Turning Dreams Into Reality - 1996/97 revisited...

There was a time nearly 25 years ago when County were the darlings of the national media, we had games nationally televised on terrestrial television, our captain was interviewed on breakfast television, we won promotion and made a semi final of a major cup competition for the first time ever. On our journey to the last four County knocked out three Premier League sides, two of those after a replay, beat another one away from home, knocked out a Championship side and scored 20 goals along the way.

Certainly, a semi final appearance was unexpected to say the least but the way the season itself played out; 67 games, promotion and prolonged cup success in multiple competitions, was definitely unexpected. The stuff of one’s wildest fantasies (well, maybe not wildest). Fortunately, for those of you too young to remember or you just fancy reminiscing with a beer or two, fellow TSBW contributor, Dave Espley, chronicled our wonderful season in his book Saturday Night and Thursday Morning . Definitely worth a read.

In the mid-90s, County were an above average Second Division side (today’s League One). The euphoria of the Danny Bergara era; promotion, play offs and Wembley games, had evaporated just over a season previous as he was sacked after an unsavoury incident with the Chairman and with County floundering in mid-table Bergara’s assistant, Dave Jones, took up the reins. Jones’ first full season, 1995/96, had brought a League record number of away wins, but too much inconsistency at home meant County missed out on the play offs on the final day.

So on to 1996/97, the beginning of the season brought a shiny new kit, not any ordinary shiny new kit, one made by Adidas, no less. The usual big-brand hegemony enjoyed by the top division was relaxed for the first time and while big brands making kits for lower division teams is the norm nowadays, a quarter of a century ago it was big news. However, it wasn’t all good news on the style front. For some reason, and I haven’t ever found out why, someone who was probably paid a fortune came up with the idea to design a completely new badge. I am sure we’ve all seen it, but for those of you who have successfully blocked it from your memory, I’ll recap. It was the love-child of a Rangers and QPR badge, designed by a pissed eight year old on their dinner break. It was horrific. Those of you who bemoaned our latest badge change should cast your mind back to 1996 and be thankful we aren’t wearing that monstrosity on our chests any longer. 

But back to matters on the pitch, County toured Portugal in pre-season and brought back with them a new signing from Second Division side, Estoril, the name of Luis Cavaco would be synonymous with County’s triumphant 1996/97 season. That season also marked the start of another glorious County career, Kevin Cooper, a mid-season loanee from Derby County, scored on his debut at home to Crewe Alexandra in March.
For County confidence of going one better in the table was high (I took advantage of what I thought was a generous 25-1 price for County to bag the League title), but the mesmerising League Cup run nearly didn’t happen. The first round tie against Chesterfield was right in the middle of a dreadful start to the season; just one goal and two points was a sorry return from the first six games and Jones’ job was by no means safe as rumours of his sacking circulated in the week running up to a home game against Plymouth Argyle. The County faithful were rewarded for their patience, however, as Jim Gannon scored twice in the opening ten minutes as we stormed to an eventual 3-1 win. Now the season was officially underway.

County wrapped up a 4-2 aggregate win over their neighbours from Derbyshire in the first round. Andy Mutch scored a brace in the home leg, the second of which owed a lot to the Chesterfield goalkeeper, Billy Mercer spilling a routine header into his goal. County also saw Matty Bound sent off late on for a clumsy last-man challenge which gifted the visitors their goal via the penalty spot. 
County were made to sweat a little in the second leg as Chesterfield levelled the aggregate score early in the second half, certainly a time to worry given our wretched League form. Never fear though, as Paul Ware put us back in front with a quarter of an hour left, the goal, a screamer into the bottom corner from well outside the area, was worthy of winning the final (did he ever score a tap-in?!). With just a few minutes left Billy Mercer was on hand again to seal the tie in County’s favour as he allowed Mutch’s near post header to find its way in. 4-2, tie over. The Chesterfield custodian must have been glad to see the back of the League Cup that season.

As a side note, neatly sandwiched in between the two games against our second round opponents, Sheffield United, was an away fixture at York City. County won 2-1 but that’s insignificant, what is memorable about the game is that it is still the undisputed holder of The Most Hungover I’ve Ever Been at a Game award (a very fuzzy trip to the 2007 Estonia/England game in Tallinn runs it close though!). I spent the game sweating profusely and clinging on to a barrier for fear of collapsing. I’m not actually sure how I managed to get to York or get back home!

Sheffield United, a team who hammered County 5-1 at Edgeley Park (6-1 on aggregate) in the same competition just two seasons earlier, were firmly entrenched in the First Division. A big club, sleeping giant etc, one who would end up narrowly missing promotion to the Premier League after losing in the play off final to Crystal Palace. One who, given our recent meetings, should easily be able to dispatch a team like County.
What happened over the next 180 minutes perfectly illustrated that County just didn’t give a toss about who they were playing, they had immense confidence in their ability to beat anyone. The early-season misfire was behind them and it allowed the confidence to blossom into the memorable season this became.
The first leg at Edgeley Park was just the starter before the sumptuous main course at Bramall Lane a week later. Mike Flynn stooped unchallenged to nod in a Kieron Durkan corner just before the half-hour. Durkan was the provider again just before half time as Tom Bennett side-footed home his cross from close range. Easy. Remember this was a team who managed just one point from the first six games, amazing what a couple of wins can do for team morale, isn’t it?!
The scoring wasn’t over as former Manchester City defender, Michel Vonk headed in a free kick just a few minutes into the second half. I say ‘headed in’, but as I’m someone like Vonk, who is over-blessed in the hooter department, I would hazard a good guess that his nose would probably have taken the credit for the goal. Such was County’s dominance that it probably should have been 3 or 4-1, but let’s not get too greedy, bedsides we had the second leg to play yet.

You would be hard-pressed to find a better half of football, away from home against a team from the division above, than the one County produced in the second leg. This was in the old days before the internet, before Flashscore and before digital radio; your dear writer lived in Stalybridge at the time so had to rely on the odd update from GMR and Teletext for the scores. I swear every time I refreshed the page the score had changed.
Jim Gannon stretched to head home a Chris Marsden freekick just before the half-hour mark and just five minutes later it was 2-0 (4-1 on aggregate after just 120 minutes of football, folks). The second goal was peak 90s Alun Armstrong; blonde centre-parting, long-sleeved County shirt and wearing Adidas Predators. He produced a delightful piece of awareness and composure up there with any strike you see at the elite level. John Jeffers chased down a ball which had evaded a United defender and hooked a low cross in towards Armstrong, he dummied the defender who slid across him, took a touch of the ball and neatly side-footed home. Majestic.
Now scoring twice in the opening half an hour seemed beyond comprehension, but 90 seconds later things got even more surreal; a Brett Angell flick on from a Lee Todd cross, a bit of penalty area pinball, Armstrong had a shot blocked as did Tom Bennett, the ball came straight back to Bennett and he gleefully belted the ball past the hapless United goalkeeper from the edge of the area. 3-0 (5-1). Bonkers. Dave Espley described that 10 minutes of madness thus…

“...It may be the breathless emotion, it may be the combination of nerves and adrenaline or it may be the fact that I’m a complete and utter mard arse, but I find myself gulping for air and frantically blinking back tears. That’s the way football gets to you…”

Make that four goals in nine minutes as United scored almost from the kick off to reduce the deficit. Not to worry though as the second half was a much more calm affair as a well-beaten United are content to see out the game. County did add another two goals, courtesy of Angell and Armstrong and we even helped the hosts score as Mike Flynn’s mistake allowed Petr Kachuro to nip in and bag their second goal. So, 7-3 on aggregate, it was quietly one of County’s greatest ever victories and an away tie at a Blackburn Rovers side who had won the Premier League a little over two seasons previous was the prize for such a pummeling victory.

Blackburn may have recently been crowned Premier League champions and had represented the nation in the Champions League but they were quite far removed from the ‘Sutton and Shearer’ years and on a downward spiral. However, let’s not dampen the achievement of County’s success. Rovers were a Premier League side, were at home and we were still underdogs. Whichever way you slice it, the 1-0 win was a big upset and as the Sheffield United tie, it could and probably should have been more one-sided.
I don’t remember why, I hope it wasn’t out of choice, but I was sat on the front row at Ewood Park and apart from getting a little damp over the course of the evening, I had a perfect view of the Tim Flowers/Tim Sherwood own goal. What transpired after the goal was a strange game in which County seemed to effortlessly dominate against a team low on confidence.
I also had a great view of the continental-style flare display towards the end of the game. A fairly common occurrence these days, but it was very novel back in 1996 and helped stoke the carnival atmosphere among the County faithful. The iconic night was marked in County folklore by the appearance of a one-off shirt. The Romania-style template was worn due to the obvious clash between the blue and white worn by both teams. The photograph of County captain Flynn, in celebratory pose, bare-chested, shirt in hand, is now one of the most famous modern-day County images. Round four awaited. 

This time a trip to the capital was the prize and a tie against West Ham United at Upton Park. Playing away lowers the chance of a County win and also the attention of the nation’s media, I like many others suspected our cup run would probably end at this point. The famous replay win, like the cup run itself, may never have happened as County started the game rather nervously and conceded a 12th minute goal, scored by Romanian international Florin Răducioiu; a quite easy finish after the County defence was carved open. The score could very well have gotten out of hand (remember Burnley away from the same season?), but as is usually the way, the longer it stayed 1-0 the more confident the underdog became. County’s equaliser, scored by Luis Cavaco, was the result of a surging solo waltz through the Hammers’ defence, but the drop of the shoulder to wrong-foot the last defender was key and reminiscent of Armstrong at Sheffield United in round two. In the end, County earned their chance of another 90 minutes against their Premier League opponents and this time the Sky cameras would be in town.

As seemed to be the norm for County’s League Cup games that season, it was raining. Not just normal rain, mind, actual sideways biblical rain. Again I was near the front of the Cheadle End for this one (my mate didn’t have a season ticket back then so I gave up my usual seat in the dry confines of upper tier three and sat with him, it just happened to be somewhere close enough to the front to be drenched before half time). The conditions, barely playable, would have a big effect on the game, that said, County certainly didn’t let it affect them and even though Julian Dicks opened the scoring with a thumping header at the Cheadle End, we didn’t look to be in much danger of losing such was the spirit and belief of our play.
The equaliser, less than a minute after the opener, is probably the most famous goal ever scored at EP, with possibly only Paul Cook’s against Manchester City in 1997 coming close. Take a moment to think about that. With the rain pouring off the Vernon Stand roof, Flynn’s long throw was headed up and back to him, he headed it back from whence it came, Armstrong flicked it over his head and Ian Dowie twisted and turned like a majestic young salmon, into a position an Olympic gymnast would struggle to achieve, and buried it past his own goalkeeper. Glorious stuff. The very fact the video pops up on social media now and again all these years later is testament to just how huge a piece of comedy gold it was. Just a few minutes later County lead for the first time in the whole tie as Bennett’s floated cross was met by Angell, his own thumping header gave Luděk Mikloško absolutely no chance. 2-1 and deservedly so.
The second half was fairly even, both sides had a couple of half-chances, but County looked to be the more confident of the two teams the longer the game went on and the pitch, cutting up quite badly in places well before the end of the game, didn’t help either side.
When the final whistle went the fans flooded (pun!) on to the pitch, my vantage point seemed to be a bad choice before the game, but afterwards, it meant that I didn’t need much of an invitation to join my fellow fans in celebration on the EP mud bath. I was over the perimeter fence and trying my best not to end up on my arse; Brett Angell was being mobbed to my left while further up the pitch on the centre spot a man was simply stood there, arms outstretched, with an elated smile on his face. The smell of freshly ploughed, muddy, recently fertilised grass still remains with me to this day, so too does the sheer brightness of the floodlit Edgeley Park pitch from close up.
The pitch would never be quite the same again for the rest of the season and played its part in a few postponements and subsequent fixture backlog in the new year, and I contributed to that. Sorry. The West Ham replay was added to the list of County cup upsets; Two Premier League sides, so far, one from the division above and every victory even more iconic than the last.

The quarter final, the last eight, the high-water mark of County’s previous cup forays. This time the visitors were Southampton, Premier League side number two to visit EP within a matter of months and as was by now a regular event, the Sky TV cameras would once again broadcast little old County into houses and pubs across the country.
County started easily the better of the two sides but didn’t make any of their few half-chances count, so when Southampton took the lead via an Egil Østenstad goal on the counter it probably wasn’t too much of a surprise. As we all know this is what happens when you don’t turn your superiority into goals. Most teams would have capitulated, having been the better side and conceded on the break is sometimes too much to bear, especially against quality opposition. County could have played out the game, safe in the knowledge that they gave it their best shot, not ‘96/97 County, as the Angell/Armstrong partnership combined again to give County a deserved equaliser nine minutes later. Armstrong’s neat, composed finish was a fine effort.
By now you will have noticed that County’s League Cup goals came along together like buses, well this tie was no different. Just a minute after the equaliser came Cavaco’s deft diving header from Chris Marsden’s cross; the Cheadle End, with barely a spare seat to be found, erupted, bodies everywhere, pandemonium. This was Dave’s account of the celebrations…

“...you thought what I described at Sheffield represented mayhem? The last minute goal at Millwall? The winner at Blackburn? Equaliser at West Ham? Tea parties, the lot of them - this is mayhem. I am surrounded by a cacophony of shrieking, roaring, bellowing, yelling, clapping, screaming, embracing, cheering humanity…”

Predictably the second half was set in a pattern of County on the back foot and trying to defend their lead, no surprise given that we were 45 minutes from the last four of a major cup competition. Slowly the Southampton players showed their class and their equaliser may not necessarily have been deserved but it certainly was on the cards for a large portion of the second half as Østenstad scored his second with just seven minutes left. The shot itself, adding to the nauseating agony, seemed to squirm around in the sodden, muddy Railway End goalmouth and take an age to creep over the line. The sickening feeling I experienced at that point, literally minutes from the semi final, was horrible. 
A replay looked most likely and with the fixture pile-up (look, I apologised for that earlier!), the long midweek trip to a Premier League side and more important priorities, it seemed as though nearly every County fan was resigned to the fact that our cup run, fun while it lasted, was over. However, there was one last Saints attack as the ball found its way to Matt Le Tissier, all on his own on the edge of the area. Paul Jones in the County goal rushed out to close the angle, but it was too late, Le Tissier chipped the ball over him and in that instant County’s cup run flashed before their eyes….Ware at Chesterfield, Armstrong at Bramall Lane, the flares at Blackburn and Dowie’s own goal….football can be so cruel. Just as I held my breath, Mike Flynn, who seemed to fly out of nowhere, raced across the goal and headed off the line. A heroic piece of athleticism from County’s skipper and a collective cheer of joy and relief exploded around EP. So, a replay at The Dell was the next chapter after all, but not the final one.

Just like the first game at Edgeley Park, County had to do things the hard way after conceding an early goal. This time a nonchalant turn-control-shot from Le Tissier put the home side ahead. Yet again though County just refused to be beaten though, one goal down, away from home with a semi final place to be won. We had chances, albeit of the half variety, as Flynn and Armstrong forced Dave Beasant into a couple of routine saves and the goalscorer, Le Tissier, cleared Armstrong’s shot off the line early in the second half. We’re much more used to seeing him at the other end of the pitch and he obliged by hammering a 30-yard freekick towards the top corner but Paul Jones fingertips saved County once again.
The tension was excruciating, a goal was coming, at either end, but you got the feeling it might not happen until it actually did. Armstrong, again, playing superbly, found the ball heading his way after Cavaco was tackled on the edge of the area, he either dummied or failed to touch it, either way, the ball carried through to Angell and with a simple finish, he drew County level. Sheer mayhem. Even if we’d lost at that point, it wouldn’t have mattered, we’d given another Premier League team one hell of a game on their own ground, again. But as is blindingly apparent this County team was different; the mental toughness and verve which ran through Jones’ squad was something else and despite more Southampton pressure County held firm.
The prospect of another half an hour of gut-churning nerves was a distinct possibility, but out of nowhere, following an Mutch-for-Angell substitution about half a minute earlier, a header fell at a nice height for Tony Dinning in midfield to half-volley over the Southampton defence. The ball dropped neatly into Armstrong’s path and he was away, one on one with Beasant, he hit his shot at him but it was powerful enough to sneak underneath, time stood still as we waited for the onrushing Mutch to connect and tap it in, it seemed to take about ten minutes, but he got there and, fresh from his warm-up, gleefully poached Armstrong’s goal. We did it, we were ahead against a Premier League team once again. “They’ve scored! Unbelievable!” screamed the Sky commentator, as the surreal realisation of the fact that we’re on our way to the League Cup semi final thundered into our minds.

Dave, again….

“...The goal celebrations just get better and better, as the goals themselves get more and more important. Crammed together in a hot, noisy, old wooden stand, the fans leap up, in a single surging mass of humanity: screaming, yelling, crying and clapping…”

The jubilant voices of the few hundred County fans can be heard echoing throughout the ground as the time ticked away, County saw out a late surge of Saints pressure and we were through. The feeling in the immediate aftermath was one of confusion, of disbelief. The players posed for the cameras on the pitch but they too seemed a little bewildered. Was this real life?
You bet your arse it was and it was a bleary-eyed Mike Flynn whose interview greeted many a County fan the morning after on breakfast television. To further cement the fact that we weren’t all going to wake up in the near future, with just the annoying shrill of the alarm clock for company, local editions of the red tops ran front-page headlines which read “Shockport” and “County Bounty” accompanied by photos of the jubilant County team.

Ticket price hikes, and bad weather notwithstanding, Premier League side number four, Middlesbrough, eventually made the trip to EP for the semi final first leg, and this time we were going to be broadcast to the nation, free-to-air, for everyone who wanted to watch Dave Jones’ mighty County, could do if they so wished.
The aforementioned controversies were bad enough, but the referee selected for the game was our old mate from the 1994 play off final, David Elleray. Rumour has it he had no idea why he received so much stick from the County faithful.
A packed EP and a barely playable pitch greeted the teams and at that moment many fans who were watching the team in the 1970s and 80s will no doubt have been proud to see their team now the focus of the nation playing for a place in the final. I felt more than a little emotional, I can tell you.
The game itself wasn’t a classic and Middlesbrough, despite struggling against relegation, were by far the better side. It can be argued that County, with an impending promotion on their minds, had more important priorities, as arrogant as that sounds when you’re in the last four of a competition!
County played their part though, as they had done all through the competition against much larger opponents, but it was ‘Boro who scored first; a ball over the top saw Mikkel Beck on hand to finish easily. The goal sparked some unsavoury scenes as a handful ‘Boro fans spilled on to the pitch from the Railway End and some interlopers in the Cheadle End were given an uneasy reception before order was restored. Not to be outdone, a few County fans ran on from the Cheadle End and one confronted Elleray, whether he engaged him in a discussion about the goal (which had a little hint of offside about it) or whether to remind him that he completely fell for Burnley’s shithousery three years earlier, is anyone’s guess.
The second goal, and the one which left most in no doubt who would be facing Leicester City in the final, was scored just five minutes after the first. Flynn’s miscue allowed ‘Boro to pour forward and after Jones’ initial save Fabrizio Ravanelli scrambled in the rebound. It wasn’t supposed to end like this, the sight of thousands of joyful away fans celebrating what should have been our place in the final. As I joined the hordes outside the ground after the game my usual route home took me past the Railway End, I remember a rather rotund ‘Boro fan gleefully shouting “I don’t give a shit, we’re going to Wembley!” upon hearing Ken Boxshall announcing County’s next home game. Dick.
Jealousy? Bitterness? Yes, probably, but let’s not forget just how far we had come in just a matter of months, let’s not forget just how bloody hard we’d worked to get to that stage and looking at the bigger picture, there was still a promotion on the horizon too. Jesus, I was mad over losing at home to a team who were two divisions above in a Cup semi final!
I, like the majority, expected the second leg to be a mere formality, a two-goal deficit was surely too much to make up? ITV would once again be broadcasting the game, albeit only in the regions of the respective teams. It’s a shame the licence fee-paying nation (as opposed to the subscription-paying nation) didn’t get to see the West Ham or Southampton replays, those games were the real County.

‘Boro were again the better of the two sides in the second leg, that was until Sean Connelly scored his first ever goal for County; a peach of a strike from just inside the area after he ran onto an Armstrong flick. Surely not?! Just when we were all resigned to the inevitable, County went and picked us up off the floor and dusted us off. There weren’t that many other County chances in fairness as the hosts dominated possession and always looked capable of scoring.
However, you’ll notice teams who are chasing a game will get one chance, one, take it or leave it, and when a defensive mix up allowed Cavaco, all on his own, a second’s worth of time to get a clean shot away before the Middlesbrough defenders closed in. In that split-second everything was possible; the final, European football, it was all there for the taking, but no, Mark Schwarzer stuck out a leg and deflected his shot. Sheer bloody cruel agony. For a moment we were Cup winners. But that was that. Tie over. It’s hard to be overly critical of such a well-liked player, but Cavaco should have scored, that was our final chance. There was still time for Tony Dinning to be sent off for some off-the-ball handbags with Ravanelli but it was ‘Boro, not us, who reached the final.

Looking back it’s probably more staggering given our demise over the last 20 or so years to think we were just 270 minutes away from European football. A team who only a decade earlier were still languishing around the bottom half of the Fourth Division. A team who had scored one goal in their opening four League games and hadn’t managed a win in that time grew into a side who were undefeated in ten of eleven games in a major competition, eight of those undefeated games were against higher-level opposition.
I doubt there will ever be a season like the one we witnessed 23 years ago. You can talk about promotion to the National League, promotion to the Football League (fingers crossed), or winning at Wembley. None of them came close to what we achieved, without actually winning anything, back in 1996/97. County were a class apart, a lower-league Atletico Madrid; capable of some lavish, sleek football, but also equally comfortable playing the part of a durable and physical team who didn’t care for reputations. With a little more luck we would have made the final, who knows what we could have achieved then? 



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