There is one thing that the majority of football fans love, it’s an underdog story. Back in the 1996/97 season one of the best examples of that happened. A lot of people know the town of Chesterfield, because it’s famous for its church with a crooked spire. During that season, the Derbyshire market town became well-known because of the exploits of its football team.
Formed in 1867, the club is one of the oldest in the country. And in 1992, the fourth division side came close to a famous giant-killing over Liverpool in the League Cup.
At one point The Spireites led at Anfield 3-0 and 4-2 before Liverpool came back to level the game. The 4-4 draw in the first leg of the tie was a real shock at the time. It was unheard of for this to happen to a club Liverpool’s status. The Premier League side composed themselves and despite going behind again, won the second leg 4-1.
Promotion from the fourth tier came in 1995 with a play-off final win over Bury at Wembley. The real drama came in the semi-finals when they eliminated fierce rivals Mansfield Town in extra-time. After a 1-1 first leg, The Stags were twice ahead in the second match at Chesterfield’s old Saltergate ground. But after two red cards for the away side, The Spireites pushed on to get to the final, winning 6-3 on aggregate.
An exciting season followed and Chesterfield went into the last game with an outside opportunity of a play-off place. But when results went against them, a 1-0 win over Notts County was in vain. But they had established themselves in their new surroundings with a side made-up of experience and youth. The future looked bright.
This was epitomised by Kevin Davies. The youngster played wide on the right, his skills and pace meant that he stood out for his team. He also attracted attention from tough defenders every week.
The 1996/97 campaign began with The Spireites chasing a play-off place. With the dark nights and the cold weather came the first round of the FA Cup, a competition that Chesterfield had struggled in for many years. A home draw was ideal, it was old Wembley foes Bury who were sent to Saltergate.
A 1-0 win for The Spireites, courtesy of defender Mark Williams sent Chesterfield into the hat for the second round. Three weeks later Scarborough arrived in Derbyshire for the next stage of the famous old competition. Young starlet Davies set the ball rolling, with Tony Lormor finishing the job. A 2-0 victory meant Chesterfield had the opportunity of a glamour tie in round three.
It wasn’t to be. They were paired with Bristol City, who were in the same division. It did however offer both clubs the chance to progress further. It’s safe to say that cup fever had yet to grip the town but Chesterfield beat their opponents by two goals to nil. Jonathan Howard bagged a brace and The Spireites advanced.
The draw for the fourth round wasn’t kind to the Derbyshire club. An away fixture at Bolton Wanderers looked like the end of the road for Chesterfield. Bolton were looking to bounce back to the Premier League after their relegation in 1996, and their Burnden Park ground wouldn’t be full to the brim either.
On that cold Tuesday winter night, one player stepped up and made people take notice as the two clubs met in Lancashire. Kevin Davies scored three times as The Spireites recorded a 3-2 victory. This was a real upset with Bolton on the verge of returning to the top tier. Davies had already attracted interest from teams higher up in the league pyramid; his performance in front of just shy of 11,000 supporters now increased the attention.
The fans and locals were starting to get excited. Chesterfield didn’t normally get this far in the FA Cup. Their enthusiasm grew when another home tie paired them with Nottingham Forest, a Premier League side fighting to stay up and under the caretaker management of Stuart Pearce.
A crowd of just under 9,000 packed into the old football ground for a tense cup tie. A goalless first-half saw only half chances. It didn’t take long for the game to come to life after the interval.
Howard burst through and had only Forest’s keeper Mark Crossley to beat. He tried to go round the goalie but Crossley clipped him and Howard went down. Referee David Elleray gave the penalty and also showed Crossley the red card. Alan Fettis came on to play in goal, but the Premier League side were down to ten men and facing a penalty.
Midfielder Tom Curtis stepped up and scored. It was the only goal of the game. Forest tried to grab an equaliser but Chesterfield defended with everything. They also had chances on the counter-attack but the famous win was confirmed and the home fans invaded the pitch. Chesterfield were in dreamland, the FA Cup quarter-finals were next.
Manager John Duncan could not have picked a better draw for the sixth round. Again at home, Chesterfield were paired with Wrexham who were also having a great run. The Welsh club had beaten Chesterfield in the league already, and also left Saltergate with a point after a 0-0 draw early in 1997. For the neutral there was the exciting prospect of a team from the third tier in the semi-finals.
Before the Wrexham match, a standard home game in the league against Plymouth Argyle would have major repercussions for Chesterfield. In the dying moments of the match, with The Pilgrims down to ten men and clinging onto a 2-1 lead, a mass brawl broke out between the two teams in the away penalty area.
This was not just pushing and shoving. When everything calmed down, each side received two red cards. Darren Carr and Kevin Davies were now suspended for the Wrexham cup game. This was a massive blow for the club but neither player could argue. The local police were called to investigate before dropping the matter.
The cup tie was played on a Sunday with the attendance just short of the Forest game. There was a nervous atmosphere; Chesterfield were favourites to progress and the tension was getting to everyone. One moment would change everything.
A long ball over the top of the Wrexham defence caused hesitation and with away keeper Andy Marriott off of his line, Chesterfield’s Chris Beaumont was able to lift the ball over the goalie and into the empty net. The scenes were incredible. Wrexham battled hard but couldn’t find a leveller. Chesterfield were into the semi-finals. They had made history.
The day before this historic moment, Premier League sides Derby County and Middlesbrough met at the Baseball Ground in the same competition. Goals by Brazilian Juninho and Italian striker Fabrizio Ravanelli sent Bryan Robson’s men into the semi-finals. There was not going to be an all Derbyshire affair in the last four.
Middlesbrough were a mix of glamour and hard working professionals. For some reason they were having a nightmare of a league campaign and were staring relegation in the face. In the two domestic cups though, they were blossoming. Four days on from beating Derby, they beat Stockport 2-1 on aggregate to reach the League Cup final.
The League Cup final came on the first Sunday of April. A 1-1 draw with Leicester meant a replay at Hillsborough, which would be played the Wednesday after the FA Cup semi-final. Middlesbrough’s games were coming thick and fast. They didn’t need any more fixtures.
Old Trafford was the neutral venue for the Chesterfield versus Middlesbrough clash and what became one of the most dramatic FA Cup ties of the 1990s. More than 49,000 fans made their way to the famous stadium, the old stomping ground of Boro’s manager Bryan Robson.
Could the team from the third tier of English football reach the FA Cup final?