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Leicester Pay A Controversial Cup Penalty

On Sunday Chelsea meet Leicester City in the FA Cup Sixth Round. The sides met in the same competition in the late 1990s, an encounter with a highly controversial ending, which must still rankle with Foxes supporters.

It was February 1997. After an epic 0-2 down, 4-2 up FA Cup Fourth Round victory against Liverpool still fondly discussed 27 years later, Chelsea were drawn at Division One rivals Leicester in the next round.

When the teams ran out at Filbert Street, Chelsea had not played for a fortnight, since a 2-1 win at White Hart Lane. They were on a decent run of form, with just one defeat in nine games, and were 5th in the League, opponents Leicester were 15th. The visitors had reached the final and a semi-final in the previous three seasons, and there was a feeling among their supporters, and at the club, that this might be the season to pick up their first major trophy since 1971.

On the day of the cup-tie the News Of The World ran a story that Inter Milan and England midfielder Paul Ince was potentially moving to Chelsea, with manager Ruud Gullit hoping to meet the player the following week when Chelsea made a trip to Italy to play AC Milan in a friendly, pipping Arsenal to his signature. As with so many ‘exclusives’ of this kind it came to precisely nothing, as with stories the previous week about possibly signing Paolo Maldini, though it did maybe show the growing ambition the club had.

On a windy Sunday afternoon in Leicester Chelsea lined up :- Hitchcock; Sinclair, Leboeuf, Clarke, Petrescu; Wise, Newton, Di Matteo, Minto; Hughes, Zola.

19,125 tickets sold for the clash, which was shown live on BBC1. Gianfranco Zola had only been at Chelsea a couple of months but already the press, and the supporters, were raving about him. England supporters were suddenly less fond of the Italian, he having scored the only goal at Wembley in a crucial World Cup qualifier days earlier. He was booed by home supporters every time he touched the ball at Filbert Street, till he was substituted for Gianluca Vialli after 67 minutes to chants of ‘England, England’. He later admitted that his Wembley exertions had left him ‘very, very tired’. Roberto Di Matteo, another Italian hero four days earlier, was also substituted.

In a hostile atmosphere, with both sets of supporters fired up, the game started superbly for the visitors, who were two up in 35 minutes through a cracking Di Matteo run and shot and a well-taken right-foot drive by Mark Hughes after a slick Eddie Newton – Di Matteo - Dan Petrescu move. After both goals Chelsea supporters with tickets in home sections celebrated, causing clashes with unhappy home fans and an overspill onto the pitch side.

Di Matteo Puts Chelsea ahead...

And celebrates with Newton and Wise

At half-time ex-Chelsea and Leicester forward Alan Birchenall, the matchday MC at Filbert Street, told the Leicester supporters that their team could do to Chelsea what the visitors had done to Liverpool three weeks earlier.

Leicester went out for the second-half fired up after an ear-blasting from manager Martin O’Neill and within ten minutes, captain Steve Walsh had headed one back from a Garry Parker free-kick. Chelsea held on till three minutes from time when panic led to Newton bizarrely slicing another Parker-free-kick into his own goal with no Leicester player nearby. In a pulsating end to an exciting game, Vialli and Hughes had chances late on. All four goals can be seen here

A draw was by no means a disaster for Chelsea but having been two-up and comfortable against a Leicester side missing four key players through injury and suspension, it was still a massive frustration. The Sun talked about sleeping sickness’, sloppiness and a casual attitude being the visitor’s undoing. Gullit complained that Leicester were lucky, ‘created nothing’ and got both their goals from free-kicks. He also agreed that his side ‘threw it away' through the unlucky Newton’s late own-goal.

The replay was scheduled for ten days later. The winners would play at Portsmouth in the quarter-finals and Gullit’s side were now 2-1 favourites for the trophy, with Wimbledon 7-2, Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 and Middlesbrough 11-2. There can rarely have been a season when the self-appointed, self-basting ‘big five' had all been knocked out before the quarter-finals.

A 1-1 draw at home to champions Manchester United four days before the replay kept Chelsea’s decent run of results run ticking over nicely before the eagerly-anticipated tie. O’Neill’s spikiness about Gullit’s post-match comments ten days earlier fired up things nicely in the papers. The Dutchman tried to play down the growing excitement among supporters about a possible third quarter-final place in four seasons and even a return to Wembley, where they had lost 4-0 to United three seasons earlier.

Gullit fielded the same starting line-up as he had at Filbert Street. 26,000 nearly filled Stamford Bridge for a game shown live on Sky Sports. If scores were level after extra-time the game would go to penalties so one way or another there would be a definitive result that night. The fact there were ten bookings that night give a pretty clear indication that it was a highly competitive game, as well as an absorbing one. Kasey Keller gave a superb performance in goal for the visitors, saving from Frank Leboeuf and Di Matteo before half-time. Leicester replied on counter-attacks with ex-Blue Muzzy Izzet making himself busy in midfield.

Gullit brought on Vialli, perpetually frustrated at his marginalisation by the manager, for Scott Minto at half-time but though the odd chance was created, the hosts could not break through and Steve Claridge missed a chance to win it for Leicester near the end of normal time. Keller continued to excel in extra-time, saving two Zola free-kicks, but Leicester almost nicked it when Matt Elliott’s header was cleared off the line by Leboeuf.

So as the end of extra-time loomed, thoughts turned to penalties, and who would take them. What nobody anticipated was that there would be just the one penalty and it would stir up an extraordinary level of controversy. With three minutes of extra-time remaining, Chelsea were pressing hard. Centre-back and substitute Erland Johnsen charged forward with the ball, played a one-two with Vialli and ran into Spencer Prior, taking what Official Chelsea Historian Rick Glanvill called ‘a dubious extra-time tumble’. Referee Mike Reed was only yards away and pointed to the spot. Cue bedlam.

Players of both sides debate the penalty decision

Leicester’s players furiously berated Mr Reed but when things had finally calmed down Leboeuf calmly drove home the penalty amidst bedlam in the stands from joyous supporters scenting a Wembley return.

Leboeuf celebrates scoring the penalty

Chelsea hung on for the remaining couple of minutes and were through to the last eight. The home support happily left Stamford Bridge, their thoughts turning to a seemingly-winnable tie at Fratton Park.

Leicester were very, very unhappy about the penalty award, much of the football media seemed to agree they were extremely hard done by and anyone who though the matter would die down was in for a surprise. On the tube home from the game I listened on my pocket radio to 5 Live phone-in host Danny Baker indulging in a spectacularly off-the-scale rant, claiming that ‘football has a maggot at its golden core, and that maggot is referees’, urging supporters to picket Reed’s home. I then realised just how controversial the goal was. The penalty incident can be seen here

O’Neill was incandescent, various calling the decision a ‘disgrace’, ‘disgusting, unbelievable and shocking’ and ‘nowhere near a penalty kick’, though the FA, perhaps trying not to prolong the controversy, decided to take no action against him. The Evening Standard, usually inclined to take the side of London clubs, called the decision ‘inexplicable’ but did feel, in common with many observers, that Chelsea deserved to win the game. The footage, seen in the cold light of day, is not necessarily 100% conclusive but there was certainly an argument that Johnsen had dived, and that Leicester were indeed robbed.

The Daily Mail ran a two-page article about how technology could/should be used to prevent mistakes of that order being made, a view endorsed by United boss Alex Ferguson. Even now, the Daily Mail website carries a 2020 update about that game, claiming Johnsen still refuses to discuss the incident and Reed admitting, after later viewing the footage, that it was not a penalty. Whether that specific incident accelerated the introduction of VAR to aid referees is hard to tell, but it certainly gave the idea wide coverage.

Chelsea went on to lift the FA Cup that season and Zola was voted Football Writers Association ‘Footballer Of The Year’, a remarkable achievement as he only made his debut in November. O’Neill and his Leicester side had significant consolation in beating Middlesbrough in a League Cup Final replay. Baker was duly sacked by the BBC, not for the last time in an eventful broadcasting career.

Whatever happens on Sunday, there cannot be a replay. Whether there will be a controversial incident of such magnitude as in 1997, time will tell.

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1 Comment

Mar 08, 2023

At the replay, when we were in extra time, I looked to the sky and said, "C'mon Matthew! Give us a hand'. And then the penalty.

In the MHU concourse afterwards everyone stopped to look at the replays on the wall mounted CRT TV sets. The first replay showed the angle that we'd all seen - Erland Johnsnen being hacked to the ground. We all cheered.

The 2nd replay showed the side angle. We saw no contact for Johnsen to go down. I have never seen a concourse go so silent, and to a person, everyone turned and headed for the exit. 🤣

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