Think of the 1993 FA Cup final and you think of Andy Linighan.

It's an evocative image for Arsenal fans: unassuming reserve centre back, nose bent out of shape by Mark Bright's elbow, towers above his assailant in the dying seconds of the replay to power in a header that Chris Woods can only parry over the line.

A Day In Time - May 20, 1993
Video poster
Replay Replay Resume

Up next


Cue pandemonium, cue an unprecedented domestic cup double.

But when you stop thinking about the matchwinner and run a finger down the rest of Arsenal teamsheet for that replay, your digit soon rests on another centre back - David O'Leary.

A split-second of inspiration was enough to make Linighan an Arsenal hero but O'Leary took the opposite path to fame. His legend was chiselled out over a record 722 appearances for the Gunners - more than 1,000 hours of football spread across two decades.

An integral part of the furniture for so long, by 1993 O'Leary was more like an favourite old armchair - a reassuring presence, difficult to discard but rarely called upon.

David O'Leary during the 1993 FA Cup final replay
David O'Leary during the 1993 FA Cup final replay

George Graham's penchant for signing centre backs had made O'Leary a peripheral figure in the last of his 20 years at the Club, so much so that it seemed his final act as an Arsenal player would be an emotional goodbye at his testimonial match.

Had others been available, Linighan and O'Leary would probably not have been part of that cup final narrative. But a twist of fate allowed the Irishman to take his final steps as a Gunner down football's most famous steps - at Wembley.

I didn't play much in that last season and each time I looked at the headlines we were signing another centre half

"I didn't play much in that last season and each time I looked at the headlines we were signing another centre half," recalled O'Leary. "By the time of the cup final we had Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, Andy Linighan, Colin Pates and myself.

"I was used to centre halves coming and going because that's what kept you on edge at a big club. The squad would get topped up. But George went down the route of buying nearly every centre half that was available in that period - I think we could have put a team out of them at one stage!

"As it turned out we had injuries [to Bould and Pates] while Martin was cup-tied so he couldn't play in the final. I didn't think I'd start but I thought I'd be on the bench and that's the way it worked out.

"I couldn't speak for George but I would say the reason was he knew I could play full back and get by in that position. I spent 99.9 per cent of my career at centre back but George needed a balance with the lack of subs [only two were permitted] so my versatility helped me get in the squad."

David O'Leary lifts the FA Cup in 1993
David O'Leary lifts the FA Cup in 1993

There were some cracking FA Cup finals around the turn of that decade. This wasn't one of them.

The prospect of an open, flowing encounter on Saturday, May 15 was stymied by a number of factors, not least the pressure of the occasion and Graham's safety-first approach (which would serve him well in Europe the following season).

Familiarity played its part too. Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday met four times in the last 32 days of that season with Graham's side winning the League Cup final at Wembley in April before Trevor Francis' team got the consolation of a Premier League win at Hillsborough.

By the time those same players lined up for the FA Cup final they knew each other's games inside out - and it didn't help. Ian Wright's header was matched by David Hirst in the first match and Wright and Chris Waddle exchanged goals in the replay before Linighan provided the late drama.

It was a long 240 minutes for the watching millions on TV and it didn't look great from O'Leary's seat on the bench either.

David O'Leary with George Graham
David O'Leary with George Graham

"I thought the first game was an absolute shocker," he said. "A dull, dull game that petered out into nothing. The second game, on a damp Thursday night, had a great atmosphere, it was a replay of a disappointing game and we were desperate to win it.

"I remember the late goal from Andy Linighan very clearly. At that point you don't care who scores or how it goes in, but it went in from a corner kick and it was a fantastic feeling. I was so pleased for him. It must be 20 years since I've spoken to Andy but he was a nice lad.

I would have taken a penalty - without a doubt. I always fancied taking penalties

"Without Andy an FA Cup final would have gone to penalties for the first time but I don't think the prospect of a penalty shoot-out was going through any of the players' minds at that point. At the end you would think about that. We were just focused on winning the game.

"I would have taken a penalty - without a doubt. I always fancied taking penalties but of course there were always great players ahead of me who wanted to take them. The centre half doesn't really get chosen for that!

"I didn't practise them much, but I felt I could do it. I got given that chance [for the Republic of Ireland] against Romania in the 1990 World Cup and it was nice to see that I could do it. I would have taken one for Arsenal but it didn't come to that."

O'Leary did get plenty of time to stretch his legs on the Wembley turf, replacing Wright in both matches and playing a total of 69 minutes. And then, all of a sudden, after all those games, all those years, the final whistle blew and his Arsenal career was over.

While the rest of the squad cavorted around the pitch, O'Leary's celebrations were bittersweet.

"I remember the great joy of the occasion but also it was the saddest walk I've ever had at Wembley because I was walking around saying goodbye to the fans who had been so great to me," he said.

"I don't know how it happened but I came down the steps at Wembley last with the FA Cup. It was never planned, I don't know how it ended up that way, but it was a great thing to experience.

I remember getting home that night and I thought, if my house gets robbed they are not going to take the FA Cup, so I took the cup up to my bedroom

"George didn't have a word in my ear about it - he wasn't that kind of manager to tell you the truth. There was a picture of us together with the trophy but, although he was a fantastic manager, I was never close to him in that way.

"We did a lap of honour with the trophy and before I got to the tunnel I thought to myself 'this is the last time I'll ever wear the Arsenal jersey again'. It was an amazing night, a brilliant way to end 20 years, but it was such a sad night for me as well."

It was a night that stretched well into the early hours as the players let off steam after making history. And O'Leary went home with an extra companion when the celebrations finally died down.

"That night - I'll always remember this - I took the FA Cup home. No one else seemed to be responsible for it so I took it with me.

"My wife drove us home and I remember sitting in the front with the FA Cup in my lap and somebody pulled up at the lights, seconds before it went green, and he looked over and then looked over again, thinking 'is that David O'Leary with the FA Cup?!' We pulled away and I still don't know if that guy thought he was imagining things.

"I remember getting home that night and I thought, if my house gets robbed they are not going to take the FA Cup, so I took the cup up to my bedroom. My kids were young then and the following morning they came in and saw the FA Cup there on the side of the bed.

"That morning I took it to the club and gave it to Ken Friar. I said goodbye to Ken, I actually went to the steps of the old directors' box at Highbury, had a look out there for the last time, and said to myself 'hey, it's been a fantastic 20 years, I've been so proud to play here, thanks for putting up with me'.

"Then I walked away, and that was that."

Copyright 2017 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to as the source
Chris Harris 9 May 2013