It wasn’t until Jon Howard bumped into Martin Tyler after the match that he realised what had happened.
The Chesterfield forward had come within one wave of the linesman’s flag from entering English football folklore. But instead of wheeling off to celebrate scoring the goal that would send a third-tier side to the FA Cup final for the first time in the modern era, Howard was consigned to being a nearly man in the ultimate ‘what if’ story.
The Spireites had been on the verge of beating Premier League Middlesbrough in the 1997 FA Cup semi-final, two goals and a man up after Vladimir Kinder had been dismissed for picking up two bookings. Boro had pegged one back through Fabrizio Ravanelli, but Howard looked to have restored the two-goal cushion when his close-range shot smashed the underside of the crossbar and appeared to bounce over the line, only for referee David Elleray not to award the goal.
To the watching TV audience at home, the replays suggested Howard and his Chesterfield team-mates had suffered an injustice, just as history beckoned. Not that the striker was aware at the time.
“I didn’t realise it had crossed the line until someone came into the dressing room after the game and said it looked over,” the 50-year-old recalls. “Then outside the dressing room, I saw Martin Tyler who was there commentating for Sky and he said, ‘your shot went over the line, you know?’ and then there’s that ‘oh wow, that’s unbelievable’ feeling.”
Twenty-five years on, in an era of goal-line technology and almost-instant video replays beamed on to stadium screens, it’s hard to believe it took so long for the players to realise what had happened. Although looking back at YouTube clips of the incident now, it’s easy to see why there was some uncertainty.
“Jamie Hewitt, the right back, said he saw the assistant looking like he was giving the goal, but then Ellerary blew for something – I don’t know what he saw, some kind of foul – and that was that,” Howard continues.
“To this day, I think if we’d got Elleray across to the linesman, we might have got the goal, but I just didn’t realise it had crossed the line and the referees weren’t miked up in those days. If we’d got Elleray across, we might have got the goal, but there you go – it’s history now.”
Chesterfield were eventually pegged back and drew 3-3 after extra time, which saw them earn a replay at Hillsborough, where Middlesbrough dispatched of them 3-0.
But this is no hard-luck story. Chesterfield’s cup run may have narrowly missed out on a final chapter at Wembley, yet the 1997 vintage that went so close still hold special memories for people much further afield than the Derbyshire town.
“The gap between the teams in League One and Premier League undoubtedly is more significant today but it was significant back then too,” says midfielder Tom Curtis, who played a starring role in Chesterfield’s FA Cup odyssey.
“But I’d say we had a really good team. If we hadn’t had the cup run, I think we’d have got into the Championship and done quite well there. So it wasn’t a massive surprise that we did so well in the cup because at the beginning of the season, we knew we had some good players.
“We had a goalscoring threat with Andy Morris, Jon Howard and Kevin Davies coming through, and we had a couple of centre backs – Dychey [Sean Dyche] and Mark Williams – who were hard to play against and quite uncompromising, and had legs in midfield too. The goalkeeper, Billy Mercer, was fantastic as well, so we had a good team and were confident going into the season.”
Despite that positivity, the Spireites didn’t have much cup pedigree. In the previous 21 campaigns, they’d only made it as far as round three once and counted a fifth-round appearance in 1949-50 as their best post-war run.
Home wins against Bury and Scarborough in the opening two rounds in 1996-97 represented a significant change in fortunes, then. Although when they pulled fellow third-tier opponents, Bristol City, instead of one of the big boys next, Howard admits to feeling “a bit disappointed”.
Nevertheless, the forward bagged a brace to beat the Robins and line up an away trip to Bolton Wanderers, the runaway leaders in the league above. And being the underdogs brought out the best in Chesterfield.
“The big confidence boost during the cup run was the game at Bolton,” Curtis picks up. “There were 10 points clear at the top of the Championship and were absolutely flying.
“I remember going into the dressing room at Bolton and [manager] John Duncan settled us down with a few jokes and said ‘don’t make them angry, try not to score too early because you’ll just upset them’. We didn’t just beat them, we smashed them… that was a real seminal moment in the cup run.”
Chesterfield triumphed 3-2 at Burnden Park, with a 19-year-old Kevin Davies bagging a hat-trick. While the future England international is better known as a battering ram forward, he was used more often as a winger in his Chesterfield days, with his cup form a key reason for him earning a big money move to Southampton at the end of the season.
“Kevin was a big, strong player with bags of skill as well, he had a load of talent,” Howard remembers. “He could be quite a quiet one of the field, but he could turn a game and he could win one quite easily for you – as he demonstrated when we played Bolton.
“I can remember him on the coach on the way there, he was very focused and in the zone for that game and got the three goals that took us into the next round. You could see the talent Kevin had. He was only young and playing at League One level, so you could see he’d play higher up.”
The reward for vanquishing Bolton was a home match against East Midlands neighbours Nottingham Forest. Led by player-caretaker manager Stuart Pearce, Forest were rooted to the foot of the Premier League but had won five of their previous seven matches before arriving at Saltergate.
That was no trouble for Chesterfield, though, as they squeezed past their more illustrious rivals with a 1-0 win, courtesy of a Curtis penalty. If beating Bolton had given the players belief, the Forest victory captured the imagination of everyone else. The town became awash with Chesterfield flags hung outside shops, while people were baking cakes and queuing for tickets to savour the magic of the cup.
“That’s when people started to take a bit of notice and all the press’s eyes were on us,” Howard says. “The Forest match was the featured game on Match of the Day and I can remember talking to John Motson afterwards, which was a pretty surreal experience.”
Things were about to get even weirder. Manager Duncan and a handful of players were invited down to London to take part in The Frank Skinner Show (while another group appeared on TFI Friday), where they were treated to a night in a hotel and tickets to a nightclub that Curtis says they “never made it to”. The group also received a £1,000 appearance fee.
As the man who’d grabbed the headlines by scoring the winner against Forest, Curtis was given the microphone to do an interview with Skinner.
“It was a bit strange really,” the midfielder laughs. “The lads were crammed into a row in the audience and Frank asked a few questions, and he took the piss out of me and the rest of the lads a bit.
“There were two interviews that night, one with me and one with Eddie Izzard – it was all a bit weird and bizarre. I didn’t feel like a celebrity at all, we all felt out of place. It felt like a bit of fun and games, but we didn’t get carried away with it or give it the big one. We found it all a bit awkward and embarrassing rather than thinking we were celebrities.”
The real business for Chesterfield was a quarter-final against Wrexham, another team in the same division as them. While the tie provided a golden opportunity to reach the semis, it also brought with it an entirely new pressure not to let a once-in-a-lifetime chance pass by.
Thankfully for the Spireites, a single goal from Chris Beaumont settled a tight contest 1-0 and booked their place in the Old Trafford semi with Middlesbrough.
“The press interest and that of the people in the town was massive by this stage,” Howard explains. “When the tickets [for the semi-final] went on sale, people camped out to get one. I can remember going to the ground to watch a reserve game the night before the tickets went on sale and people were queuing around the stadium already – they were unbelievable scenes and great for the town.
“Looking back, our initial thoughts were that the semi was our cup final. But then you saw how Middlesbrough were doing in the league and were in a similar sort of position to Nottingham Forest, who we’d already beaten. Although when you looked at the Middlesbrough team sheet with the star names – Juninho, Ravanelli, Emerson – you knew it was going to be a tall order.”
The impossible appeared to be happening with an hour on the clock. Kinder had been given his marching orders towards the end of the first half and Chesterfield made the most of their man advantage, taking the lead when Morris tapped in from a few yards out. And when the same man was upended by goalkeeper Ben Roberts, it looked as though only one team would win.
Curtis wouldn’t get the chance to convert as in the game against Forest, though. Since netting that penalty, he’d missed a couple in the league, meaning he’d have to step aside for his gruff-voiced captain, Dyche – who hadn’t scored for four years – to take the responsibility instead.
“By the time of the semi-final, no one knew who the penalty taker was – apart from John [Duncan],” Curtis says. “When Andy went down for the penalty, there’s clips of John shouting ‘Dyche, Dyche, Dyche’ because he didn’t want me to take it.
“I was sort of on penalties, but only sort of – but giving it to Dyche was another masterstroke from John, getting me not to take it and letting Dychey put his foot through it instead.”
Penalty scored, thoughts inevitably turned to the final. “When we were 2-0 up, you start thinking about your suit for Wembley – would it be Armani or Marks and Spencer?” Curtis admits. “But Middlesbrough had some good players in their team and it was a good lesson for everybody that it’s not over until it’s over. We definitely had a little think about the final, but we were brought back down to earth with a bump.”
First, Ravanelli halved the deficit before Howard’s moment that wasn’t should have made it 3-1. Within minutes, the game had turned again as Craig Hignett levelled the scores up from the penalty spot to force extra time.
When Gianluca Festa gave Boro the lead in the 100th minute, Chesterfield’s race looked run. But as the clock ran down towards the final whistle, there was still one final twist.
“When we went 3-2 down, I thought ‘that’s it, that’s us done’ and you just feel totally deflated and shattered,” Howard adds. “Then we’ve flung a few up for the last few seconds of extra time to try to get the goal back and I remember Chris Beaumont on the right putting the ball in. I went to challenge for it and missed it totally as it went over my head.
“Then as I’ve landed, I’ve seen Jamie Hewitt make contact with his head. You watch the ball and think ‘this has got a chance’, then it went in and there’s mayhem after that. Jamie fell to the floor and everybody piled on top, it was an unbelievable feeling.”
There was one man missing from the celebrations, though. While his team-mates raced to Hewitt’s side, Curtis watched on from a distance.
“My abiding memory of the game was being so tired at the end of it, I was absolutely goosed,” says the midfielder. “There are clips of everybody jumping on Jamie when he scored and that image has been made into tea towels and posters by the Chesterfield lads, but I wasn’t there because I couldn’t make it – I was that knackered.”
A combination of fatigue and Middlesbrough’s improved performance put pay to any hopes of a repeat performance nine days later in the semi-final replay, with Mikkel Beck, Ravanelli and Emerson all on target in a 3-0 win.
While Chesterfield’s fairy tale fell one step short of Wembley, no other side from the third tier has come quite that close to reaching the FA Cup final in the quarter of a century since. Those Spireites heroes were far more than nearly men.