Football: Wenger's historic sacrifice

Unprecedented scenes as FA agree to Arsenal manager's offer to forfeit victory after goal controversy
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Arsenal 2

Vieira 28, Overmars 76

Sheffield United 1

Marcelo 48

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 38,020 Match to be replayed 23 February

ONE OF the most extraordinary afternoons in the history of organised football was played out at Highbury yesterday. Amid scenes unprecedented in the 127 years of the FA Cup, a goal in "ungentlemanly circumstances" provoked chaos, outrage and controversy, before inspiring sportsmanship of the highest order by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

The result was nominally a 2-1 win by Arsenal over their First Division opponents, Sheffield United; but the outcome is a replaying of this fixture on a date to be confirmed by the FA tomorrow. The explanation for how the one became the other was the disputed goal, the delaying of the subsequent kick-off by protests, players beginning to leave the field, a manager sportingly offering to forfeit victory and give his opponenents a re-match, and - perhaps most remarkably of all - the FA swiftly and decisively agreeing.

The incident started in the 73rd minute when Arsenal were being held 1-1 and United were hopeful of a lucrative replay on their own ground. A foul on Sheffield United's Lee Morris in the Arsenal penalty area left him injured, but there was no free-kick. David Seaman, the Arsenal goalkeeper, attempted to draw the referee's attention to Morris but the game went on.

After a further minute, the Sheffield goalkeeper, Alan Kelly, gained possession and kicked the ball out of play. Morris then limped off. Ray Parlour took Arsenal's throw and, in the usual "fair play" way, threw the ball in the direction of Kelly. But Arsenal's new Nigerian signing from Internazionale, Nwankwo Kanu, intercepted and turned the ball across the goalmouth to where Marc Overmars had an easy scoring opportunity which he accepted.

The United players stood in angry disbelief before all of them descended on the referee who seemed confused and spoke to an assistant before awarding the goal. Eight minutes of confusion ensued.

Steve Bruce, the United manager, seemed at one point to be encouraging his players to walk off the field. However, he said later he had only been trying to stop the game continuing until he had spoken to the referee and an FA official.

After the game Wenger said he had immediately offered to replay the tie. "Kanu is sad and down," he said. "He did not know why the throw was thrown back. He hadn't seen the injury and didn't know the goalkeeper had put the ball out on purpose. It was an accident."

The United players and their 6,000 supporters at the Clock End construed it as nothing short of cheating. Wenger added that he went to Bruce and offered to have the game played again. Wenger added: "Personally, I wanted to repair the damage." Bruce said: "David Dein and the Arsenal club backed me in saying we were entitled to a replay. I think the incident was very unsavoury but I would expect the great Arsenal club to react in the way they have. This was in the tradition of the club." He forgave Kanu saying: "I give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn't know what happened, but the referee should have applied ungentlemanly conduct. I did ask the team to come off the pitch so that I could have a word with the officials. It was a protest but also an attempt to sort out the situation."

The FA's instant decision was given by their spokesman Steve Double and smacked of a reply to endless criticism that the organisation takes weeks to make up its mind about anything. That is not going to alter the fact that the decision will take a lot of justifying. There is nothing in the laws to say that a team has to offer possession back to the opposition after the ball has been deliberately kicked out of play in order for a player to receive treatment. Presumably, all that the FA can do to support their action is to argue on the grounds of common sense and it being plain sportsmanship.

As to the match itself, Sheffield United, semi-finalists last year, had begun optimistically. With Martin Keown, Lee Dixon and Tony Adams all getting injured while playing for England against France, Arsenal's French manager could be forgiven for not patriotically leaping to his feet after the French victory at Wembley. He was as much a loser as England, yet the depleted Arsenal were still a formidable force. Of the French connection there was no Emmanuel Petit (suspended), nor Nicolas Anelka surprisingly rested. Clearly Arsenal had Wednesday's Premiership match against Manchester United at Old Trafford in mind.

Defiant though United were, the game seemed a matter of waiting to see when Overmars would get past Shaun Derry or Dennis Bergkamp escape the solid United captain, David Holdsworth. The impression was one of Arsenal gradually imposing themselves but being some distance of keeping their well-organised opponents tied down especially in midfield.

Only when the referee awarded a free-kick after Derry made a less than damaging tackle on Kaba Diawara did Arsenal make any serious progress. Bergkamp's kick was well met by Patrick Vieira whose header drifted beyond Kelly and inside the far post.

Diawara, whose bulk gives the impression of slowness, twice hit the post and Arsenal appeared on the point of building on their lead. Yet four minutes into the second half Paul Devlin hung a centre over the Arsenal goalmouth and Marcelo climbed higher than Steve Bould and Gilles Grimandi to head in a reviving equaliser.

Had the game ended there, United would have been delighted and Arsenal not too displeased. As it was, there was no pleasure in the chaos that followed, but the outcome, via Lancaster Gate, was surprisingly just.