David Eyres thought he was making the ultimate sacrifice for his Preston team-mates.
As Marc Overmars broke clear with the goal seemingly at his mercy, the cultured left-winger made the split-second decision to deliberately clip the flying Dutchman’s ankle just outside the penalty area.
Without a hint of protestation, Eyres sloped off the pitch after referee Dermot Gallagher brandished the red card in his direction.
Although he had left his colleagues to battle on for just over half-an-hour against Arsene Wenger’s mighty Arsenal, Eyres felt his decision to ‘take one for the team’ on what was one of the biggest nights of his football career would prove to be the correct one.
With David Moyes’ men famously leading the Gunners 2-1 thanks to a double strike from Kurt Nogan, Eyres was sure by stopping Overmars in his tracks, and protecting the slender lead, he had given North End the best possible chance of progressing to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
But looking back – with the benefit of hindsight – he now wishes he had not been so selfless.
As Eyres trudged down the tunnel at Deepdale, he glanced back to watch French World Cup winner Emmanuel Petit curl the resultant free-kick around the wall into the bottom corner past David Lucas in the home goal.
Pegged back to all square after initially racing into a 2-0 lead during a whirlwind start in the first half, the 10 men of Preston were now fighting an uphill battle.
They eventually succumbed to a 4-2 defeat as Petit and Overmars made the visitors’ extra man count with further goals in the final 11 minutes of the match.
Eyres admits a little wry smile spread across his face when he discovered that his old club had been paired with Arsenal once more at Deepdale at the same stage of the competition this season.
Although 18 years have passed since that last memorable encounter, Eyres – now aged 52 – still remembers the events of that night vividly.
“As soon as the draw came out, I got a couple of texts off a few mates,” said Eyres.
“It was then that I realised the last time this particular tie in the FA Cup came about was in 1999 when we went 2-0 up but ended up losing 4-2 – and I was, of course, sent off.
“It was in the second half when I was shown the red card.
“We were 2-1 up at the time and Marc Overmars was through on goal.
“I was chasing back – I don’t know how I managed to catch up with him and get anywhere near him.
“He had reached the edge of the box and it was then that I decided that rather than let him score, I would sacrifice myself for the team and bring him down.
“Quite rightfully, I got sent off but then obviously Emmanuel Petit scored from the free-kick.
“So it was 2-2 in any case and we were down to 10 men with still half-an-hour to play.
“Looking back now, it was probably not a good decision by me to bring Overmars down.
“He looked like he was going to score, but our keeper might have made the save or even if he had of scored, it would have been 2-2 and we would still have 11 players on the pitch.”
Despite his misdemeanour, Eyres was not left to stew on his dismissal by his fellow team-mates nor his manager.
“I was gutted to get sent off and probably felt a little bit guilty – that I had let the rest of the lads down,” said Eyres.
“But the manager David Moyes – he was very good with me at the end of the game.
“He sort of came out and said that Arsenal were growing stronger as the game wore on and probably would have gone on to win the game, even if I hadn’t of got sent off.
“I think he said that to be kind and sort of to try to make me feel good and better about myself.
“When the rest of the lads got back into the dressing room, they told me not to worry and it wasn’t my fault that we had lost.
“That was the kind of spirit we had.
“We had lot of good players – Sean Gregan was the captain, but we had six or seven captains in that team.
“Obviously, we went on to win the Second Division Championship the season after.
“It was disappointing to lose to Arsenal, but we knew they were a very good side. They were one of the best teams I had played against without doubt.
“I don’t think it was any great surprise to anybody that Arsenal went through.”
Eyres revealed that North End’s explosive start against Arsenal was inspired by a rather blunt team talk from Moyes.
The manager gave his men ‘a few home truths’ ahead of kick-off – which proved to have the desired effect in stifling the Gunners’ superior ability on the ball.
Eyres said: “Moysie just said, ‘Look lads, from a purely footballing situation, Arsenal are in a different league to us, but we can stop them by working hard and pressing them and playing at a good tempo’.
“That’s what we did.
“We did not give them an inch on the ball, we really pressed them.
“To be fair though, we weren’t too bad a team ourselves that year.”
While Nogan stole the headlines by notching both goals, Eyres could lay claim to two assists, as well as being one of the first players on the scene when it came to celebrating with Deepdale Duck.
The club mascot found himself at the bottom of a ‘player pile-up’ as North End celebrated their opener with some exuberance.
“We deservedly went 2-0 up through Kurt Nogan,” Eyres said.
“I managed to get two assists; the first one I was really happy with because I was falling off the pitch, but managed to hook it back to Noges, who stuck it away.
“That is when obviously Deepdale Duck got jumped on in the celebrations.
“Then Noges scored again from my corner to put us 2-0 up.
“The atmosphere at Deepdale was amazing.
“When we went 2-0 up we absolutely believed we could go on to win the game and go through to the next round.
“I remember when the second goal went in, the noise the fans made was unbelievable – it was so loud.
“It was a fantastic occasion but I felt just before my sending-off, the lads were just starting to tire a little and Arsenal’s quality was beginning to tell.”
The fact that both Preston’s goals were scored by Nogan was no great surprise to Eyres.
Having played alongside each other at Burnley, the pair arrived at Deepdale from Turf Moor a few months apart in 1997.
In fact, Eyres followed both Nogan and good friend Gary Parkinson to the club as then PNE manager Gary Peters made a shock triple raid on their Lancashire rivals over a six-month period.
“Noges he was an absolute goalscorer – he just knew where the goal was,” said Eyres.
“You wouldn’t say he was the hardest worker in training.
“But if you gave him the ammunition, he would put the ball in the back of the net.
“He was also a great character; very bubbly; always looking to make us laugh but more importantly when we needed a goal he was the man.”
While Eyres’ red card was a major turning point in the game, the former Blackpool and Oldham Athletic star reckons conceding just before the interval gave Arsenal the belief that they could go on and win it in the second half.
“Boa Morte scoring just before half-time was disappointing for us,” he said. “It was a poor goal to give away. We switched off a little bit for the goal.
“For 40-odd minutes, we had really pressed and stopped Arsenal having any space or time to play.
“I think I was back in the box when they scored.
“We stood off Boa Morte a little bit and allowed him to turn. His shot bobbled in the corner and got Arsenal back in it just before half-time.
“It was a bit of turning point and in the second half they started to show their quality.”
Eyres went on to make 133 appearances for North End, scoring 27 goals in a three-year stint.
As a measure of the impact he made at the club, he is fondly remembered by PNE’s supporters despite the fact that he lists arch rivals Blackpool and Burnley among his former clubs.
“Looking back at my time at PNE, I have to pinch myself sometimes because I wish I could go back because it was such a great time for me there,” said Eyres.
“Whenever I go back, I am always really well treated there by the fans and everyone at the club.
“Probably a few eyebrows were raised when I signed for PNE. I think my first couple of games for the club, I managed to score a couple of goals, which helped endear me to the fans.
“I was part of a championship-winning team and really enjoyed my football at Preston.
“I could not have had a happier time moving from Burnley to Preston.”
Eyres has been impressed with the job current boss Simon Grayson has done at his former club and believes they are close to rekindling the days when they were perennial Premier League promotion challengers.
He said: “They have had a couple of sticky patches, especially at the start of the season, but they have got themselves in a good position where they are not that far off the play-offs.
“There’s a five or six-point gap so the teams above them are catchable. In the Championship, it’s all about being consistent which Preston have been in patches this season.
“If they can have a run, I see no reason why they can’t get into the play-offs, although there are a lot of good sides up there this season.
“I think a top-half-of-the-table finish would be decent for PNE although I am sure the fans will want more.
“They have been used to seeing the club challenging for promotion to the Premier League every season not that long ago.”
As for the tie against Arsenal – which is being screened live on BT Sport this evening , with a 5.30pm kick-off – Eyres believes there is an opportunity for North End’s current crop of players to go one better than the Class of ’99.
“With Arsenal having Premier League and Champions League commitments, I am sure they will rest a few of their big names,” he said.
“There will be lads in the team who don’t play every week, although they will still be very good players.
“But it’s not going to be the best team that they can put out.
“It’s a bit like when we played them in 1999, it’s an opportunity for Preston – being at home – to take them out.”
In his heart, he would love to see a home victory, but believes Grayson and his players will be delighted to earn a replay at the Emirates Stadium
“I am going for a draw, but I would like to see a Preston win,” he said.