Classic Encounter: Sheffield United
Sheffield United have been a regular opponent for Arsenal in recent seasons. Aside from their brief stint in the Premiership under Neil 'Colin` Warnock in 2006-07, we`ve drawn them in both domestic competitions with impunity under Arsene Wenger. Most games have been explosive and bloated with controversy. Blade fans are still bitter about Graham Poll`s assist for our winning goal in the 2003 F.A. Cup Semi Final at Old Trafford and who could forget David Seaman`s gravity defying stop in the same match, his 1,000th in professional football? Then there were the epic F.A. Cup fifth round ties from Arsenal`s fruitful F.A. Cup campaign of 2005. A last minute penalty at Highbury earned United a replay and the Gunners were stretched in full at Bramall Lane, eventually winning through 3-1 on penalties. United fans will fondly remember Christian Nade`s winner in a miserable away defeat for the Gunners in December 2006. (Sorry Blades fans, you won`t be reading about that one on an Arsenal page!) My memory banks take me further back to 1994, when a rare David Hillier screamer earned the Gunners a point in Yorkshire. (Though to have put that under the banner headline 'classic encounter` would have perhaps invited the scorn of the Trades Descriptions Act). Arsenal also defeated Sheffield United in the F.A. Cup Final in 1936, but I am afraid my memory doesn`t quite pre date my own existence.
Instead, I am looking back at the most controversial match between the sides, indeed one of the most controversial games ever in the F.A. Cup. In February 1999, Sheffield United travelled to N5 for a Fifth Round tie. With 6,000 buoyant Blades fans in the Clock End and Arsenal in the thick of a title race with Manchester United, Steve Bruce`s charges fancied themselves for a bit of an upset. But their optimism was quelled after 15 minutes; an inswinging Manu Petit corner found the head of his compatriot Patrick Vieira to steer a header into the top corner. The Gunners appeared to take the breaks off thereafter and United bagged an equaliser just after the hour when Chilean striker Marcelo collected Morris` left wing cross to bury the ball past David Seaman. Arsenal were rocking and Marcelo hit the post some three minutes later. With the Blades looking the more likely, midfielder Lee Morris went down following a crunching challenge with Patrick Vieira, Sheffield United kicked the ball out of play to ensure he received treatment. Highbury was in something of a contemplative daze as Ray Parlour went to throw the ball down the line back to the United keeper. But the sloping figure of Kanu, making his home debut, unwittingly walked into the path of the ball. Looking up, flabbergasted, Kanu seemed unsure what to do until the scurrying figure of Overmars began scampering into the penalty area. Having seen his team mate encourage play to continue, Kanu delivered a low cross which Overmars duly converted. Most of Highbury did not celebrate the goal as Steve Bruce was apoplectic with rage, ordering the officials to disallow the goal. However, match official Steve Dunn`s hands were tied by red tape as Arsenal had violated a gentlemen`s agreement rather than a bona fide rule. Bruce ordered his players to leave the pitch in disgust, before acquiescing to let the game continue, Arsenal going onto win 2-1 amidst moral crisis.
Arsenal`s rebuttal was swift; Arsene Wenger and David Dein immediately fronted the national media and offered Sheffield United a rematch which Bruce gratefully accepted. (Though he did push his luck by suggesting the match be played at Bramall Lane). Kanu was quick to apologise and plead ignorance; however Overmars, who was the real villain of the piece, kept his counsel. The result was declared void by the F.A. at Arsenal`s request and the match was replayed ten days later, with Arsenal admitting all supporters at half price. It is unbelievably phogeyish of me to recant that, as I was a Junior Gunner at the time, my ticket in the Family Enclosure cost me £4.50 that night. The United fans furiously booed Kanu and Overmars throughout, and it was the first time I recall the "same old Arsenal, always cheating" chant reeled out with any regularity. What a joy that has been to listen to in the ensuing years, especially when Bolton fans sang it to Gael Clichy on Saturday. Overmars was unrepentant on the pitch as he had been post match, after twenty minutes he raced onto Bergkamp`s through ball to put Arsenal 1-0 ahead in front of the Yorkshire contingent in the Clock End. On 37 minutes, the coup de grace was applied to a tie, a brief moment of illumination which outshone the away side`s fluorescent strip in an otherwise ugly tie. Ray Parlour raced to the by-line on the right and cut the ball back to Bergkamp on the edge of the area. Dennis opened out his body and beautifully clipped the bottom of the ball, as if his boot had momentarily become an open faced sand wedge, and clipped a delightful first time chip over Alan Kelly and into the top corner, the ball majestically soaring over the stranded Irish keeper before kissing the side netting on its way in. It was a moment of artistry in a tie of animosity and alchemy. United briefly threatened a fight back when Morris bundled in a corner with three minutes left, but Arsenal hung onto a 2-1 victory, giving a neat sense of symmetry by beating United by the same scoreline they had previously. Only this time it was by fair means rather than foul. United fans were not at all assuaged, and the Gunners` fans mocked throughout with a gently ribbing chorus of "Would you like to start again?" How laconic.LD.