In an alternate reality, supporters of the two sides fortunate enough to have fought their way through to the FA Cup final following last weekend’s semis at Wembley will have spent the week basking in the reflected glory of their teams, and lording it up over fans of clubs who no longer have anything to play for this season. Instead, we’ve been treated to the pantomime of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s attempted takeover of Newcastle United, which at the time of writing was being opposed on morality ground by (checks notes) Richard Keys. If you hadn’t noticed, we’re living in unprecedented times.
Instead then, we’ll shift our focus on the warm, COVID-free comfort of The Past, taking a trip down FA Cup Memory Lane to a tempestuous Fourth Round tie from the 98/99 season as Division 1 strugglers Oxford United hosted the United Nations of Chelsea.
To talk us through Losing his Favourite Game this week is BBC Test Match Special producer and broadcaster Henry Moeran. Having started his broadcast career at BBC Radio Oxford, he moved to Radio 5 Live in 2010 to join the 5 Live Sport team working as a broadcast assistant in sports such as football, racing and rugby league. Henry joined TMS in 2011, and now leads the coverage of women’s cricket.
Today he’s looks back on an evening when The Us almost upset the odds, and Kevin Francis reminded everyone why he never made it as a defender.
Oxford United 1-1 Chelsea
FA Cup Fourth Round
25 January 1999
As writer and broadcaster George Elek so eloquently described back in a December edition of this blog, supporting Oxford United in the last quarter century has seldom been a time of rich success.
Like most lower league sides we’ve had our share of good days – but my word we’ve had some bad ones.
First imagine seeing your side needing a win to avoid dropping out of the League. Then imagine the opponents needing a win to be promoted. Add to that they – Orient – score a last-minute winner to send you down. And of course the goalscorer is your former centre forward who has just sent you to oblivion.
Watching Lee Steele buried in a sea of red and white supporters invading our pitch as tears fell all around was awful. Really terrible. But that’s a story for another day, because we’re going further back than 2006 to 1999.
It’s the FA Cup fourth round, it’s a cold January night, and Chelsea have come to the rickety old Manor Stadium, complete with its eight (E-I-G-H-T) stands.
To put into context the magnitude of the challenge before us, we have one international in our team – Canadian centre-half Mark Watson. Joining him are such luminaries as Paul Tait, Matt Murphy and Nicky Banger (to rhyme with ‘danger’, as he was always quick to point out).
Oh, and a certain Dean Windass up front.
Windass remains our record transfer, £470,000 from Aberdeen. We were skint at the time (as we are most of the time), so where this money came from goodness knows.
The striker was – obviously – brilliant, scoring goals for fun in the 33 games he played for us.
Our goalkeeper that night was rookie 21-year-old Elliott Jackson playing for just the fourth time that season.
Against us: Zola, Vialli, Desailly, Di Matteo, Lebeouf, Petrescu and Wise. You get the idea.
I was with two of my Oxford-supporting friends aged 10 in our normal spot behind the dugout. Those were the days you were so close to the action you could – quite literally – touch the substitutes.
The view was obscured by the benchwarmers, but this a small price to pay when you could – if the mood took you – prod a sweating Nigel Jemson after he’d been substituted.
We survive the first half thanks to Jackson’s heroics and some profligacy from our opponents. So far, so good.
Attacking the London Road end after the break (and using the not insubstantial advantage of a six-foot slope down the hill) something remarkable happens in the 52nd minute.
Paul Powell swings in a corner, De Goey stays rooted and Windass stoops to head home at the near post.
Pandemonium. A noise like I’d never heard at a football ground.
On 60 minutes the much- (and I think unfairly) maligned Murphy makes way for 6 foot 8 inches-worth of lower-league legend – Kevin Francis.
The former Stockport and Birmingham striker may have lacked a touch of mobility but when there was a corner at either end there was no one else you’d want on your side.
The minutes tick by, we’re hanging on. And it should be two with time running out as Francis is set free, but he takes too long and the chance has gone.
Still Jackson defies the odds to keep the goal safe, while Chelsea get desperate sacrificing Desailly for Bjarne Goldbaek.
90 minutes. A corner for Chelsea.
The ball is cleared as far as Vialli who takes a touch in the corner of the box.
Now when I said Kevin Francis was who you wanted at corners, I primarily meant with the ball off the floor. As Vialli takes another touch, from nowhere the striker stretches out a leg and over the Italian superstar goes.
Limbs fly up, cries of “dive!”, Vialli looks round to referee Mike Reed.
To our disbelief Reed blows his whistle and points to the spot.
At 10 years old, you still believe things basically turn out okay. This can’t be happening.
As Chelsea fans celebrate wildly behind the goal, a crestfallen Francis is consoled by his teammates and Lebeouf prepares to take the penalty.
Six months earlier he’d had been playing in a World Cup Final. Obviously, this was a bigger moment.
Of course he scored. Jackson went the right way and got close, but the ball squirmed in.
Chelsea fans celebrated and made ‘wanker’ signs at us, Vialli put his fingers to his lips.
Moments later the final whistle went: stunned silence and then, eventually, applause. We’d come so, so close only to be robbed of a night that could – with the riches of the next round – changed the club’s fortunes.
As we trooped back to the car no one spoke. We’d lost more than the greatest evening of our footballing lives; we’d lost the innocence of the young football fan that thinks things will be alright.
That night, the game was on Match of the Day – pundits disputing the decision, bemoaning our misfortune. Not even the appearance of my mates’ and my painted yellow and blue faces on the coverage lifted the gloom.
In the following days we discovered that two years earlier Reed had given a 117th minute penalty to Chelsea in an FA Cup tie against Leicester, leading to questions in the Commons and even a legal writ from a Leicester fan.
You can imagine the theories that did the rounds for years to come.
We were beaten 4-2 in the replay – despite taking the lead in the second minute – and that saw the end of an era.
Windass left at the end of the season, we were relegated twice in three years and soon found ourselves in the fourth tier.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really got over that night. Sure, the disappointments of Euro ’96 and France ’98 were painful (I refused to go to school after ’96 – my mum obviously was having none of it). But those defeats seemed somehow fair. Horrible, yes, but our inadequacies had been the cause.
Not this game, not the night Francis stretched that leg, Vialli fell and Reed pointed.
A quick look on Google tells me Kevin Francis is now a policeman in Canada, handing out justice across the pond. I wonder if he still thinks about that January night 21 years ago. I know that I do.
Thanks to Henry for reliving that controversial night at the Manor Ground. If you’re missing cricket and looking for a bit of nostalgia during the lockdown, you can find a host of delights by following Henry on Twitter.