With a wave of his arm Alan Wilkie yesterday lifted himself out of Manchester United's chamber of horrors and into their hall of fame. Wilkie, the man whose red card preceded Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick and eight-month ban, redeemed himself in the eyes of the Old Trafford faithful in the most dramatic manner yesterday.
United were facing their first home derby defeat for 22 years - and in the FA Cup fifth round to boot - when the referee from Chester-le-Street awarded a penalty for holding in the penalty area. The alleged victim, inevitably, was Cantona, and he was almost as astonished as the offender, Michael Frontzeck.
True, the German did have his arm across the Frenchman's shoulders as Ryan Giggs' 40th-minute corner swept across, but the ball was passing way over their heads. The contact was of the sort which goes unpunished across the country every Saturday. In the context of a match like this, it was like prosecuting someone for littering during a riot.
Cantona converted the spot-kick with customary aplomb and United, having trailed to Uwe Rosler's well-taken 11th minute goal, were on their way. Their second was simply a matter of time, though City were harbouring hopes of a replay when it finally came from a brilliant finish by Lee Sharpe.
United's good fortune continued after the final whistle when they were given a home draw in the quarter-finals, against the winners of the Swindon and Southampton tie.
While United dream of a third successive Wembley visit City have only a relegation battle to face. They will meet it with a bitter taste in their mouths. "It all hinged on that decision and it was a shocker," said Alan Ball, the City manager. "I ask you, 'Would he have given it at the other end?' I very much doubt it. Jockeying for position at a corner is part-and-parcel of the game. When he blew everyone was bewildered, wondering what he had blown for."
Wilkie himself was unrepentant."I would give the decision again. I have no qualms about it," he said. Alan Hansen, watching for BBC Television, called it a "disgrace".
It was a pity that such an excellent match turned so controversially. This was a game for the committed, unlike the previous derby, when ground redevelopment meant City had no supporters. They had 8,000 in attendance yesterday.
The edge quickly showed on the pitch, Eric Cantona and Michael Brown squared up inside the opening minute, then Roy Keane was booked for upending Georgi Kinkladze. Keane was fortunate to stay on the pitch. His later reaction to Brown treading on Nicky Butt precipitated a full-scale fracas. His foul on Kinkladze failed to distract the Georgian. For 20 minutes he was the outstanding player, and he created the opening goal with an astute through ball which Rosler carefully lobbed over Peter Schmeichel.
With Cantona tightly marshalled, United began to follow Ferguson's pre- match instructions and attack the wings.
It was from there that United won the game but, first, they had to get back in it. They nearly did so by their own endeavours, Keane bringing a joint goal-line save from Immel and Brown with a header from a Giggs' corner. The penalty was awarded from the subsequent corner.
The second period was all United. With Butt and Keane dominant. Yet City held out. Giggs headed over and Immel denied Sharpe and Keane. Then, with 12 minutes left, Giggs again went down the left. He drew the defence before releasing the ball to Philip Neville, whose precise pull-back was volleyed in by Sharpe. United exulted, City fell silent. Again.
Goals: Rosler (12) 0-1; Cantona (pen 40) 1-1; Sharpe (78) 2-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Irwin, Bruce, Pallister, P Neville; Giggs, Butt, Keane, Sharpe; Cantona, Cole. Substitutes not used: May, Coton (gk), Scholes.
Manchester City (4-3-1-2): Immel; Summerbee, Symons, Curle, Frontzeck; Lomas, Clough, Brown; Kinkladze; Quinn (Creaney, 80), Rosler. Substitutes not used: Abazi, Margetson (gk).
Referee: A Wilkie (Chester-le-Street).
Bookings: Manchester Utd: Keane, Cole, Irwin, Pallister. Manchester City: Brown, Curle.
Man of the match: Butt.