I Was There ~ Tom Hocking remembers Sheffield Wednesday's unlikely win over Arsenal, which was made famous as the day Paolo di Canio pushed over a referee
It started like any other game. A ten-year-old me trotting along beside my father, glossy programme clasped in my hands. All around there were mumblings of a big game. I kept hearing the words "hammering" and "destroyed".
It seemed natural to think they were talking about what the mighty Sheffield Wednesday were going to do to this troublesome club in red. Arsenal? Last season's champions? Unbeaten so far in this? Only because they hadn't played us.
That Wednesday dared to put Dennis Bergkamp on the cover of the programme alongside a Dutch master like Wim Jonk was laughable. That the folk clad in blue and white were talking about what might happen to their own team on this crisp September afternoon was unthinkable.
As we took our seats in the Grandstand, my hands now full of chip butty, the teams came out. Checking back now, it is surprising to see only 27,949 people were there. It seemed like millions, a packed Kop hailing my heroes one by one. "England's number one" they called to Kevin Pressman, "You'll never beat Des Walker" to the ageless defender and, of course, "D-I-Can-I-O" to the Italian magician up front.
The opening 44 minutes saw Wednesday lull Arsenal into a false sense of security with a perfect display of scared-of-the-ball football. Despite this the Owls defence of Walker, Emerson Thome, Peter Atherton and Juan Cobian somehow stood tall against Anelka, Bergkamp, Overmars et al. “We're doing well here,” my dad commented around the 43rd minute. By the end of the 45th everything had changed.
Patrick Vieira, being the unfairly talented footballer that he was, had wormed his way around Jonk in the centre of the field and begun to stride away with the ball. Jonk, being the fairly untalented footballer that he was, dragged him back. A foul? Yes. Reason for Vieira to get all angry and push over my beloved Jonk? I think not. Cue anger in the stands all around me, then cheers as the boys charge in for a good old scrap.
When referee Paul Alcock showed Paolo Di Canio a red card there was outrage. I booed and asked my dad what poor old Paolo had done to deserve such treatment. A moment of stunned silence followed. Alcock was stumbling backwards. As he hit the floor half the men around me burst into hysterics, while the others directed their anger at the flinching Winterburn, the sent-off Keown, the not sent-off Vieira and the diving Alcock.
It was a mixed half time. All around me people discussed the events. Two things were on their minds: how long would our talisman be banned for, and how on earth could we win without him? The magnitude of Di Canio's actions had not sunk in – we were on ten men apiece, harbouring a sense of injustice that Vieira wasn't sent off and the atmosphere was electric.
Around the hour mark our manager, Danny Wilson, replaced the classy Swedish winger Niclas Alexandersson with the hard working but ever so unremarkable Lee Briscoe. “We're settling for a draw,” pointed out my father. The comment was met with nods of understanding all around. It looked like Wilson was going to get his way, too, thanks to some amazing saves by the surprisingly agile Wednesday goalkeeper, Kevin Pressman.
Then, in the 89th minute, something happened that Wilson had not intended. In a game where Di Canio would be the talking point, this moment was virtually forgotten by the press. Lee Briscoe picked up the ball on the left corner of the penalty area, looked up and hit an exquisite chip over Alex Manninger into the Arsenal net. Hillsborough erupted, partly out of joy but mainly because Lee Briscoe had done something good. Nobody thought he had it in him. We had beaten the champions.
As we walked back to the car and put on the radio all the talk was about Di Canio's push. It seemed a little unfair on Briscoe. The one time he was remarkable it was forgotten among the antics of a flawed Italian genius.