“We Found A Way” – The Real EFL Fan Opinion Series Looks At Chesterfield

Six years ago, Chesterfield found themselves relegated out of the English Football League by the way of a 24th-placed finish that resulted in a six-year EFL absence which has seen the threat of further relegation, play-off heartbreak and FA Cup drama.

This year, Spireites fans are looking up, with a return to the EFL secured after claiming the National League title by a landslide margin – but can the Derbyshire outfit go one step further next season?

We spoke to Chesterfield FC fan Alex (@SpireiteAlex) to tackle the key questions around the club – what has changed since relegation six years ago, the defining points and figures of their success and can they follow in the tracks of their promotion predecessors in the division above?

A Changed Club

The fifth tier is long regarded as a graveyard for former EFL clubs. With only two promotion spots, the prospect of an instant return is often daunting for newly relegated clubs. This is a realisation many Chesterfield fans came to terms with very quickly, with their relegation following up with 14th and 20th-placed finishes before falling short in the play-offs three times in their Vanarama tenure.

Oftentimes, clubs that find their way back to the EFL are usually in considerably better states than where they left off. One of the main factors Alex highlighted behind Chesterfield’s promotion was the club’s new stewardship.

In the summer of 2020, the club was acquired by the community trust, who are backed impressively by millionaire brothers and born-Spireites Ashley and Phil Kirk, taking over from the controversial reigns of David Allen and Ashley Carson.

The Kirk brothers first got involved with the club in March 2022, stating their dream to The Derbyshire Times for the club to “rise like a phoenix” – a dream being delivered two years later.

“From the outside, it may seem that we were a side too big for non-league that finally found their way back, but if you look deeper, there’s far more to the story than that,” Alex said.

“Six years ago, not only was the situation on the pitch dire, but so too was the situation off the pitch, if not worse.”

“Turning to the present, the club is now in the hands of the Community Trust who, with backing from millionaire Spireites fans and brothers Ashley and Phil Kirk, have brought hope and happiness to the whole town and beyond.

“A club that was on the brink of regional football, and whatever permutations may have laid behind that point, is now rejuvenated and only looking up.

“Long may it continue.”

Chesterfield & The National League Days

Relegation in the 2017/18 season saw 97 consecutive seasons in the EFL put to bed. Despite this, many different generations of Chesterfield fans will share joy in the memories made throughout their tenure at their lowest-ever level.

With three consecutive appearances in the FA Cup Third Round Proper, moments that saw fans revel in Akwasi Asante’s goal at Stamford Bridge, heartbreak as West Brom narrowly evaded defeat at The SMH Group Stadium with a stoppage-time equaliser and January’s victory over League One champions Portsmouth.

Most vital to where the club currently find themselves, however, was the return of club legend Paul Cook.

Highs are often not met without lows. Last season’s play-off final saw Paul Cook’s men narrowly miss out on promotion on penalties against their local rivals Notts County following a 2-2 draw in a game where the Spireites went toe-to-toe with the National League centurions.

Despite this loss, Alex pointed out the hope that was instilled by this season. Chesterfield tallied their then-highest-ever points total in that campaign, but with 84 points, they could not quite challenge for the title due to the spectaculars of Notts County and Wrexham who both broke the 100-point margin. This did, however, mark a consistency and an identity for the club to take into the following season, and with a club legend at the helm, fans had nothing but confidence going into this season.

“Last season had its ups and most definitely downs. It’s easy to dwell on the negatives but there were positives too. It was the first full season [of his second stint] under Paul Cook and we started to see our identity and, although we fell short, it drew a lot of hope that what we were building will do well sooner rather than later.

“This also brought along another FA Cup run which saw us moments away from beating Championship side West Brom. And even though, on that day at Wembley, we fell short, to compete against such a good side in Notts County is a testament to the progress we were making.

“About that day in May, that was the lowest of all lows. Whether we were underdogs or not, the manner in which we lost hurt for a long time. There were inconsistencies too, the massive run shortly after the turn of the year without a win could have spiralled out of control, but as is the story since Cook’s return, we found a way to keep pushing.”

The Key Figures In Promotion

Praise for Chesterfield cannot go without mentioning Cook. The 57-year-old led the club to the League Two title ten years ago and made his return to Derbyshire in 2022 to repeat his heroics. Unfortunately, the team fell short of any title aspirations before being eliminated by Solihull Moors in the promotion semi-finals.

With improvement becoming prevalent each year under the former Wigan Athletic boss, Cook’s squad building has been second to none in the fifth tier. One of the most vital factors Alex highlighted was the excellence in recruitment the club has undertaken across the previous two summers.

With an excellent mix of youth and experience across the squad that has been assembled from all ends of the football pyramid, four of Chesterfield’s five top scorers have been recruited during Cook’s tenure.

The most high-profile of his acquisitions was certainly Will Grigg. The ex-Wigan man, mostly regarded for his song many years ago, made the drop to the fifth tier to reunite with his former Latics coach, where his 25 league goals spearheaded the National League side’s promotion push.

Another top acquisition was Tom Naylor – another player arriving with large expectations, having been a regular feature three leagues above the season prior. However, the 32-year-old did not flatter to deceive and enforced everything positive about Cook’s side in their title claim while tallying eleven league goals in the process.

On the younger side of the squad, Armando Dobra has been regularly touted as one destined for greatness during his time with the Spireites. Joining in the summer of 2022 as one of Cook’s first signings, the Albanian wide-man has made the left-flank his own with ten league goals and dazzling performances.

“The tricky and technical former Albania Under-21 international has shown across multiple FA Cup runs, the ability to compete at a higher level, and the fact he is only 22 years of age shows he is likely to be a candidate for clubs higher up the pyramid.”

However, the season’s hero amongst the Spireites faithful is the long-serving Liam Mandeville. Now in his fifth year at the club, the 27-year-old has filled several positions, making 44 league appearances while managing to lead the assists charts with 19 in total.

“In a season as amazing as ours has been, it seems almost cruel to have to pick out one player.

“There will be the usual suspects touted. Will Grigg has been on fire [pun intended]. He came in with a lot of expectations due to his Football League experience but also with his less-than-desirable goal return in the previous few seasons. That being said, he has taken it in his stride and has looked like the Will Grigg of old with 25 league goals before his season was cut short with injury.

“Then there’s Tom Naylor. What was to be expected when a man who made 36 Championship appearances the season prior dropped out of the league to join the Spireites? He did everything you could ask of a central midfielder whilst weighing in with a goal tally many of the league’s strikers would be proud of.

“But my pick would be Liam Mandeville. Whether it was on the right wing or at right back, Liam gave his all every single game no matter what was asked of him and with a whopping 19 assists, there’s no doubt a lot of the success of the season can be attributed to him. Mr Reliable.”

Can Chesterfield Go One Step Further?

With Stockport County and Wrexham AFC recently confirming their promotions to League One, the strength of the National League is well-established amongst neutrals and pundits alike.

Since their promotion was confirmed nearly three weeks ago, many have already tipped Cook’s side to follow in the footsteps of their promotion predecessors – but how plausible is this to say before a transfer has been made?

Why Chesterfield Could Achieve Back-To-Back Promotions – Opinion

One area Alex and many others have been keen to point out around Chesterfield is their defensive deficiencies. With a spectacular 103 goals scored, fans may be worried about how their 63 goals conceded could translate in the league above, with Notts County holding the worst defensive record in the division, with 88 goals conceded upon their promotion. This could imply that improvement is needed within the step-up.

As Alex indicated, that is not to suggest that there is a lack of quality within their title-winning defence. However, records speak for themselves and would suggest this to be a target area in the summer.

“Despite this, confidence remains high in the recruitment personnel coming towards the summer window,” Alex explained.

“I think across the fanbase, and seemingly at the club itself, there is one clear area that needs to be addressed. The ‘Goals Against’ column.

“Across the past two seasons, the attacking prowess has seen the club perform well but time and time again, question marks have been left over the defence.

“There is no doubt across the backline there is clear quality currently at the club but when the goals are flowing into our own net before the step up, it’s clear change is needed.

“As regards to which position, there is no obvious one that can be pinpointed as the main area of worry. The missing piece could be one player or it could be all four [of the back four]. Whatever is to happen this summer in that aspect, I can safely speak on behalf of all our fans when we say we trust and back Cookie and his team to make the right choices as was done last summer to lead to this incredible season.”

Despite the expectations neutrals may have for Chesterfield, that is not to say that many Spireites would take a comfortable return to the EFL following their six-year absence. However, with plenty of ambition shown in previous transfer windows, alongside their excellent facilities, is there a reason to say Chesterfield cannot build upon their momentum with the aid of another strong showing in the summer?

“You can look at the season we’ve had and the setup both on and off the pitch and be optimistic that we can push for promotion again next season, but after those six long years out of the EFL, I’m sure all Spireites would be more than happy by just establishing ourselves in League Two and not having to worry about the threat of relegation.

“It’s important to remember that, whilst it’s widely regarded that the skill gap between League Two and the National League is much smaller than between most other leagues, it would be silly to think that we are obliged to fight for promotion next season.

“That being said, if we can keep the core of the squad together and build on that momentum with a sprinkling of new additions, why can’t we do it again? Whichever way you look at it, I am just personally happy to be back and can’t wait for the season to start.”

While Chesterfield are coming into the division with expectations to repeat the successes of their promotional predecessors, no Spireite can deny that a steady season without the threat of relegation would only further mark the progress the club has made in the last four years.

With a legend at the helm, a ruthless attack force, experienced pros and exciting youngsters, good times are on the horizon in Derbyshire. But how well will this translate as they embark on their first season back in the EFL? Only time will tell.

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