1993 Cup Double: When Arsenal beat Sheffield Wednesday in two cup finals

1993 Cup Finals Arsenal Sheffield Wednesday

This year’s national cup finals are somewhat special: it is only the second time in history that the teams competing in the FA and League Cup finals are identical. As Liverpool makes a (possibly futile) push for a historic quadruple, lifting the League Cup a few months ago, Chelsea will have a second chance to counter their prospects with this week’s final at Wembley.

While it can be argued that most finals over the last few years often involved the same clubs, with the ‘Big 6’ taking most of the cups home in the last decade (with the rare exception of Leicester and Swansea) it is in fact very rare that the same two clubs face off in both finals in the same year.

The only other time this happened was in 1993. Arsenal took on Sheffield Wednesday not twice but three times, as the FA Cup final in May went to a replay. With the special occasion this year, it was a chance to dive back into these finals, with the intervention of some Sheffield Wednesday fans who lived those finals.

A league of their own

As you may also know, this year is the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Premier League. Born notably from a juicy deal with BSkyB in the summer of 1992, this league was a separation from the rest of the English football pyramid. This league had 22 teams known as the ‘founding members’, which included huge clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and many more. It also included both Sheffield teams, United and Wednesday, as well as Arsenal. The Owls of Sheffield Wednesday had recently been promoted back to the first division, finishing 3rd on their return to the elite in 1990/91.

Meanwhile, Arsenal were one of the top clubs at the time, winning the league and cups multiple times in the late 80s and early 90s under the management of George Graham. They even lifted a European Cup Winners Cup in 1994. So it was no surprise to see them reach the final of the domestic competitions, although two finals in the same season was certainly a big achievement. Sheffield Wednesday on the other hand were less experienced, winning most of their trophies before World War II. They did however pick up a League Cup in 1991.

For the League Cup, led on the bench by ex-Nottingham Forest player Trevor Francis, with the likes of Chris Waddle and Chris Woods in goal, the Owls scraped through the likes of QPR, Ipswich and Blackburn Rovers on their way to the Old Wembley. Meanwhile, David Seaman’s and Paul Merson’s Arsenal struggled against Derby County, and Nottingham Forest, before beating Crystal Palace in the semi-final, with Ian Wright scoring against his old club in both legs to help the Gunners. The stage was set for a grand final in London on 18th April 1993. Fun fact, this was the first game in Europe to see clubs play with squad numbers and player names on the back of their shirts, a rule which was later set in stone for the start of the 93/94 season.

Opening fire

The League Cup final, as usual with a sponsor – this time Coca Cola – was the opening cup of the season, with Wembley roaring on the players as they came onto the pitch. “Arsenal were back to doing what they did best: winning trophies”, says Martin Tyler, commentating for BskyB. They certainly would be in the end, but it would be no easy task. Sheffield Wednesday supporters were eager to get the win too. “Definitely felt Wednesday should have won one of the finals that season, but Arsenal were the arch-nemesis, as at that stage Arsenal were 1-0 merchants who strangled opponents”, explains Peter Chan, a supporter of the Owls. The hostilities were indeed open before the game.

The opening 10 minutes showcased exactly how the game will pan out: end to end football, with great attackers on both sides. After Paul Warhurst and Ian Wright had chances at either end, Wednesday took the lead from a cleverly played freekick. Poorly cleared by the Gunners’ defence, it landed perfectly for the American midfield John Harkes to hoof it past Seaman. The Owls have the lead in the opening 10 minutes and the fans start getting excited. “We were very confident after John Harkes gave us the lead”, says Peter. However, that confidence withered as Arsenal slowly got back in the game. After a great run inside, Ray Parlour was taken down.

Similarly to the opener, the subsequent freekick was poorly cleared and Merson volleyed it from a distance into the back of the net. While the shot was somewhat fluked, with the bend surprising Woods in goal, there was no doubt that it revived the Arsenal fans at Wembley that day. “We couldn’t have wished for a better start to a game of football. Both sides are rewarded already in the first 20 minutes of the game”, says Brian Moore for ITV. Minutes before half-time, the Gunners nearly turned the game completely around, as Campbell hit the post with a great volley, but the teams left the pitch at the break all square.

A recurring theme eventually killed off the game: poor defending from Wednesday. While there were not many Arsenal players in the Sheffield final third, hesitation and bad marking eventually led to another goal. As Merson sprinted down the wing, with no defender shutting him down, his cross eventually fell to the feet of Carlton Palmer, who tried to bring it down with a poor touch. Yet again, an Arsenal attacker was at the right place and the right time, with Stephen Morrow smashing it in from a few yards out.

With only 20 minutes to go, Arsenal continued to attack on the counter, with Wright scoring a marvellous chip, before it was chalked off for a foul from the Gunner on Anderson. They eventually held off the score and went on to win the first of the two finals that season. With a goal and an assist, Merson was deservedly named Man of the Match that day.

The joy was a little too much for the Gunners, as captain Tony Adams dropped Morrow during the celebrations, which led to the Arsenal player breaking his arm in the process. After a stint in hospital, missing out on the presentation of the medals and the trophy, the match-winner was eventually presented with his medal in preparation for the FA Cup final a month later. Bitterly disappointed, Wednesday fans went home, with many of them crying as they left the stadium. They were undoubtedly ready to bring a better fight for the next final.

Time for revenge

Prior to that game, it was already known what the FA Cup final would be. After beating Tottenham at Wembley in a tense North London Derby, Arsenal joined up with Sheffield Wednesday once again, the Owls beating city rivals Sheffield United in a great semi-final. Guided by Chris Waddle in the Steel Derby, Wednesday was eager to get back to London to face the Gunners and have a second chance at glory. “Coach driver said as we got off for the League Cup final that whoever won the first would win both. He was NOT popular on the way home…”, Richard, an Owls fan, tells me. There was still hope for the thousands of fans that travelled south on 15th May 1993. Lining up with very similar 4-4-2 line-ups, with the exemption of Morrow, still recovering from his injury, both teams were ready to put everything into it.

Similarly to the first final, chances came quickly in the game, with Palmer nearly scoring, as he tried to make up for his mistake in the last game. A first post header nearly crept past Seaman, but the England keeper pushed it out for another set-piece. It really was a game of set pieces as two more chances came from them; a missed header by Linighan flew past the post but more importantly, an exceptional freekick from Waddle was tipped over the bar for what would have been one of the best goals of the season. It was therefore no surprise that the opener came from a freekick. After a headed assist from Andy Linighan, Wright was at the back post to send the ball back where it came from, wrong-footing Woods and giving Arsenal the lead. 20 minutes into the game, it seemed slightly against the run of play but Arsenal was on the right path towards another famous victory.

Starting the second half on the front foot, Wednesday thought they’d crept back into the game as Mark Bright finished a great chance from close range, but the linesman called for a close offside. They eventually were back on level terms when David Hirst finished off a well-built team goal. With 20 minutes to spare, it looked like it was a game for anyone to take. Wright nearly doubled his tally on the day with an acrobatic volley but Woods made sure it stayed level. While fans gave the goalkeeper a lot of stick over the years, it seemed that his performance was an integral part of the Owls staying in that game. It was all square at the end of the 90, as well as the end of extra time. Both sets of fans had to come back 5 days later in a midweek replay, to which many fans couldn’t attend. Those who did, however, were in for a spectacle.

The final chapter

20th May 1993. Wembley was once again packed, under pouring rain as recalled by some fans. George Graham’s Arsenal went a little more attacking, with Parlour missing out on the game, and Allan Smith coming in at left-wing in a dynamic 4-3-3. Spreading wide, as usual, was Merson, who got the first chance of yet another end-to-end game. Again, Woods rose to the occasion to make the save. Things got feisty as Bright elbowed Linighan in an aerial challenge, just about escaping the red card. Sheffield Wednesday was not letting go of this final. However, Arsenal yet again took the lead through their star man, Ian Wright. After a well-timed flick from Smith, the England forward was through and goal and slotted it past the incoming Woods. “Wright did everything right”, exclaimed Martin Tyler. Another good choice from the Gunners’ manager to start Smith.

Back after the break, the contest intensified. Tackles came flying in, and so did the chances. One eventually fell perfectly for an oncoming Waddle, who slotted home a left-footed volley in the bottom of Seaman’s goal. Yet again, the Owls had fought back to equalise. This was only minutes before Bright nearly took the lead, as he saw his volley smash the base of the post. Arsenal were on the ropes, avoiding every punch Wednesday threw at them, but they could not hold on for long like this. Yet, they would once again prevail, as Woods started showing signs of weakness.

The Wednesday goalkeeper nearly let in a very weak Merson shot through his legs and it was only a sign of bad things to come. The game went to extra time, leading to this final to be called the ‘longest FA Cup final in history’, due to the two extra times with the replay.

Chances were rarer as the teams got increasingly tired. However, in the dying seconds of extra time, there was a final chance for Arsenal. A corner was swung into the box for Linighan, who headed home a shot in the centre of the goal, right where Woods was standing. And there, his steady hands were not steady enough to punch the ball out. Wednesday fans and players watched in disbelief as the goalkeeper let in a very saveable goal, to crush the hopes of the whole club. “I’m sure Woods had a fiver on Linighan scoring”, says an Owls fan. Woods still has the blame for the loss, according to numerous fans I talked to, although some have learnt to forgive him over the years.

Another important element was the 119th minute winner. “Remember thinking as the FA Cup game approached the end of extra time….’I hope the penalties will be at this end’ One minute later Linighan’s header went in’ Sat stunned and have been ever since”, tells me Ian.

Gareth on the other hand was too young to be at the game but still has a vivid memory of it. “As 9-year-old SWFC mad fan I wanted to go but Dad told me I was too young “next time we get to the final”… we’re still waiting! So watched the whole 3 games on TV. The feeling was confidence, and even when we lost the first game, it was, oh well, that means we’re due a win in the FA Cup instead. I used to love watching penalties (this would terrify me now) and I was so excited about the prospect of the replay I ran upstairs to go to the toilet on 119 mins so as not to miss anything. All I remember is walking back down the stairs and the sense of dread of hearing the commentary and celebrations for Linighan’s goal and realising what had happened. I’ve had a phobia about going to the toilet during a football match ever since!”

A true heartbreak for the Wednesday fans who saw their team slowly disseminate, with numerous players leaving throughout the 90s and the club going back down to Division 1 in 2000, before getting relegated a second time in 2003. It felt like the highs of 1993 were far behind. Some fans are still very bitter for sure, although having somewhat of a laugh when talking about the events.

“Basically, George Graham told Adams, Linighan and Jensen to kick the crap out of Hirst, Waddle and Sheridan, and it worked”, explains one of Wednesday’s fans. Ultimately, this was a heartbreak for fans of the Owls, who vividly remember all the trips to Wembley, with many not forgetting the scars of those three games.

Arsenal fans seem to be less keen to talk to me, but they definitely enjoyed the party afterwards, with Ian Wright and Paul Merson as the heroes of both campaigns. As Liverpool get ready to challenge Chelsea for a second time in a cup final this season, they could have in mind the saying from that bus driver from earlier. They will, whatever the result, be making history with this special combination of fixtures.