FA Cup Flashback: Spireites in the Sky (1996/97)

We’re down to the final four as this season’s FA Cup rolls towards its denouement. To celebrate this season’s competition we’re looking back on some of the great cup ties from years gone by. Not necessarily the biggest shocks (Coventry City actually won the bloody thing…), nor even the most entertaining games (…it wasn’t a fluke either, it was actually a cracking final), but matches that offer a reminder of why the FA Cup remains one of the most storied competitions in the world. In 1997, a club from the small market town of Chesterfield stole the hearts of neutrals across the country with their march to the last four of the world’s oldest cup competition. Standing between them and history were a team full of exotic mercenaries pre-occupied with a fight for Premier League survival. The stage was set for one of the most remarkable semi-finals in the competitions history. 

A third tier side making it all the way to the semi-finals of the FA Cup is as rare as hens teeth and even rarer than a second choice goalkeeper being picked in the final. In 147 years of the competition, only nine teams from outside the top two divisions of English football have appeared in the final four, with Sheffield United’s run in 2014 the most recent example, ended emphatically at Wembley by Hull City. Wycombe Wanderers’ route to a meeting with Liverpool in 2001 is perhaps best remembered for Teletext signing Roy Essandoh scoring the winner against Leicester City at Filbert Street, though no third tier side has come as close to actually reaching the final as Chesterfield in 1997.

The return to Saltergate of John Duncan in 1993 had provided the inspiration for the Spireites to claw their way out of the old Division Three as, having narrowly missed out on the playoffs in his first season back at the helm, the former Dundee and Tottenham striker guided the Derbyshire side to a third placed finish and automatic promotion at the second attempt. It was Duncan that had masterminded Chesterfield’s last promotion, in 1985, arriving off the back of relegation to Division Four, the Scotsman had put together a title winning side and gallantly fought off the drop in the next tow seasons, before Ipswich Town convinced him to his mettle at a higher level, swapping the East Midlands for East Anglia in 1987. Within a year Chesterfield were heading back down to the fourth tier, and though Duncan had the Tractor Boys playing attractive football, he was unable to restore them in England’s top flight. Having departed Portman Road in 1990, there was unfinished business some 170 miles north-west he had to take care of.

On a tight budget, Duncan was required to use his knowledge of non-league and develop youngsters in order to build a team able to survive in Division Two. Tony Lormor and Jonathan Howard arrived from Peterborough United and Buxton FC respectively to add firepower to the side, and slotted in alongside young first-teamers like Sean Dyche and Tom Curtis who’d been rejected by local sides Nottingham Forest and Derby County, but both went on to serve Chesterfield well in the lower leagues. A playoff push in their first season in Division Two was ultimately unsuccessful, and by the November of the following season they found themselves lagging behind the chasing pack. Fortunately there was a distraction on its way.

Chesterfield’s presence in the FA Cup had rarely been notable. By the start of the competition in 96/97 it had been over fifteen years since the club had reached the third round, while memories of them reaching an all-time best fifth round in 1950 belonged only in stories told by the older generations of supporters. A narrow victory over fellow Division Two side Bury in the first round provided a welcome distraction from the dip in league form, but gave little notice of the journey that lay in wait for the Spireites. Third Division Scarborough were next to succumb at Saltergate, going down 2-0 in the Second Round. Not only did that win secure a potentially money-spinning Third-Round appearance, it also gave Match of the Day viewers their first glimpse of an energetic, robust nineteen year old forward who was quickly gaining admirers in Derbyshire.

Kevin Davies had joined his boyhood club Sheffield United as a schoolboy but, like Dyche and Curtis, found himself without a club as a teenager, eventually impressing Chesterfield at a trial and signing up as a trainee. Thrown into the first team by Duncan aged just 16, Davies was challenged to sink or swim, and while his performances as a wide midfielder were hardly groundbreaking, his willingness to throw himself around and an eye for goal earned him support from the Saltergate stands. Setting Chesterfield on their way to a comfortable second round win, his goal against Scunthorpe wouldn’t be his last contribution to the cup run.

Rather than throwing up a glamour tie, the draw for Round Three gave Chesterfield another home fixture against a fellow Division Two side, as Bristol City made the trip north. In the midst of a promotion challenge, the Robins were easily rolled over on a grim East Midlands afternoon, with a brace from Howard enough to see the Spireites through to Round Four. It was here that Chesterfield’s cup run really kicked into life. A trip to runaway Division One leaders Bolton Wanderers was hardly an enticing prospect for Duncan’s team, but a Kevin Davies hat-trick was enough to see off the Trotters and book a local derby against Premier League strugglers Nottingham Forest. A Tom Curtis penalty early in the second-half secured an unprecedented sixth-round place, and earmarked Chesterfield as serious giantkillers. With Manchester United, Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal all already out of the competition, an unfamiliar quarter-final line-up threw the two lowest ranking sides together, as the draw sent Wrexham to Saltergate. A tense midday affair was settled by Chris Beaumount’s goal, and secured Chesterfield’s date with destiny (well, Middlesbrough) at Old Trafford.

Arriving at the semi-final off the back of a five game winless streak in Division Two, Chesterfield were greeted by a Boro side preparing for a League Cup final replay against Leicester City three days after the FA Cup semi, as well as enduring a battle against relegation compounded by a three point deduction for failing to fulfill a fixture at Blackburn due to illness and injury. Nevertheless, Bryan Robson was still able to name five internationals in his starting line-up, including Champions League winning goalscorer Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had arrived on Teeside the previous summer on a free transfer from Juventus, alongside the experienced former Inter defender Gianluca Festa and the mercurial talents of Brazilian Emerson.

Predictably, the Premier League side had the best of the opening stages, setting up camp in the Chesterfield half as the diminutive trickster Juninho worked his magic, twisted and turning the lower league side’s defence into knots, and firing narrowly over with an early effort. For all their huff and puff, however, Boro were unable to make the dominance pay, and when Andy Morris flicked Dyche’s long-ball into the path of the pacy Davies on the right flank, the underdogs had their first sniff of a chance. Slovakian Vladimir Kinder could only halt the teenager illegally, receiving a second yellow card for his troubles. With just 37 minutes gone, Boro were down to ten, and the chances of an upset rose dramatically.

The belief growing in Duncan’s team was palpable, and after returning from the break on the front foot, their enterprise paid off. Howard scampered up the right wing before squaring for Davies to throw a leg towards the ball, sending skittering towards goal. Understudy ‘keeper Ben Roberts could only palm it agonisingly into the path of Morris, who had the simple task of tapping the ball home and taking Chesterfield one step closer to history. The former Rotherham striker’s understated celebration belied the importance of the goal, but if the Spireites in the Stretford End were delirious at taking the lead, they were in dreamland six minutes later. Another long ball forward was met with another clever heel-flick, this time Davies feeding strike-partner Morris, and with the 6’5” forward outmuscling the backtracking Festa, Roberts could only rush off his line to concede a penalty. Dyche, the captain, took on the responsibility for giving Chesterfield a firm foot in the semi-final and, despite having not scored for four years, drove the spot-kick straight down the middle, with the diving Roberts only able to watch it fly past.

Ecstacy soon gave way to anxiety. Four minutes later, Boro were back in the game, as Clayton Blackmore’s cross was bundled in by Ravanelli. Rather than close ranks, Chesterfield went back on the offensive. Davies, who had spent the whole game looking at home terrorising a Premier League defence, held the ball up out wide before finding Jamie Hewitt in the penalty area, who laid it back for Curtis to seek out Howard across the other side of the box. Tiptoeing away from the attentions of Festa, the #10 lashed an effort from ten yards out against the crossbar, watching as the shot bounced down and out of danger. Claims of a goal from those in blue were minimal, though subsequent replays showed the ball had crossed the line. At 3-1 up with a little over twenty minutes to go, the game could have been sewn up. As it was, Boro immediately went up the other end, with Juninho driving towards goal, and a bodycheck by Dyche saw the Premier League side awarded a penalty. Again, replays would show that referee David Elleray had made the wrong decision, with initial contact taking place outside of the area. Regardless, Craig Hignett’s effort sneaked under the body of Joe Mercer, and the tie was all square.

After a breathless second half, the game fell into a lull for the final twenty minutes of normal time. There would still be a couple of twists in the tale, however. With 100 minutes on the clock, Juninho once again scampered towards goal. Receiving the ball, Ravanelli slotted Steve Vickers in, and though his effort came crashing off the crossbar, the unlikely figure of Festa was on hand to finally give Middlesbrough the lead. Visibly deflated, it looked as though FA Cup heartache had finally caught up with the Spireites. But John Duncan and his team hadn’t come this far to surrender now. As time ticked away, Chris Beaumount looped a rangy, languid cross into the box. With no-one to meet it, the bounce of the ball outfoxed the Middelsbrough defence, and full-back Jamie Hewitt, Chesterfield born and bred, looped a header up and over the despairing reach of Roberts. In the 119th minute, the Division Two side were back on level terms. Their FA Cup dream would continue for another nine days.

In the replay at Hillsborough, the ground where Robson’s side had conceded yet another extra-time goal in the League Cup final replay to gift the trophy to Leicester City days earlier, Ravenelli and co. made short shrift of a tiring Division Two side. The Italian striker all but settled the tie just short of the hour with Boro’s second goal after Mikkel Beck had opened the scoring, before Emerson’s spectacular effort in the dying stages added a lick of gloss onto the result. Regardless, it had been a once-in-a-generation journey for Chesterfield and their fans; a remarkable cup run that continues to be talked about to this day.

Middlesbrough would eventually be relegated from the Premier League and lose their second cup final of the season, as Roberto Di Matteo’s goal after 43 seconds put Chelsea in the driving seat at Wembley. They have not reached the FA Cup final since. John Duncan would remain in charge at Saltergate until 2000, departing after a disastrous season in which the Spireites finished rock bottom of Division Two. He was outlasted by Jonathan Howard, who remained with the club until a move to Burton Albion in 2003, and Jamie Hewitt, who saw out his career in Derbyshire. Sean Dyche would be one of two players whose career received a boost thanks to their cup heroics. Chesterfield’s captain was snapped up by Bristol City just months after his semi-final goal, and would go on to play for Millwall, Watford and Northampton Town. Since retiring, he has built a reputation for having Britain’s most gravelly voice. The big winner, however, was Kevin Davies. Impressed by his speed and physicality, Premier League Southampton poached him from Division Two, and after an impressive season at The Dell, he earned a £7.5m move to Blackburn Rovers. Davies would go on to have a distinguished career in the top flight, eventually earning a cap for England in 2010.

After two decades of flitting between the newly christened Leagues One and Two, Chesterfield dropped out of the Football League in 2018 for the first time in ninety-seven years. Though currently in the midst of one of the darkest periods of their history, rarely will FA Cup semi-final weekend come round without a reminder of that incredible day in Manchester, where the impossible very nearly became a reality. Where’s a Russian linesman when you need one?

 

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