Spireites v Boro 20th anniversary: Jamie Hewitt reflects on what might have been

Chesterfield v Middlesborough 1997 FA cup semi final.
Chesterfield v Middlesborough 1997 FA cup semi final.

It may have been 20 years ago, but Jamie Hewitt remembers it as if it happened yesterday.

“We were 2-0 up, they got one back, but we were playing beyond everyone’s expectations,” he recalled. “We played some decent football. Jon Howard did brilliantly, the ball bounced down and obviously went over the line.”

For the briefest of moments, Hewitt and the majority inside Old Trafford on that April afternoon thought Chesterfield were destined for the 1997 FA Cup Final at Wembley.

John Duncan’s Spireites had climbed a mountain against the multi-million pound men of Middlesbrough, leading 2-1 when Howard picked up the ball on the six-yard line and hit an unbeatable shot against the woodwork.

Hewitt had advanced from his right-sided position to find himself at the edge of the Middlesbrough penalty area and can be seen to be encouraging the assistant referee Alan Sheffield that a goal should be given.

“I threw my arms up because I thought it was in,” said Hewitt. “I turned to the linesman, saw he’d gone up to the half way line and given the goal, but the referee hadn’t - he’d given a foul against Andy Morris, which was probably another penalty to us anyway.”

Morris had earlier put Chesterfield ahead before he was fouled in the penalty area and captain Sean Dyche tucked away the resulting spot kick. But Boro responded through Fabrizio Ravanelli.

And, with the game on a knife’s edge, Hewitt remains convinced he would have been walking out at Wembley under the towers that season if they had questioned the officials’ decision in the moment to let the goal stand.

“In today’s football the players would have probably surrounded the ref more and told him to go and speak to the linesman,” Hewitt said. “The linesman should have kept his flag up and waved it to get the referee’s attention. He kept his flag down.

“It was obvious the ball was in. Maybe I had one of the better views of it as a player and should have gone up to the linesman to tell him to put his flag up. At the time we thought ‘all right, he hasn’t given it, let’s get on with the match’.

“I think at 3-1, with 15 minutes to go, we would have won the game and got to the FA Cup final.

“If I could turn back time, that would be one of the things I’d change. I would have gone over to the linesman and told him to put his flag up, he’d given the goal.

“In the heat of the battle, our minds were to get back into shape because he hadn’t given it to try to see the game out. Maybe we should have kicked up more of a fuss. It comes into my mind when the FA Cup semi-finals come around because they show all the re-runs.”

In an incident-filled tie, which began when Boro were reduced to ten men after Vladimir Kinder was shown a second yellow, the drama was far from done. A Craig Hignett penalty meant extra-time in which Gianluca Festa put the Premier League side ahead for the first time.

With legs tiring, there would be one last twist, and it came from the head of hometown boy Hewitt with a minute left on the clock.

“I didn’t score too many goals in my career,” he said. “I just remember being up there and it was a last-gasp thing. We’d gone 3-2 down, it was an epic semi-final, it was probably one of the best ones ever. How Chris Beaumont got that cross in from there I’ll never know.

“The Old Trafford pitch is not the smallest and he whipped this ball into the danger area that was amazing. It skidded off the turf and I saw it all the way. I flung myself at the ball and the momentum took me past their defender and I caught it as well as I could have hoped.

“As soon as I headed it, I thought ‘that’s got a chance’ it was one of those that went in slow motion. It looped over Ben Roberts’ head and it was a amazing. Last minute goals are always good goals but to get one like that on that stage was very pleasing.”

The action had everyone gripped from the players on the pitch and the fans in the crowd to the people at home watching on TV and the stewards behind the Boro goal where Hewitt levelled the match once more.

Duncan lost his glasses and Hewitt kept his shirt, as well as that of team-mate Tom Curtis.

“I was just lost to it the moment the ball hit the back of the net,” said Hewitt, who flung his arms up in delight. I’ve taken some stick over the years for the celebration and I’m sure I’ll take some more.

“It was just euphoria.

“It was a great semi-final. Sometimes in a match like that some of them, the build-up is better than the actual game but this wasn’t. It was David versus Goliath and probably the best there has ever been.”

Hewitt holds the FA Cup in high-regard, stemming from the days when he would watch football on the TV. The finals, he recalls, were all-day affairs. And, though never been back to Old Trafford, Hewitt said the match was one of the highlights of his career.

“For a third tier side like Chesterfield to be in the semi-final at Old Trafford was amazing,” said Hewitt, who was a consistent figure in the Spireites cup run that year, which saw them overcome Bolton Wanderers, Nottingham Forest and Wrexham to get to the last four.

Yet still there is a feeling of injustice.

“I was happy with the cup run,” said Hewitt. “As time goes by and it gets further on down the line you just think ‘what if’. If the linesman had kept his flag up, if the ref hadn’t have made a strange decision in the penalty area would we have got to a FA Cup final?

“It probably rankles that little bit more now than it did at the time and a little more as time goes by.”

Elleray was in charge of the fifth round tie at Saltergate when Mark Crossley, who would go on to play and coach at Chesterfield in the years that followed, brought down Howard in the penalty area and Curtis sent the North Derbyshire side through.

“I’ve never crossed paths with David Elleray since Old Trafford,” said Hewitt. “I believe when he does dinner speaking he always asks if there’s anyone in from Chesterfield because I don’t think he’d be the most popular person if he ever came to the town.

“It was a strange minute in his referee career that one.”