Spireites v Boro 20th anniversary: Match was career highlight for Paul Holland

It was, he says, simply the best day of his career in football.
Chesterfield v Middlesborough 1997 FA cup semi final.Chesterfield v Middlesborough 1997 FA cup semi final.
Chesterfield v Middlesborough 1997 FA cup semi final.

And, for tenacious midfielder Paul Holland, that career stretched over more than 350 first team appearances — over 130 at Chesterfield - as well as managing clubs in the Football League and non league.

Holland can still vividly remember the day Chesterfield took on Middlesbrough in the most dramatic FA Cup semi-final ever.

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And for the popular player, who was also an England under-21 international, the cup tie was extra special.

For Holland is a lifelong Manchester United fan, so to play at Old Trafford was a dream come true. And as a youngster, his hero was then United captain Bryan Robson – manager of the star-studded Middlesbrough side.

“It was a special day that everyone goes back to and nobody will ever forget. It was the highlight of my career without a doubt,” he said.

“The whole occasion, from travelling up to Manchester on the Friday (two days before the semi-final) through the game and travelling back to Chesterfield was something I will never forget.

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“When I look back I wouldn’t want to change anything about the day. It was an occasion that everyone associated with the club will always remember.

The Chesterfield players wanted to play Middlesbrough when the draw for the semi-final was made because of their three star foreign names _ Italian international striker Fabrizio Ravaneilli and Brazilian stars Juninho and Emerson _ at a time when the Premier League was still mainly made up of UK players.

“Middlesbrough stood out for having those special internationals but they also had some good English players too, such as Craig Hignett, Robbie Mustoe and Steve Vickers,” said Holland, who swapped shirts with Juninho after the replay. They were all very complimentary about us after the game.”

Holland lined up against Emerson in midfield, but joked: “The closest I got to him was the flick of his hair (Emerson had long curly black locks) into my face.”

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Reflecting on the match itself, he said: “(Vladimir) Kinder got sent off in the first half. We went in at half-time thinking oh my god, it’s 0-0 and they are down to 10 men. We have got a sniff, a chance of perhaps getting something out of the game.

“I still don’t think we really believed it at that stage. We went 1-0 up and probably the worst thing was then going 2-0 up in a strange way.

“Perhaps we relaxed for a minute because they scored straight after.

“But if we could go back and rewrite how we would have wanted the game to go and get a draw, then it couldn’t have gone any better. The whole game fitted the occasion for us.”

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The turning point of the semi-final came with the score at 2-1. Howard’s shot hit the underside of the bar and bounced over the line. Linesman Alan Sheffield signalled a goal, but referee David Elleray over-ruled him _ and also dismissed Chesterfield claims for a penalty as Morris was clearly bundled over as he tried to score from the rebound.

Holland later called the goal that never was one of the top three worst refereeing decisions of all time.

“We didn’t realise the ball had gone over the line by so much. At the time we got caught up in the play, but if it had been a normal league game we would have gone and spoken to the referee and the linesman.

“I don’t think any of us knew how far the ball had gone over the line until after the game when we were having a drink in the players’ lounge and saw it on TV.

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“It was a farce of a couple of decisions. It looks like the linesman flagged for the goal and the referee thought he was flagging for a free kick. It is laughable

“I suppose now you can look back and say all that controversy added even more to the occasion as people talk about the goal that never was.

To rub salt in Chesterfield’s wounds Boro equalised from a penalty. The Premier League side took the lead, only for Jamie Hewitt to head his memorable 120th-minute equaliser to force a replay.

“Everyone remembers John Duncan losing his glasses when we scored,” said Holland. “He was trying to get the message across to get everyone back into their shape. I was at Chesterfield for four years and that was John’s favourite saying - to get back into your shape.

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“It was special for John and his assistant Kev (Randall). They were great servants of Chesterfield Football Club and it is fitting that they were there at that time.”

Holland recalled: “The unity and spirit we had at that time was tremendous. I don’t think we were necessarily a good footballing team, but as a group of players, not just an 11, we had spirit.

“If you were in the trenches and wanted someone beside you, they were the players. Everybody was strong willed and in it for the team rather than themselves, which it isn’t always the case at a club.

“We had something special there.”