that way so that was very sporting. I will agree to the gesture made by David Dein, the Arsenal chairman.”

With the consent of the FA, a rematch was set for 10 days later with Arsenal meaning Wenger’s men were due to play five games in 15 days including a potential title-decider against Manchester United.

Again Wenger named a strong line-up and it was the pantomime villain Overmars who gave the home side the advantage 15 minutes into the match when he struck home a neat pass from Stephen Hughes.

This time though, Arsenal got the second. Parlour’s cut back was met by Bergkamp who produced an exquisite chip on the turn that left Kelly in the United goal grasping at thin air.

Morris, whose injury led to the controversial Overmars goal in the first match, pulled one back but it proved too little too late and Arsenal advanced to the quarter-finals.

"I knew that if we had lost some people would have said if you play fair you can't win,” Wenger said after the match. “There was a lot of pressure on us.”

Bruce, who’d accepted the rematch graciously at first, was clearly still embittered in defeat. 

Nwankwo Kanu found himself in the cauldron of controversy in what was his first appearance in English football
Nwankwo Kanu found himself in the cauldron of controversy in what was his first appearance in English football

"The players showed great dignity and they have run their socks off tonight," the former Manchester United centre back said post-match.

"Arsenal's gesture was first class but it would have been nice to have had Arsenal back at our place. In our heart of hearts we all know our chance went with that incident 10 days ago.”

Arsenal advanced to the quarter-finals where they beat Derby 1-0 thanks to Kanu’s late goal. But they were undone in the semi-finals by Manchester United with Ryan Giggs’ spectacular solo effort winning the tie for the eventual treble-winners.

Fast-forward back to the present day and Arsenal appear a shadow of the force they were in that FA Cup clash.

Arteta’s men sit four points off eighth-placed United who have enjoyed a sensational season under Chris Wilder as a newly-promoted side.

All eyes will be on Bramall Lane come Sunday. With so riding on the FA Cup this season for Arsenal, should lightning strike twice it will be fascinating to see whether Arteta follows Wenger’s lead.