The error that set up an all-time classic
On 11 April 1999, Manchester United and Arsenal were on a collision course for an FA Cup tie that would go a long way to deciding which club would be celebrating at the end of the campaign.
The Gunners had done the Double a year earlier, overtaking United in the run-in, and the two best sides in the country met at Villa Park, a happy hunting ground for the Reds, with something having to give.
Meanwhile, later in the day, Old Trafford was staging the other last-four tie between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur.
The pre-match build-up was punctuated by regular chants from the Arsenal contingent mocking ex-Spurs star Teddy Sheringham's decision to head north in a bid to earn some medals. He went to Man United and didn't actually win anything, is a cleaner version of their song. Their mood was buoyant, as you would expect from a team looking to go all the way in the competition again, but Alex Ferguson's charges were also being backed by a noisy following in the Midlands.
The 'United Calypso' was aired almost constantly, Sheringham did not feature and instead the story of the match was all about Roy Keane.
The skipper scored a perfectly valid goal, only for it to be ruled out for offside. No VAR in those days to overturn things, as was the case against Barcelona at Old Trafford last night [Wednesday].
Steve Bartram spoke to David Elleray recently and the referee admitted the officials blundered on that occasion. In short, Ryan Giggs effectively ran onto his own pass down the left and could not have been deemed offside.
“Most people tend to forget the first game, after which nobody was especially happy,” recalled Elleray.
“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.”
The fact is the Gunners were only reduced to 10 men in extra time, even if it did afford United a boost for much of that period.
The sense of injustice brought an even greater intensity to the Reds' play, even the usually mild-mannered Denis Irwin was booked for protesting about the disallowed strike by his fellow Irishman, and this was a proper cup tie with no quarter asked or given.
A vivid memory from the occasion from the view behind the goal was just how impressive Martin Keown and Tony Adams were at the back for the Londoners, defending with aggression and organisation and how difficult it was for the Reds to break through, even with the man advantage.
It would only be right to also praise Ronny Johnsen and Jaap Stam for similar fortitude at the other end.
David Beckham almost scored with a trademark free-kick but Arsenal had chances too with Peter Schmeichel keeping the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg and Nicolas Anelka at bay.
Schmeichel disagrees strongly with those, like Elleray, who feel the first semi-final was a largely forgettable affair. Yes, it cannot match one of the greatest FA Cup ties of all time that would follow a few days later, but there was something about the intensity and tension that made this one a 0-0 that should be remembered.
“The replay was on the Wednesday night,” Schmeichel told us.
“We played the first game on the Sunday, a 0-0 draw. People ask me:
“What was the best game you ever played in?” And I can’t say one game, I need to say two: The first semi-final and the replay. I don’t think I’ve ever taken part in two more dramatic games where the quality of players are at such a high standard and the level of drama.
”The disallowed goal, red cards, the best players on offer in the country. It had to happen. Neck-and-neck in the league. The saying was ‘if you ever got through that semi-final, you would win the Premier League as well.’ So basically, people said whoever wins that semi-final would win the domestic Double, so it was hugely important.
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What was to follow will forever live in United folklore. If that Keane goal had been given, we could have been deprived of a sensational night of entertainment back at Aston Villa's home.
But, for now, we were no closer to knowing who would take on Newcastle at Wembley in May, Alan Shearer's double had accounted for Spurs in extra-time. The centre-forward had again taken the opportunity to rile United fans by saying the Stretford End had never been rocking like it was with the Toon Army celebrating those efforts.
A chance to meet the England international, who had twice been targeted by the Reds in the past, was still up for grabs yet Arsenal were going to be the most difficult of rivals again in the replay.
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