‘So near yet so far’ would be the perfect way to describe Preston’s last meeting with Premier League giants Arsenal in the FA Cup.
North End were paired with Arsene Wenger’s men at the third-round stage in 1999 at Deepdale.
David Moyes’ men looked destined to knock the holders out of the competition at the first hurdle after racing into a 2-0 lead.
Kurt Nogan struck twice in the opening 21 minutes as PNE sensed a famous cup upset.
Unfortunately, North End were unable to maintain their electric start to the match as Arsenal gradually began to turn the screw.
They pulled a goal back through Luis Boa Morte just a minute before half-time and then misfortune struck for the home side 13 minutes into the second half .
North End winger David Eyres was shown a straight red card for bringing down Marc Overmars. Emmanuel Petit fired home the resultant free-kick and the Gunners went on to win 4-2, courtesy of further goals from Petit and Overmars.
While relieved to see his side – who went on to reach the semi-finals before losing 2-1 toManchester United at Villa Park – progress, Wenger praised his team’s plucky opponents.
They had belied their Second Division status by hounding their more illustrious opponents during a fantastic first-half display.
“They played a game of poker,” Wenger said. “Preston gave everything in the first 20 minutes and if they had got a third, they might have hung on.”
North End certainly raced out of the blocks and put the Gunners on the back foot as early as the third minute, when Michael Jackson headed Lee Cartwright’s corner past goalkeeper Alex Manninger, but Lee Dixon cleared off the line.
They did not have to wait too long before breaching the visitors’ back line.
Ryan Kidd’s centre from the left wing was half-cleared by Steve Bould, but Eyres managed to hack the ball back into the danger area, where Nogan coolly and calmly slotted home from six yards.
The home fans were then sent into delirium four minutes later when Eyres’ dipping corner was missed by Manninger and Nogan was waiting behind him to nod home at the back post.
North End maintained a high tempo for the rest of the half but just when it looked like they would go in at the interval with a two-goal cushion, they were dealt a major blow in the 44th minute when Arsenal pulled a goal back.
Boa Morte’s smart turn bought him time and space in the penalty area and his left-footed effort deflected past goalkeeper David Lucas’ despairing dive and nestled in the bottom corner. “It was the turning point,” said Moyes. “That goal gave Arsenal an opportunity. They knew they could score again in the second half.”
A dramatic four-minute period in the second half then turned the course of the game.
On 56 minutes, Cartwright saw his effort strike the crossbar and then two minutes later Eyres was dismissed for a professional foul on Overmars when the Dutchman looked set to score.
The punishment meted out to Eyres had a double edge as Petit curled home the free-kick to bring the scores level on the hour mark.
The Frenchman then put Arsenal ahead in the 79th minute when he turned home Boa Morte’s centre and two minutes later, Overmars sealed the win when he sidestepped Gary Parkinson before firing home.
“We gave them a run for their money,” said Moyes proudly.