The story behind perhaps the most controversial clash between Sheffield United and Arsenal
He knew it was going to be a bad day when the pounding beat of someone else’s stereo began shaking his hotel room’s walls.
“The music had been blaring all night and it started up again in the morning,” Paul Devlin remembers. “It was annoying, bloody annoying in fact. And then I found out, when I went into the corridor, where it was coming from.”
The culprit, he discovered, was Nwankwo Kanu who had signed for Arsenal a couple of weeks earlier. But what Devlin didn’t know, as he hurried downstairs for breakfast at Sheffield United’s temporary base in Hertfordshire, was that in seven or so hours time his tormentor would also outrage the rest of his team mates as well.
Twenty-one years have passed since the Nigerian’s goal in an FA Cup tie against United sparked such a furore, Arsenal’s then manager Arsene Wenger felt compelled to replay the game. But as Devlin’s former club prepare to face their rivals from London at the Emirates Stadium this weekend, the sense of injustice Kanu’s controversial strike provoked remains, he admits, as raw as ever.
“The ball went out for a throw, we’d actually kicked it into touch for one of our lads to get treatment, then suddenly he smashes it into our net,” Devlin says, describing the moment the Nigerian international, after Ray Parlour had tossed the ball to Marc Overmars, chose to ignore the time-honoured convention of returning possession.
“I already had the hump with him because of what had happened earlier. The minute he did that, well, all hell let loose.
“Sean Derry was going crackers. Steve Bruce, who was in charge of us at the time, actually wanted to drag us off the pitch. Seriously, he wanted to come off there and then.
“It was our captain, David Holdsworth I seem to recall, who pointed out we couldn’t really do that. But trust me, plenty was being said and it was all kicking off.”
Devlin made 169 appearances for United during a career spanning more than 20 seasons, over 10 different competitions and 15 professional or non-league clubs. But the incident sparked by Overmars and Kanu, coupled with the ensuing fall-out, remains “the most unusual thing that ever happened” in his career.
Although the strike did not stop Arsenal reaching the sixth round - they won the replayed fixture by the same 2-1 scoreline - is still convinced, despite Wenger’s sporting gesture, they got the thick end of the wedge.
“We were on the coach going home from Highbury, where Arsenal played before going to the Emirates, when the news filtered through that he’d said the match should take place again,” Devlin, who now works as a coach and personal trainer, says.
“That was fair enough. But even so, it was going to be down at their place and we knew we’d have had a much better chance, on a cold night under the lights, at Bramall Lane in front of our own fans. I think that’s where it should have been staged.
“Looking back, I still reckon we were cheated a bit.”
“They were flying at the time,” he continues. “And we’d done really well to hold them.
“Listen, I suppose I can forgive Overmars and bit and Kanu, because he’d only just arrived in this country and that’s why he was staying in the hotel where we’d checked in.
“I’ve always been a massive moaner at the best of times, so the constant noise he’d made had wound me up anyway. But I didn’t have a go at him in the corridor though because I saw the size of him.
“Ray looked really embarrassed by what had happened at the time so perhaps the referee could have been a bit stronger and told them to just let us score straight up the other end.
“I was raging back then, though. Later on, after that had happened, I tried to leave a bit on Overmars but I couldn’t get anywhere near him. I couldn’t catch him, he was too fast.”
United have faced Arsenal nine times since that controversy, losing five, drawing two and winning only twice.
Both of those victories, including October’s 1-0 triumph, have come at Bramall Lane.
Although events in February 1999 have not soured the relationship between the two clubs - Chris Wilder paying tribute to Mikel Arteta, who took charge of the hosts in December, during his pre-match briefing yesterday - Devlin hopes sixth-placed United approach their latest top-flight assignment in combative fashion.
Despite only being promoted from the Championship last term, Wilder’s squad are four points better off than an Arsenal squad containing the likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe; a £72m summer signing from Lille.
“I love the fact that United can play, they’ve got some real talent, but that they’re also ready to compete,” Devlin says.
“What Chris and the lads have done there, and what they’re doing now, is nothing short of remarkable.”
Just not as remarkable, Devlin concedes, as what Kanu did.