Following on from last time, Chesterfield F.C. were standing on the verge of making even more history. They had already become the first team outside the top two divisions of English football to reach the semi-final of the FA Cup. Now they were eying one more opportunity; and a place in the final at Wembley.
Blocking their way was a club with international flair. A club plying its trade in the Premier League.
Middlesbrough Football Club.
But things were not straightforward for Boro, and the spring of 1997 was going to be one of the most important periods in their history. A season that started with excitement had started to go badly wrong.
The opening day 3-3 draw with Liverpool included a treble from new signing Fabrizio Ravanelli. He had won the Champions League with Juventus, but decided to join the trend of players coming to the Premier League. For his new side, this was an incredible coup. The season before they had bought Brazilian Juninho, and now they had an Italian international striker in their ranks.
After a bright start, results didn’t go well in the autumn and they were struggling to stay in the top flight. The threat of relegation was very real. Results in March had improved after the month started with a 3-1 loss at Sheffield Wednesday. Derby County were thumped 6-1, as four wins from six games took Bryan Robson’s team within one point of Sunderland and with a game in hand. Their rivals from Wearside were fourth from bottom with a worse goal difference.
The cups had proved some relief though and on Sunday 6th April, Middlesbrough played Leicester City in the League Cup final. A 1-1 draw meant that a replay was necessary. Before that could take place, all eyes were on Old Trafford as third tier Chesterfield awaited Middlesbrough for the FA Cup semi-final. The game against Leicester was set for three days later.
Although Chesterfield were making history, their Premier League opponents were too. This was the first FA Cup semi-final in the club’s long existence. Two old traditional clubs, reaching previously unchartered waters.
Noise and colour greeted the two sides as they entered the field. The Derbyshire town of Chesterfield was already proud of its club and staff. Could they go one further and reach the final?
Those without tickets and watching at home were glued to their sets. Neutrals tuned in; was this the end of the road or would the fairy tale continue?
The first half began and Chesterfield were not intimidated or overawed. Jonathan Howard came close when Kevin Davies crossed from the left. Then with just eight minutes to the break, the first dramatic incident of the day occurred.
Already booked by referee David Elleray for kicking the ball away, Vladimir Kinder was sent off after receiving a second yellow card. Davies had latched onto a great ball from Andy Morris and he beat Kinder with his pace. The Middlesbrough man pulled Davies by the shirt and that was enough to warrant a second caution and a red card. Now the underdogs had a man advantage.
All square at the interval and the Premier League team had to reorganise and regroup. They were still the favourites to advance to the final, despite being reduced to ten men. The second half began and Howard went close again, this time firing over when Davies headed onto him. It was a big chance. But there would be more to come.
Howard was involved again in the 54th minute, bursting down the right hand side. His pass found Davies at full-stretch in the penalty area. He was able to send the ball toward goal. The Middlesbrough goalkeeper Ben Roberts got his fingertips to it but the ball came across to Andy Morris who scored perhaps his easiest ever goal. It was certainly his most important.
Incredible scenes were developing at Old Trafford. Supporters embraced each other, the noise was deafening. Chesterfield were ahead. And they weren’t going to stop there.
Morris was now causing havoc. Buoyed by his opener, the giant striker broke free with Gianluca Festa in pursuit. Morris was stronger and he held off the Italian defender, who fell to the ground in his wake. Morris rounded Roberts but the keeper took him down. It was a penalty to Chesterfield.
Six minutes after taking the lead, The Spireites had an opportunity to go further in front. Tom Curtis had scored a penalty in round five to beat Nottingham Forest, but this time it was skipper Sean Dyche stepping up to the spot. A man who always led by example, facing the biggest pressure moment of his career.
Dyche smashed the ball down the middle of the goal with Roberts diving to his left. It was 2-0 now with an hour gone against ten men. The dream was becoming reality. Within the next ten minutes, the whole match changed.
Clayton Blackmore, on his old stomping ground, broke into the area. His cross into the six yard box was met by Ravanelli first and he bundled the ball past Billy Mercer to get one back. This cup tie was delivering.
Chesterfield were not going to sit back. They attacked down the left with Davies, and the ball finally came to Howard in the six yard box. He hammered his shot with Roberts diving in vain. The ball crashed against the underside of the crossbar and bounced down. With Morris about to pounce, Festa climbed all over him and the ball broke free. Elleray then blew his whistle.
The linesman had already raised his flag before the referee stopped play and made his way to the half-way line. He was signalling a goal for Chesterfield. Had Howard’s shot bounced over the line?
Sadly for the boys from Saltergate, the linesman lowered his flag. Howard was clearly onside and Festa also fouled Morris. There was no reason Elleray to penalise Chesterfield. They were denied a goal and also a second penalty. It remains one of the most controversial moments of 90s football. Technology wasn’t available like today, but the linesman should have kept his flag up. That would have guaranteed a conversation with Elleray.
The supporters in the stadium weren’t as aware as those watching at home, with Sky’s Andy Gray giving his opinion that it was a goal. He also spotted the linesman’s reaction too. It proved to be irrelevant, the decision went in favour of the big boys from the Premier League.
It was about to get worse for Chesterfield. Juninho took the ball into Chesterfield’s box, with Dyche brushing him off. The difference in size between the two players meant that the diminutive Brazilian went down to the ground. Elleray gave the penalty. It was a soft decision and in light of Festa’s challenge on Morris moments before, it was very harsh.
Craig Hignett took responsibility. His penalty was weak but it slipped under Mercer’s body and into the goal at the Stretford End. It was 2-2 and there were still twenty minutes left. Chesterfield could field aggrieved, but now they had to try and regain their focus and keep Middlesbrough at bay.
They were able to do so and force extra time. But in the 100th minute of this epic contest, their resistance broke. Ravanelli played in Steve Vickers. His shot beat Mercer, but not the crossbar. The rebound flew back out but wasn’t cleared. Juninho tried to head home, but it bounced over his head. Festa picked up the loose ball and blasted it home past Mercer and two defenders. The script was now going as expected.
It was hard for the Chesterfield fans to not feel deflated. But they were proud of their side and urged them on. The second period of extra time arrived, they were 3-2 behind but they knew they were not dead and buried yet.
With one minute to play, Chris Beaumont had the ball on the right wing. Beaumont had been the hero in the last round against Wrexham. He swung a cross into the Middlesbrough penalty area, just keeping the ball in play.
Middlesbrough couldn’t deal with the cross and Howard couldn’t connect either. The ball rebounded toward Andy Morris. It was behind the striker, he couldn’t get there. As Morris turned he saw Jamie Hewitt running in. Hewitt got his head to the ball and it looped into the air.
Time stood still.
Sometimes a hero steps forward from the unlikeliest of places. Hewitt, born in the town and in his second spell at the club, was not the most glamorous player, but he was honest and hard-working. His service to Chesterfield could not be questioned. It was fitting that he was about to have his moment.
Ben Roberts turned and watched, rooted to the spot. The ball dropped into the net. A split-second later there was a roar and Hewitt was off celebrating, he had equalised in dramatic circumstances. It was 3-3 and the underdogs had fought back to score a third time. Manager John Duncan lost his glasses as he celebrated with his staff on the bench before barking instructions. Yet another twist in this incredible game.
Soon after, the final whistle blew and it was over. Nobody saw this coming, and the Chesterfield players celebrated together. Hewitt’s equaliser must have felt like a winning goal. They were still in the cup and would have to play again. In 1997 there were still replays for the semi-finals, if the game had been three years later, Hewitt’s leveller would have taken the tie to penalties.
The fans and players returned to Chesterfield that evening to a wonderful reception. The people of the town had lined the streets to celebrate. They applauded as the masses returned from Manchester by road. It truly was an unforgettable sight.
Middlesbrough had to lift themselves and find energy for their League Cup final replay too. For the third time in their last four games, the match went to extra time. And once again a late goal was scored, giving Leicester the cup. Robson’s team were tired and despondent.
It was taking its toll on their players. A 1-0 home loss to Sunderland the following Saturday was a huge blow. The Chesterfield replay was next at Hillsborough, the site of their League Cup defeat.
There would be no Hollywood ending to the story for the Derbyshire team from the third level of the English game. The Premier League outfit were too strong and won 3-0 to send Middlesbrough to Wembley for the second time that season.
For Chesterfield, there was no shame. Their players had performed incredibly and were so close to another scalp and more importantly an FA Cup final against Chelsea. Who knows what could have happened in a one-off game at Wembley? Naturally, they had a right to feel hard done by over the refereeing decisions made by Elleray at Old Trafford. But overall the number one emotion was pride.
Middlesbrough were relegated at the end of the season. They also felt wronged after they were deducted three points because they couldn’t field a team for a fixture at Blackburn due to injuries and illness. Those points were the difference between survival and staying up.
Chelsea lifted the FA Cup. A flying start gave them a goal in the first minute and Middlesbrough never recovered. A true rollercoaster of a season saw Middlesbrough lose two cup finals and relegation. Some of their big names wouldn’t stick around for the following season.
Sadly Chesterfield’s manager for this epic adventure, John Duncan, passed away in 2022. But he left behind the greatest moments in the club’s history which will never be forgotten.
The town of Chesterfield lived the dream in 1997 and were so close to making the impossible come true.
They also proved that it can be done.