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'I can still hear the shouts - they couldn't believe it': 90s nostalgia at its best for the game that had everything

Full of inexplicable moments, the FA Cup tie from 20 years ago still retains a spine-tingling quality.

Image: JONES DAVID JONES

MAYBE IT WAS something to do with Villa Park.

After all, Manchester United had played out some enthralling battles there in previous years.

There was an absorbing, end-to-end league encounter between the home side and United early in the 1993/94 season. Lee Sharpe scored twice – either side of a thundering strike from Dalian Atkinson but there was a relentless energy to proceedings and a litany of chances for both teams. Dean Saunders’ instinctive shot forced Peter Schmeichel into a terrific stop. Moments later, Kevin Richardson neatly chested down on the edge of the area before smacking the inside of the post. Ryan Giggs struck the woodwork too. It was breathless stuff.

In the following campaign, Crystal Palace forced United to extra-time in their FA Cup semi-final and looked set to cause a shock only for Gary Pallister to equalise and ensure a replay. And in ’95/96, on a sandy surface, United got the better of Chelsea to reach another Wembley decider thanks to David Beckham’s winner and Eric Cantona’s unlikely goal-line block that denied John Spencer.     

But, all of those paled in comparison to what occurred on the evening of April 14, 1999.

Of course, United’s replay victory over Arsenal is largely confined to folklore because of the calibre of the winning goal from Giggs. Understandable but still more than a little unfair to the wider fine-print of the game and the repercussions of the result.

The sides were involved in another fascinating race for the title, Arsene Wenger having claimed the Double in his first full season at Highbury in 1998.

Alex Ferguson was irritated by him almost from the start.

At the tail-end of the ’96/97 campaign, United had a mounting fixture list because of their European commitments. They wanted the Premier League to extend their season to give them breathing room and Wenger ridiculed the notion when asked about it. Inevitably, Ferguson went ballistic and dredged up a highly-charged game between the sides from two months earlier to score some points. 

“I think it is only fair that the season be extended, but I see Arsene Wenger has had a swipe at Manchester United again,” he said.

“He’s certainly got plenty to say. Maybe he should concentrate on Ian Wright’s tackles rather than Manchester United.

He’s at a big club, well Arsenal used to be a big club, and maybe next year he could be in the same situation. I wonder what his story will be then? Arsene Wenger has been in Japan. He doesn’t know anything about English football and the demands of our game.”

What would hurt Ferguson most of all was just how wrong he got it. Wenger kept the best things about the mid-90s Arsenal and added some brush strokes. It led him to a league and cup triumph and lit the match on a rivalry that lasted eight years.

And nothing illustrated the fine margins more than the monstrous clash 20 years.

United were still chasing the Treble and the previous week earned a 1-1 draw in the first-leg of their Champions League semi-final with Juventus thanks to a last-gasp goal from Giggs. Still, there was a cloud of disappointment. Juve hadn’t lost at home in a European knockout tie for five years. When it came to English opposition, that run extended all the way back to 1980.

The following weekend, they played Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park. Roy Keane had a goal harshly disallowed and after 120 minutes, it was still scoreless. So, four days later, they did it all over again.

Two decades on, it remains a startling affair.

Soccer - FA Cup - ManU v Arsenal - semi-final - Villa Park David Beckham celebrates after his terrific opener at Villa Park. Source: Rui Vieira

David Beckham’s magnificent opener, after some neat link-up play with Teddy Sheringham, set the tone superbly. Everything about it seemed effortless. The assist, the connection, the way it curled beyond the outstretched arms of David Seaman. It was boisterous and brilliant, but all wrapped up in skill and precision.

But there was so much else. 

Bergkamp equalised with 20 minutes left and everything turned in an instant. Just three minutes later, he picked the ball up outside the area and fancied his chances again. His shot was struck with pace but comfortable for Schmeichel at his near post. Still, the goalkeeper fumbled and Nicolas Anelka reacted quickest. He took a touch to slip past Schmeichel and rolled it to the empty net. But the flag was up for a marginal offside.

United had survived. Momentarily. 

The onslaught continued and when Keane was left isolated and facing Marc Overmars just two minutes later, the Dutchman skipped past him, drew the challenge and the captain took the bait. Already on a yellow, Keane was off and United’s season genuinely seemed to be dangling by a thread. 

In injury time, the same situation cropped up again but on the opposite flank when Phil Neville faced up Ray Parlour and never looked comfortable. As the winger ran at him, he seemed to already be losing balance and clumsily took Parlour down in the area. As the cameras zoomed in on Neville, he was face down with his head in his hands. He knew it was over.

Bergkamp opened up his body and sent the penalty to his unnatural side but Schmeichel was already on his way there as Bergkamp was completing his run-up. It was mid-height and because he’d used the inside of his foot, it curled closer to the goalkeeper rather than the corner of the net.

ManU/Arsenal Bergkamp miss Dennis Bergkamp and Nicky Butt show contrasting emotions after Peter Schemichel saves the Dutchman's penalty. Source: Rui Vieira

Schmeichel was not known for being particularly proficient when it came to stopping penalties. There had been a couple in Charity Shields in 1993 and 1997 but according to Transfermarkt, he faced 30 of them in his entire career and only saved one in a competitive fixture: that night at Villa Park.

He ended up being a bit battered and bruised. Early in extra-time, he made another terrific save from the Dutch striker but injured himself in the process. United had used all three substitutes at that point so he had to just grimace and get on with it. Not wanting to put unnecessary strain on the knock, he didn’t take goal-kicks and rolled the ball to Gary Neville instead. 

By this stage, Ronny Johnsen had gone down with cramp and United – finding it impossible to create anything – had to sit back and try and absorb. But by the second half, Arsenal’s dominance had waned and it was clear their legs were tiring too.

Still, few could have predicted what happened next. 

Giggs had started on the bench as Ferguson tried to keep some of his big players as fresh as possible. But he’d replaced Jesper Blomqvist on the hour mark to little effect. And when he intercepted a weary cross-field pass from Patrick Vieira, nobody was expecting a dizzying run.

He wasn’t that player anymore – the ‘Boy Wonder’ of 1993 and 1994 – who weaved in and out along the left touchline and displayed an arrogant disregard for the general wellbeing of right backs. His classic goals came earlier – against Tottenham, Liverpool, QPR – and centred on footwork, pace, impudence. But his most recent contributions were varied – timed runs to the far post, finishing off a counter attack, some long-range strikes, even the odd header.

He’s said himself that the reason he set off on a mazy dribble at Villa Park was because he’d been so frustrated with his ball retention up to that point and didn’t fancy misplacing another pass.

Most ironic was that for a player who relied so much on his left foot, it was a tiny touch with his right that finally pushed him past Lee Dixon and gave him an extra yard before he rifled it to the roof of Seaman’s net.

ManU/fans celebration United fans clamber onto the pitch after Giggs' moment of magic in extra-time. Source: David Jones

Arsenal still had 10 minutes to try and rescue something but failed to muster much.

“The two teams are very close to each other and in the end the luckiest won,” Wenger said afterwards. 

“There’s no reproach. I would just like to congratulate Manchester United. They were fantastic. I am very sad but they have shown again they are a great team.”

Ferguson paid tribute to Schmeichel’s penalty save but also the physical limits United played to. 

“The players have played in agony to get the victory,” he said. 

Of course, the rest is history. 

The result certainly didn’t derail Arsenal’s hopes of a second successive championship and they racked up four straight league wins afterwards, including their memorable 6-1 demolition of Middlesbrough. 

The problem was the result sparked United and carried them through the remainder of the campaign. 

When they went to Turin, there was a belief – even when 2-0 down – that they could rally and claw themselves back from the dead. It was a similar pattern, though much more extreme, in the Champions League final against Bayern.   

Years later, Wenger spoke about the impact of that FA Cup semi.   

“I can still hear the shouts of that (United) team – they couldn’t believe it because they were down to 10 men,” he said.

“They then won the title, just. I think that (Giggs) goal won them the Treble because if Bergkamp scores, the game is over. It was a trauma for us in a negative way and for them a lift in a positive way. Bergkamp never wanted to take a penalty again, and it put them on the road towards success.”             

Just over a week out from the 2019 Six Nations openers, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look at Ireland’s bid for another Grand Slam:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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