Middlesbrough last season's defeated finalists, looked certain to be taken to extra time by their First Division rivals after a "goal" by Gianluca Festa was disallowed by referee George Cain - a butcher from Bootle - with three minutes remaining.
Fully six minutes later, all prospect of avoiding the additional half- hour seemed to have disappeared as brawling players squared up to each other in the Middlesbrough half. When the dust settled both sides appeared to believe first that a dropped ball had been awarded, then a free-kick to Reading, and took up their positions accordingly.
When Middlesbrough realised the decision had gone their way, Neil Maddison played a quickly taken free-kick to Paul Merson, the England player in turn found Hignett in the inside-left channel. His sweetly struck cross- shot left Nicky Hammond helpless.
Bryan Robson, the Middlesbrough manager, admitted that the referee's "indecision" had created "confusion" which led to the winner. His team deserved their victory, which earned them a two-leg semi-final, though such considerations cut little ice with the Reading camp. Their manager, Terry Bullivant, made his views plain to Mr Cain in forcible terms as the players left the pitch.
It was a shame Reading had not summoned similar passion earlier. Striving to reach their first major semi-final since 1927, they showed surprising caution, which may have owed something to a 4-0 defeat at Middlesbrough three weeks earlier. Injury also deprived them of four centre-backs, forcing Bullivant to unite Andy Bernal and a newcomer from Crystal Palace, Gareth Davies, at the heart of defence.
Davies was soon using his aerial strength to good effect in Middlesbrough's goalmouth. After 15 minutes, his header from Jamie Lambert's pass took a deflection off Trevor Morley, only for Vladimir Kinder to clear off the line. Morley again threatened midway through the half, meeting Martin Williams's cross with a half-volley that Mark Schwarzer kept it out at the second attempt.
Middlesbrough, warming to their task, carved out the clearest chance of the half. Robbie Mustoe's pass sprung the offside trap to leave Mikkel Beck and Hignett with only Hammond to beat. The Dane shirked the responsibility, but the keeper touched Hignett's shot behind.
Reading's best spell came soon after the interval. Schwarzer beat aside a drive by Carl Asaba, while Morley, unmarked as he rose to Steve Swales's centre, contrived to head over.
Middlesbrough had two penalty appeals rejected before Hammond's goal enjoyed an even greater escape in the 66th minute. Hignett, retrieving an over-hit cross, curled his shot over and round Hammond. The ball struck the angle of post and bar before being hacked to safety.
When Festa's late effort was ruled out for offside against Beck - as the Italian bared his chest in triumph before the travelling Teessiders - Reading must have been tempted to believe their luck was in. They had reckoned without Mr Cain, not to mention Mr Hignett.
Reading (4-4-2): Hammond; Booty, Davies, Bernal, Swales; Williams (Bowen, 45), Parkinson, Hodges, Lambert; Morley, Asaba. Substitutes not used: Thorp, Caskey.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Festa, Pearson, Vickers, Kinder; Maddison, Mustoe, Townsend, Hignett; Merson, Beck. Substitutes not used: Harrison, Moreno, Campbell.
Referee: G Cain (Bootle).Reuse content