When Arsenal played Leeds four times in the 1990-91 FA Cup

Action from Leeds 1 Arsenal 2 in 1991

During 1990, the FA proposed restricting FA Cup replays to one match, with extra time and penalties ending a tradition of playing potentially endless games. First Division managers had started to complain about fixture congestion and perhaps the FA had one eye on English clubs’ return to Europe the following season. But the main reason for the change was actually the strain put on the police force, who were struggling to find the resources to cover matches at a few days’ notice.

In David O’Leary, Arsenal at least had a player with some relevant experience. In 1979, O’Leary was involved as Arsenal played Sheffield Wednesday five times in the third round of the FA Cup, before making the breakthrough on their journey to the final. This was one game short of the record, which was (and of course still is) held by Alvechurch and Oxford City, who played each other six times in 1971.

 “Feast your eyes on this FA Cup marathon. You might not see many more. Certainly not if a move the FA has been forced to consider, takes effect next season,” was how Kevin Connolly put it in the programme for the second replay.

As late January 1991 approached, Arsenal were unbeaten in the league and had narrowly beaten Sunderland in the third round of the FA Cup. They were drawn against a resurgent Leeds United next, in what George Graham called: “The tie of the round”, stating in his programme notes for the match: “We could hardly have drawn harder opponents.”

Leeds were in the midst of a spectacular phase of re-building, and although they eventually finished fourth in 1990/91, would go on to win the 1991/92 championship. Their midfield in particular was possibly the strongest in the country, with Gordon Strachan, David Batty, Gary McAllister and Gary Speed more than a match for most teams.

Paul Davis urged caution in the match day programme: “'We were a bit fortunate to get away with a draw at Leeds in September. They gave us one of our toughest matches” he said. George Graham adopted a cautious approach and a fairly even and largely uneventful game ended 0-0, though Arsenal could feel slightly aggrieved to have a perfectly good Davis goal disallowed for offside.

Just four days after the Highbury stalemate, Arsenal travelled to Leeds for the first replay. Leeds had the better of the early stages. The Leeds defender Chris Whyte was denied a goal against his former team, when his strike was disallowed for an offside decision against another former Gunner, Lee Chapman.

It was Chapman himself who eventually broke the deadlock, heading in off the post from a Mel Sterland cross. Chapman’s short spell at Arsenal in the early eighties had been fairly disastrous, - and with plenty to prove - he developed a knack of scoring against his former team.

Arsenal quickly equalised with a brilliant Anders Limpar goal. Nigel Winterburn put in a typically robust challenge on Sterland. Michael Thomas and Alan Smith combined to find Limpar on the left, but the Swede still had loads to do, being nearer the half way line than the penalty area. Limpar – who had scored twice at Elland road in the 2-2 draw in the league the previous September – drove at the Leeds defence and cut inside, before beating John Lukic with a fine finish.

Arsenal returned to North London happy to still be in the cup, even though they had yet another fixture to squeeze in. They also had the league match against Chelsea to prepare for in just another three days. Famously, the trip to Stamford Bridge ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run, in what turned out to be their only league defeat of the season. 
Arsenal had coped admirably since December with the absence of their captain Tony Adams – who was approaching the end of his prison term for drink driving. (Adams would make his comeback in a reserve match against Reading at Highbury on the same day as the fourth and final match against Leeds.)

In the meantime, Andy Linighan (and on occasion David O’Leary) had stepped in to cover alongside Steve Bould and preserved the Gunners impressive record. However, Bould went off injured in the Chelsea match and it was no coincidence that this solitary league defeat came on the only occasion George Graham was missing both first choice centre-backs.

Arsenal prepared to re-group for their next league match - against Nottingham Forest - but heavy snowfall across England led to the postponement of that match. An 11 day wait for Leeds return to Highbury was not what anyone wanted, but at least provided a brief rest, and enabled Bould to recover from his injury.

There was still snow piled up around Highbury on the 13th February, but the pitch was immaculate. To everyone’s increasing frustration, the two sides played out another 0-0 draw. Arsenal should have won it in normal time, when they were awarded a penalty for a handball by Sterland. However, Lee Dixon, facing his old mate Lukic in the Leeds goal, put his penalty over the bar and far into the North Bank. Leeds had a few chances, and the luckless Chris Whyte had another strike ruled out for offside. Arsenal came on strong in an exciting extra time, but a Paul Merson header was cleared off the line, and Kevin Campbell was denied twice by Lukic.

Arsenal would have to take the familiar trip up the M1 to Leeds again in three days time.
Leeds were favourites for the fourth and final match, on the 16th February, at Elland Road. They had won 11 of their previous 12 home matches, with the one aberration in that run being the 1-1 draw against Arsenal. But Arsenal took control of the game and went into an early lead. Dixon - with his missed penalty in the previous game no doubt still fresh in his mind - made amends, exchanging passes with Andy Linighan, of all people, and finishing well.

Amy Lawrence, writing in The Gooner, observed: “Tactically, George was spot on as we saw the sweeper system at its most effective and entertaining. The three centre-backs looked very controlled and confident, Dixon and Winterburn went raiding forward at every opportunity …”

Arsenal doubled their lead with Paul Merson - who was in great form - scoring an outstanding solo goal, rather reminiscent of Limpar’s strike in the earlier replay, cutting in from the left in similar fashion. Leeds pulled a goal back, through Chapman, to make it a nervy finish, but Arsenal held on.

“It was an important win for us, after losing at Chelsea,” George Graham reflected. 

Arsenal’s FA Cup run would end in desperately disappointing circumstances - losing at Wembley in the semi-final against a Paul Gascoigne-inspired Spurs. But following the Leeds saga, the Gunners returned to their league campaign with few signs of fatigue and in great form, chalking up impressive wins against Crystal Palace, Liverpool - and of course, Leeds United - on their way to George Graham’s second championship in three years.

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