For Bruce Rioch an autumn of rich promise is threatening to become a bleak mid-winter. Sliding down the League, his Arsenal team face two cup games in the next nine days which may result in their season losing its competitive interest by mid-January.
On Wednesday in the Coca-Cola Cup they entertain the Newcastle side that swept them aside at St James' Park six days ago, and next week they travel to Sheffield for the replay of this third-round FA Cup tie. "Going out with the Wednesday," the noisy United following chorused at the final whistle, and after Arsenal's display you could see the basis for their optimism.
With three defeats in the last four games, Rioch made a prime ministerly call in the programme for a return to basics, in his case those "of passing and movement". Like another London-based leader of a troubled party, Rioch soon discovered that not all rallying calls meet with the desired response.
In the first half the home side were unable to get the message even half right, and a neutral observer could be forgiven for thinking that the visitors, with their crisper interplay and determination to use the flanks, were the Premiership outfit. Had David White matched some of the approach work with sharper finishing United would have been two up at the break and on their way to the shock of the round.
Arsenal - who were without Bergkamp, Platt, Parlour and Bould - took a firmer grip in the second period, without ever playing with any fluency, but it was fitting that Paul Merson, their only creative influence, made the goal. Dribbling across the box, he drifted past a couple of challenges before cutting a neat ball back which Ian Wright slid home.
For a while it seemed that Arsenal would hold on to record a somewhat fortunate victory, but by now Adrian Heath was on, and Howard Kendall's assistant-manager began to make an impact on the ground at which he and his manager share happy Cup memories from their Everton days.
With 12 minutes left Heath twisted on the edge of the box and sent over a neat cross which Dane Whitehouse dispatched into the top corner for a rapturously received equaliser. For Arsenal it was not a merry Whitehouse experience.
Arsenal (4-2-4): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Keown, Winterburn; Clarke, Merson, Jensen, Helder; Hartson, Wright. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Dickov; Bartram (gk).
Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kelly; Short, Nilsen, Vonk, Ward; Gannon (Hodgson, 81), Cowans, Hodges, White; Starbuck (Heath, 59), Whitehouse. Substitute not used: Tracey (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).
Bookings: Arsenal: Winterburn, Keown, Adams. Sheffield Utd: Short.
Man of the match: Merson. Attendance: 33,453.Reuse content