Like a moth to a flame does controversy get ever drawn to Sheffield United.
Recent history alone conjures up the Carlos Tevez affair and the Battle of Bramall Lane as well as the furore over Ched Evans.
Rewind 16 years and United played their part in another ding-dong which dominated the headlines, the outcome of which has not been seen since.
The Blades had reached the fifth round of the FA Cup and a meeting with Arsenal at Highbury on February 13. The Gunners had won the league and cup double the previous season in Arsene Wenger’s first full campaign as manager and although they were on a run of eight wins and a draw in all competitions coming into the match. United, steered by Steve Bruce, were anchored firmly in mid-table in the old First Division and were the epitome of inconsistency although they had won two consecutive games prior to the trip to north London.
There was good news for the Blades when Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and Tony Adams were all missing after being hurt on England duty while Wenger also rested Nicolas Anelka. The 5,000 travelling fans were in good voice, David Holdsworth’s son was a mascot and the match kicked off in perfect weather with no indication of the turbulence that was to come.
The Gunners’ defence had not been breached in six matches but United threatened through Lee Sandford who headed just over the bar. There had been little to trouble Alan Kelly until the half-hour mark when Patrick Vieira headed home Dennis Bergkamp’s free-kick.
Kelly then saved well from Kaba Diawara as Arsenal piled on the pressure before the same player hit the post but despite all this, the hosts were still only 1-0 up at the break. United, though, were level just two minutes after the restart when Marcelo glanced a superb header down past David Seaman’s left hand right in front of the ecstatic Blades fans.
It had become a rousing cup tie, Lee Morris forced a top save from Seaman and with the Gunners rattled, Wenger brought on new signing Kanu who headed over when well placed.
There was than 15 mintues to go when Morris went down in the Arsenal area. Nothing was given but the player was hurt sufficiently for Seaman to signal to Kelly to put the ball out to allow Morris to get attention.
Ray Parlour then threw the ball towards the Blades goal in keeping with the unwritten code that possession be handed back to the opposition.
Kanu, though, ambled after it and squared to Marc Overmars who scored to completely overshadow his fine display that day. Kanu at least had the excuse of being new to the English game but his team-mate had no such reason and he was the real villain of the piece.
It was an act that sparked fury with Bruce beckoning his players to the touchline although they remained on the pitch after pleas by Graham Stuart and John Deehan. Referee Peter Jones found himself at the centre of a storm but nothing in the laws of the game demands sportsmanship from the players and legally Overmars had done nothing wrong.
Jones eventually booked five United players - but none from Arsenal. There even seemed to be a possibility that United would refuse to restart the game after a six-minute delay. However, even before the game had ended there were moves by the Arsenal hierarchy for it to be replayed, something decided by the board of directors and confirmed by Wenger and also backed by FIFA.
Bruce said: “Justice is done or nearly done and we are playing Arsenal again. I wanted the second match at Bramall Lane but maybe that is asking too much. Perhaps that’s being a bit greedy. I could not believe my eyes, I could not understand what was happening and if any of my players had done anything like that I would have sorted them out straightaway. At the time it was perhaps the most sickening moment of my entire career, certainly of my managerial experience. “My gut reaction at the end was that we had been robbed. It is hard enough for any team to go to Highbury and play a great club like this and survive. But we looked like doing it until that goal I will never forget as long as I live.”
Wenger added: “I offered the replay because it wasn’t right to win that way. It wasn’t the Arsenal way. We want to win all our games but nobody cheated on purpose.”