Football: FA Cup semi-finals: Chesterfield set sail against tide of history

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The Independent Online
Stan Ternent, Bury's manager, was undertaking an interview after a shower. "How we lost to Chesterfield is a mystery," he said in January, his disappointment as naked as his body. "I'll show you the video. We played them off the park."

Strong, vigorous FA Cup runs often have insubstantial roots. Middlesbrough were losing to non-League Hednesford at one stage this season while Chesterfield, if Ternent's testimony can be trusted, were fortunate to survive the third round. Subsequent success can erase a lot of earlier angst, shocks can obliterate a well of achievement.

Wimbledon, Chelsea and Middlesbrough have upset the real leviathans in English football this season but they will be wholly overshadowed if Chesterfield reach the FA Cup final tomorrow and become the first team from either the old Third Division or the current Second to get there. Cup glory, apart for the very few, is an ephemeral thing.

Not that Chesterfield would know. Give or take the odd goalkeeper, renown has bypassed them with depressing regularity considering that they are the fourth-oldest club in the League. They have never got to the top division and the furthest they had been in the FA Cup before was the fifth round in 1933, 1938 and 1950. It is not so much unusual territory that they will be exploring when they face Middlesbrough at Old Trafford tomorrow as another planet.

Nor does history favour them, as six Third Division teams have reached the semi-finals before and none has reached Wembley. Add such exotic figures in the opposition as Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli to those statistics and a Chesterfield win tomorrow would be the greatest FA Cup shock of all time.

"Our Cup record is dismal," Sean Dyche, the Chesterfield captain, agreed, "but we can make up for all those disappointments. The thing about the Cup is that it is only over 90 minutes. Just because you are playing a Premiership team it does not mean they are naturally going to win. The pressure is on them."

Certainly, it will be exerted to nullify Juninho and Chesterfield could hardly have asked for a better template than Leicester's performance in the Coca-Cola Cup final last Sunday. Pontus Kaamark never left the Brazilian's shoulder and his impact was negligible.

Indeed the fear of failure might be as large a hindrance to Middlesbrough as their experience is an asset. Lose to Chesterfield and who knows what condition the players will be in when they meet Leicester in the Coca- Cola Cup final replay on Wednesday? This week will define Boro's season and it is never a comfortable prospect knowing so much is at stake.

Nigel Pearson, an influence of calm at the back, could soothe any sign of nerves but he is likely to be missing with an ankle injury. Compare that with Chesterfield who could afford to rest a good proportion of their team when they met Watford on Tuesday. If ever a club of their status is going to reach Wembley, tomorrow is the time.

Chelsea, who meet Wimbledon at Highbury, were carrying the swagger of potential Cup winners when they defeated Liverpool with an extraordinary comeback in the fourth round. Yet their League form - three successive defeats - is dire and the ongoing sniping between the player-manager, Ruud Gullit, and striker Gianluca Vialli can hardly have helped team bonding.

Indeed, if a side looked to be splitting into into disparate and talented parts it was Chelsea when they disintegrated against Coventry in midweek. "We're going into the semi-final on a bad run," Steve Clarke, their defender, said. "With the players we've got the performances have not been good enough."

Neither have Wimbledon's although their outward impression of relentless commitment could have been hiding mental recharging in time for tomorrow. Since Leicester knocked them out of the Coca-Cola Cup a match before Wembley their performances in the Premiership have lacked something and their last win was on 23 February.

That was at Highbury and if Wimbledon could choose a place to play the semi-final, Arsenal's home would probably be it as they have not lost in the League there since their FA Cup-winning season of 1988. Pertinently, their one meeting this season with tomorrow's opponents ended in a 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge.

Much will depend on how successful Wimbledon are at harnessing Gianfranco Zola. Suppress him and they will be half-way to Wembley, let him free and the season of much promise will come to nothing.

In the year of the underdog the natural outcome tomorrow would be a Chesterfield- Wimbledon final. Logic dictates otherwise, however, although both semi- finals seem ripe for replays. How the Premier League will sort out the consequent fixture chaos without extending the season is anyone's guess.

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