Just over 20 years ago, Chesterfield were an unlikely candidate to be the FA Cup’s Cinderella story. The second division outfit, nicknamed the Spireites after their church’s twisted spire, had a ramshackle squad made up of a Liverpool trainee in goal, a grizzled centre-half, and a barnstorming teenager up front.
Bury, Scarborough and Bristol City were all dispatched by Chesterfield in the early rounds then a tricky tie with in-form Bolton Wanderers was negotiated. Premier League side Nottingham Forest, and then Wrexham, were defeated in rounds five and six respectively, to put Chesterfield’s name into the hat for the semi-final.
It was Middlesbrough who lay in wait in front of nearly 50,000 at Old Trafford, half of which travelled across the Peak District from Derbyshire. Despite a team comprising of Juninho, Emerson, and Ravanelli, ‘Boro were embroiled in a relegation battle that they would eventually lose.
Chesterfield manager John Duncan admitted that his team were being “slaughtered” by the diminutive wizard Juninho in the first few minutes, which led him to sacrificing Mark Jules from his formation in order to man mark the elusive Brazilian. And what a difference this made. In the 37th minutes a free-flowing Kevin Davies was released on the right-wing to torment full back Vladimir Kinder who already had picked up an early yellow for stupidly kicking the ball away. The only way Kinder could stop Davies was to yank the striker’s collar and bring him to the ground, earning an obvious second yellow and reducing his team to 10 men.
Half time at 0-0 was Duncan’s prize and they begin the second half with renewed belief. After 54 minutes Howard out muscled Clayton Blackmore and managed to slide a cross over to Andy Morris via Davies’ foot to slot home. Six minutes later the giant striker Morris fended off defender Gianluca Festa only to be brought down by Ben Roberts – replacing the cup-tied Mark Schwarzer – for an obvious penalty.
Sean Dyche, the grizzled, uncompromising captain hadn’t scored for four years so everyone seemed to agree this was getting smashed down the middle. Everyone, it seemed, except Roberts who dived to his left. A two-goal cushion against Premier League opposition left the Spireites in dreamland. However, four minutes later Middlesbrough finally found a way around Dyche, and Ravanelli hit home his 28th goal of the season.
Minutes later Juninho wriggled free of his shadow but Dyche slammed him down. Craig Hignett converted the resulting penalty causing Chesterfield to hold on for extra time. Ten minutes after the restart, ‘Boro’s Italian defender Gianluca Festa made it 3-2 to the Premier League side, with manager Bryan Robson celebrating in the stadium in which he’d made his name.
With just one minute of extra-time remaining Chris Beaumont found himself collecting a tired clearance at halfway, which he directed towards the box. The huge bounce confuses the Teesiders’ defence, allowing Jamie Hewitt to loop a header over the keeper and into the net to earn the Spireites a second bite at the cherry.
It’s now Duncan’s turn to celebrate behind the famous red brick wall of the Old Trafford bench, losing his glasses in the resulting melee. Hosts Manchester United gave Chesterfield a crate of champagne, which was optimistically left unopened for the replay. Deep down the team from the second division must have known that this was to be their Wembley, their hallowed turf, the Theatre of their Dreams.
Middlesbrough cruised to a 3-0 win at Hillsborough and ‘Boro went on to meet Chelsea in the final which was all but over inside a minute when Roberto Di Matteo blasted the Blues into an early lead. Middlesbrough lost the final 2-0 although that disappointment would pale into comparison against the grim reality of relegation. Chesterfield will never forget their heroics of 1997 and the form of their energetic teenage striker, Kevin Davies, led to his sale to Southampton, the proceeds of which paid the squad’s wages for the next few seasons.
Part of our Magic of the Cup series