Match referee David Elleray watches as Martin Keown and David Beckham battle for the ball in the 1979 FA Cup semi-final replay

Elleray: How I refereed Arsenal v United in 1999

Twenty seasons on, former referee David Elleray relives the night he took charge of a meeting between Arsenal and United in the FA Cup which would go down in football history as an all-time classic…

“People often ask me why I chose to be a referee, why I put up with all the abuse, and I always have the same response. I ask them: ‘Do you remember the Arsenal-Man United FA Cup semi-final replay?’ They always do, so I say: ‘Imagine what it was like being in the stadium. Then imagine what’s like being on the field and being a part of it.’ I had the best seat in the house.

It was just a great, great game of football with everything. I refereed about 1,500 games and that, I would say, was my favourite – certainly domestically. Most people tend to forget the first game, after which nobody was especially happy. United were upset that we disallowed a goal from Roy Keane – which I think we got wrong – and Arsenal weren’t pleased that I dismissed Nelson Vivas for an elbow on Nicky Butt.

#Treble99: Arsenal 1 United 2Video

“So when the replay took place four days later, everything was simmering in advance. All the issues beforehand, plus the fact that it was United and Arsenal, Fergie and Wenger, everything had built it up into something which was either going to be a damp squib, a fight or a classic. It was like mixing chemicals: sometimes you put them together and they explode, other times they can create something.

Both teams were usually pretty comfortable to referee, in fairness. By then, most of the players on both sides were calling me David, and as a top level referee, when you go from being called ref to being called by your first name, then you become a person and not an object, and therefore they treat you differently. They were used to me being around their biggest games.
“As a venue, Villa Park had a way of keeping the noise in, which made for a great atmosphere, and that night Gary Neville stoked the noise very early on. He committed a pretty serious foul after two minutes, I gave him a very public warning and after five minutes he did it again, so I had no choice but to book him. I think that helped set the tone for the game, in a way, and after that I soon became aware that I was a part of a classic game. In a way, you’re wondering what happens next. 

The tempo of the game was hard to keep up with, at times. It was already a great game and then, midway through the second half, the big calls came along in quick succession. Nicolas Anelka scored to put Arsenal ahead, but it was correctly disallowed for offside; seconds later, Roy Keane dived into a challenge on Marc Overmars and had to be booked again – he actually walked off before I’d even shown him the card – and then in the last minute of normal time, Phil Neville fouled Ray Parlour and conceded a penalty.
David Elleray says

"It was just a great, great game of football with everything. I refereed about 1,500 games and that, I would say, was my favourite – certainly domestically."

“I knew it was a big decision. Sometimes when I gave decisions you’d see me nodding my head, and that’s just me convincing myself I’m right, because I expected everyone to come at me. This was the decision that was going to decide the semi-final, it seemed, but there were no protests. When you saw it back on TV later on, it was so clear-cut. 

Just when it looked to be all over, of course, Peter Schmeichel saves the penalty and we’ve got extra-time to play. You think to yourself two things. Firstly: ‘This is a great game so everybody’s going to enjoy another half-hour of it,’ but then you also think: ‘Well, I’ve done 90 minutes, done everything right, nobody’s complaining about me… it can only go wrong from here.’ That’s the human side of refereeing. You know that when you get into extra-time, people get tired and make mistakes. You get tired and make mistakes.

“As it happened, Patrick Vieira did just that and presented Ryan Giggs with the ball. There are moments, like David Beckham’s goal from the halfway line at Wimbledon, where you realise something very special has just happened, and that’s what it was like with Ryan’s goal. Of course, in those days you weren’t required to give a yellow card for a player taking his shirt off, it was optional, so there was no need to get involved in that side of things. You were just aware that somehow, you were part of something magical and historic, and you’re just privileged to be a part of it.

David Elleray says

"There are moments, like David Beckham's goal from the halfway line at Wimbledon, where you realise something very special has just happened, and that's what it was like with Ryan's goal."

“At full-time, I literally went straight off the field to the physio’s room because my back was injured. Nicky Butt had run into me in the original game four days earlier, and in extra-time I’d been really struggling to keep up because my back just completely seized up. I could hardly walk. I’d been carried through by the adrenaline of the occasion, but I needed it fixing so I could drive home – though there was still time for Fergie to have a go at me for sending Roy off, of course!

Even now, when I look back and talk to people about that game, it’s almost like talking about fantasy football. Everything you could have wanted, condensed into this incredible match. If you could bottle that game up, that was what the FA Cup and English football is all about.

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