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The fishy tale of Chelsea versus Grimsby in 1996

Have you heard the one about why the Grimsby winger missed the big match against Chelsea?

Unlike the classic joke, it didn’t involve a chicken crossing the road, but rather flying across the dressing room and injuring a player, or so the footballing equivalent of an urban legend goes.

Chelsea were drawn to face Grimsby in the fifth round of the FA Cup in 1995/96, but this strange story started two rounds earlier. Given that saw the Mariners thrashing Luton Town 7-1 to book their progress in the competition, there were little signs of the trouble that was brewing at Blundell Park.

When Grimsby came up against the same opposition in the FA Cup third round a month later, things didn’t go quite so smoothly, though. In fact Brian Laws, in charge of his first club as manager, was so angry at his team’s performance that the furious dressing room rollicking he gave his players afterwards was so animated, it resulted in a plate of chicken wings being sent flying.

It is unclear whether it was aimed deliberately or not, but the chicken and, more importantly, the accompanying plate, struck winger Ivano Bonetti in the face, resulting in him suffering a fractured cheek bone.

Unsurprisingly, the Italian was less than happy with the incident and flew back to his homeland to recover, meaning he wasn’t around for their memorable fourth-round victory over West Ham United or the tie against Chelsea 11 days later, even if his injury had allowed him to play.

The Grimsby fans were more than a little upset by the turn of events, given two-time Serie A winner Bonetti had become something of a cult hero during his short time at Blundell Park with his impressive, flair-filled performances, not to mention paying half of the transfer fee out of his own pocket when it looked like his move from Torino was destined to hit the rocks.

However, the Mariners didn’t seem to be missing him too much on the pitch. Having already eliminated one Premier League side in that season’s FA Cup, drawing 1-1 with West Ham at the Boleyn Ground and defeating them 3-0 in the replay at Blundell Park, they looked like they might be on course for a repeat.

The 0-0 scoreline from Chelsea’s visit to Grimsby might suggest the team from the lower division held on for a draw, but in truth it was the home team who had the better of the chances in an even contest, giving them plenty of confidence as they came to Stamford Bridge for the replay.

However, Chelsea proved too strong on home soil in what at times was a frantic match. Michael Duberry gave us the lead with his first goal for the club, but it was in the second half that the touchpaper was suddenly lit, with the ball hitting the back of the net four times in the space of just five minutes.

That started in the 54th minute when Mark Hughes turned in Gavin Peacock’s cross, before Grimsby replied immediately when Paul Groves capitalised on an error by Terry Phelan to give the visiting fans hope of a fightback.

It was short-lived, though, as Dennis Wise weaved his way through the Grimsby defence to tee up John Spencer and then Peacock made it 4-1 from Ruud Gullit’s pass to book our place in the last eight.

If there’s as much entertainment on offer for Grimsby’s visit to the Bridge this evening, it could be a real cup classic but unlike their predecessors, current Mariners boss Michael Jolley and his players will no doubt restrict any drama to the pitch rather than the dressing room.

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