Remembering Chesterfield's 15 minutes of fame - 15 years on
It’s bitterly ironic, writes Rob Doolan, that Chesterfield could find themselves relegated back to the basement of English football on FA Cup semi final weekend, almost 15 years to the day that the club enjoyed its finest hour in that epic tussle with a star-studded Middlesbrough team. Those proud memories however, remain tainted for many Spireites fans by the shocking refereeing decision that robbed them of a place in history as the first third-tier side to make it to the final.
The focus leading up to the game was very much on the favourites. Life was anything but dull for Middlesbrough fans in 1996-97. Having finished a respectable 12th the previous season, in no small part due to the sublime talents of diminutive playmaking genius Juninho, Bryan Robson had spent heavily on reinforcements with the intention of having a real crack at the top six in the Premier League. In came Brazilian midfield destroyer Emerson for £4m from Porto, fresh from scooping Portugal’s player of the year gong. And in came, in the biggest transfer coup of the summer, Fabrizio Ravanelli, one of the highest profile strikers in world football, who had just won the Champions League with Juventus.
The ‘White Feather’ didn’t come cheap. Details soon leaked of his then unheard-of £42,000 a week pay packet, making him the highest earning footballer in England at the time. Boro started the season well, with Ravanelli grabbing a debut hat trick, but things quickly began to go sour. The new boys upset the apple cart. Emerson went AWOL repeatedly, demanding a move before Christmas and claiming that his wife couldn’t settle in England: “The moment I saw Middlesbrough, I felt it was a strange and terrible place” was a quote attributed to Mrs Emerson, who had obviously not been introduced to the delights of the parmo.
Ravanelli meanwhile, though a success on the pitch, alienated the dressing room with constant public criticisms of his team mates and the club’s training methods and facilities. He was predicting relegation with less than half the season played and proclaiming the decision to go to Teesside a mistake: “The England I was expecting was not a bottom place”.
Worse was to come. In December, in the grip of an injury and illness crisis, Boro, deep in the relegation mire, believed they could call off a scheduled league game with Blackburn at very short notice. The FA felt differently and docked the club three points – a decision that would have dire consequences for the club’s survival prospects.
The cups offered the one bright spot for Robson’s men. Reaching the Coca Cola Cup final marked Middlesbrough’s first trip to Wembley, although a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Leicester meant a replay at Hillsborough. Before that though, Boro just had to dispose of the minnows from Saltergate to book a second Wembley trip for the FA Cup final. It would not, however, prove to be that easy.
For their part, the Spireites had trundled along in mid-table in the third tier, an early play off charge having faded. Managed by former Spurs and Scotland striker John Duncan, they possessed experience in the form of veteran striker Andy Morris and fearsome captain Sean Dyche (Brian Clough’s one-time gardener as a trainee at Nottingham Forest) as well as youth in the shape of livewire 20-year-old Kevin Davies. Light years away from his reinvention as a rumpy, razor-elbowed target man, the young Davies was a pacy, skilful forward who often occupied the right wing and was tipped for big things, especially after his fourth-round hat trick knocked out Premier League-bound Bolton. Local rivals Forest were then dumped out in the next round, before Duncan’s team edged past Wrexham in a tense quarter final.
Predictably, the press had some fun in the build up with the prince and the pauper angle, mainly focusing on how Ravanelli’s annual salary was around double that of the Chesterfield team combined.
49,460 were in attendance at Old Trafford on a sunny April Sunday for the semi final – quite a jump from the capacity crowd of 8,700 who had witnessed the quarter final at Saltergate. “The town had been unbelievable all week before the semi,” Davies later recalled in an interview with the Telegraph. “Walking out at Old Trafford, seeing 25,000 blue-and-white flags waving, are wonderful memories. I was used to playing in Second and Third Division grounds.” The first half was largely uneventful until Boro’s Slovakian left back Vladimir Kinder, who’d been terrorised by Davies all afternoon, earned a second yellow card for a blatant pull-back on the youngster.
Goalless at half time, Chesterfield emerged after the break with renewed confidence, and put their extra man to good use within ten minutes of the restart. Jon Howard on the right played in Davies, whose full-stretch effort was only parried by Ben Roberts in the Middlesbrough goal straight to the feet of Morris for the simplest of finishes. Five minutes later the unthinkable happened as Morris raced into the area and was brought down by Roberts. Referee David Elleray pointed to the spot. The only problem was that their two designated takers were off the pitch. Dyche – by no means a goalscorer, stepped up to lead by example, and smashed the ball straight down the middle to make it 2-0 to Chesterfield with half an hour remaining.
The Spireites’ joy was short-lived however, as Ravanelli bundled one in ten minutes later. Then came the game’s pivotal moment. Howard found space in the six yard box and clattered a shot off the underside of the bar that clearly bounced over the line before bouncing out. The linesman on the right hand touchline seemed to signal to award the goal, but Elleray refused to. Even now, it’s not clear why. Elleray’s attempts at an explanation in the immediate aftermath only further muddied the waters: “I saw an offence, although I can’t remember what it was…I honestly can’t remember whether the offence occurred before or after the ball bounced over the line.” Insult was added to injury a minute later, when Elleray awarded Middlesbrough a penalty for a foul on Juninho that took place outside the area. Craig Hignett’s penalty just squeaked underneath Billy Mercer in the Chesterfield goal, and it seemed the third-tier side’s chance had gone.
In extra time, Boro had their tails up, with Juninho, previously well-shackled by Mark Jules, coming to the fore, probing, scheming and creating chances. One of these was slammed into the roof of the net by Gianluca Festa. Robson cracked a rare smile, the Chesterfield dream seemed over, and their fans, somewhat resignedly broke into a chorus of ‘We’re Proud of You’ as the match ebbed away. Then, in the 119th minute, a cross was slung over from the right into the Middlesbrough box. The ball bounced, and up popped Jamie Hewitt, the only Chesterfield-born player in the team, to loop a header into the far corner past a stranded, bewildered Roberts. Pandemonium reigned. Duncan lost his glasses. The Chesterfield fans lost their minds. The most dramatic semi final in years – the game that had everything – had it’s Roy Race ending to match.
Or at least it almost did. Football fairytales had become increasingly rare by the late 90s, and Chesterfield’s equaliser was unfortunately a mere stay of execution as Boro strolled to a 3-0 victory in the replay nine days later. Yet in some ways there were no real winners. Exhausted from their unexpected Old Trafford workout, Middlesbrough lost the League Cup final replay four days later, and a little over three weeks after that their relegation was confirmed. They then lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea to crown a pretty miserable season. Chesterfield’s cup exploits meanwhile, stirred a mini-revival in the league, but it wasn’t quite enough to reach the play offs, finishing four points shy. A number of their stars departed that summer. Davies’ performances earned him a transfer to top flight Southampton, while even Dyche, a veteran of 231 appearances for the Spireites, moved on to Bristol City for an unhappy stint.
Nevertheless, these players left an indelible mark on the town with the crooked spire. Relegation this season seems unavoidable, but at least Chesterfield have finally had a taste of Wembley glory with victory in the Football League Trophy. Better late than never.