Chesterfield, So Far: The Precipitous Fall of the Spireites
It’s not quite all over yet, for Chesterfield Football Club. With three games of their season left to play, they are nine points behind Morecambe, who sit in the third from bottom place in the current League Two table. If they can somehow win their last three games and overturn a goal difference currently nineteen goals worse than their rivals (and presuming that second from bottom Barnet take no more than three points from their final two matches of the season), they’ll be safe. It should be unsurprising to learn that supporters of the club have already largely given up the ghost on the Spireites being able to hold onto a Football League place that the club has held since 1921, all the more so when we consider that this year’s misfiring vintage has only managed four wins in its last twenty-two league matches, since the middle of December.
At this stage, even the most dedicated of optimists only have mathematics to hang onto. There are few other signs that this team has anything about it that can pull the required minor miracle from the fire. Yet at about four-thirty on Saturday afternoon, survival, no matter how distant it may have seemed, remained the faintest of possibilities. With fifteen minutes to play of their League Two match at Forest Green Rovers, the scores were tied at a goal apiece. A thirty-sixth minute penalty kick from Kristian Dennis had brought them level after Scott Laird had given Forest Green – who needed a win themselves to confirm their Football League status after a difficult first season following promotion from the National League at the end of last season – the lead, but a Christian Doidge goal with thirteen minutes to play gave the home side the lead again, with two more goals in stoppage-time securing both their and, barring something extremely unlikely happening over their last three matches, their opponents’ fate for the season.
At no point over the last eight years or so in the build-up to the last couple of calamitous seasons might Chesterfield supporters have imagined that things would end up where they have. Saltergate may not have have been amongst the Football League’s salubrious of homes – it was used as the set for the matches played in the film adaptation of David Peace’s The Damned United precisely because no significant redevelopment had taken place there since the construction of its Main Stand in 1936 – but leaving it for the site of a former glass works in 2010 has clearly not brought the club the success that it would have hoped for. True enough, the club did end both the 2010/11 and 2012/13 seasons as League Two champions – we’ll leave you to work out for yourselves what happened in League One during the season in between – whilst the club ended the 2014/15 season two points behind Sheffield United, in sixth place in the final League One table, before losing in the play-offs against Preston North End.
This turned out to be a false start, for those who’d believed that the new stadium would invigorate the club towards previously untapped levels of success. In their second season back in League One the club finished in eighteenth place, albeit a comfortable seven points above the division’s relegation places. Since then, however, there has been little but disappointment. Last season saw Chesterfield finish plum bottom of the table, thirteen points adrift of safety, and this season has seen little improvement in form, despite having dropped a division. At the time of writing the club still needs three points from its last three matches just to surpass last year’s dismal points total of thirty-five.
At the end of the 2014/15 season, the club lost Paul Cook, the manager who had taken the club up from League One and into the play-offs there, to Portsmouth. Since then, well, Dean Saunders lasted six months before being replaced by Danny Wilson. Wilson kept the club in League One during the for the start of the 2016/17 season, but was sacked himself at the beginning of last year. He in turn was replaced by Gary Caldwell, who lasted nine months in the job before being replaced himself, this time by Jack Lester.
Lester had been a popular player for the club. He played almost two hundred games for Chesterfield over six years between 2007 and 2013 and coming from nearby Sheffield clearly assisted with his popularity, but even taking into account his three years as an academy coach at Nottingham Forest, to appoint a manager with no experience at a club that was clearly in the midst of a precipitous decline felt like a riskier decision than the club could probably afford. Like Saunders, Wilson and Caldwell before him, Lester proved to be unable to settle this listing ship, and he resigned as the club’s manager – with the rest of his management team joining him – after last weekend’s defeat at Forest Green Rovers.
So, that’s four managers in three years, then. The point at which it might become reasonable to say that there is more to Chesterfield’s decline than a series of hapless managers being unable to organise a team of a Saturday afternoon. Dave Allen had been the chairman of the club between 2009 and 2016 – his previous seven year spell at Sheffield Wednesday had hardly been conspicuous for its success and had been regularly pock-marked by protests against his ownership – but resigned his position in the wake of “Rafflegate” (which saw the club fake the identity of the winner of a raffle for a place at the club’s pre-season training camp after it only sold four expensive tickets for it) and its involvement with CFC Development Schools Ltd., an academy which had collapsed into voluntary liquidation earlier in the year, owing almost £250,000 to creditors.
Allen had promised in 2010 that, “We shall run the business properly. We aren’t going to be having fortunes of debt, that’s not going to happen.” The latest available accounts (PDF) show Chesterfield as being over £8m in debt, and further bad publicity was courted (and regardless of the rights and wrongs of doing so in the light of what would subsequently come to pass, it was bad publicity at that time) in the summer of 2016 through the controversial decision to give Ched Evans a route back into football prior to his rape acquittal, which occurred later in the same year. Evans scored seven goals in twenty-nine games in all competitions for Chesterfield, before returning to Sheffield United at the end of the 2016/17 season.
Director Ashley Carson manages the club on a day-to-day basis. Carson, however, has built up a little baggage of his own. He was in charge at the time of “Rafflegate”, and earlier this year found himself the target of supporter protests after sending “threatening” messages on Facebook to a supporter who had previously been the club’s mascot. In June last year Carson claimed that his computer had been accessed by a person unknown after an abusive message was sent to a supporter from his Twitter account. A supporter had posted a tweet revealing he had received a ‘nice direct message’ from Mr Carson accompanied by a screen-grab of the abusive comment. Carson’s response to this was to claim that, “It would appear my Twitter and emails have been accessed on my computer. “I have been advised to suspend this account. Apologies.” He subsequently deleted his Twitter account, and the fallout from this meant that he stayed away from one home match.
Allen won’t be involved at Chesterfield forever, of course, and although a second successive relegation has been looking at least as likely as not throughout most of this season, that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill from turning. With a Chinese consortium’s £10m offer to buy the club in January having already apparently vanished into thin air, Brian Deane is the public face of the consortium that has been said to be close to agreeing a deal to buy the club, but Deane’s is not the name of most interest to us. That belongs to something of a blast from the past. Reg Brealey has been involved at Chesterfield before, but he’s probably best remembered for his period in charge at Sheffield United during the 1980s, although he was also involved at Darlington, St Mirren and, in non-league football, at Grantham Town. There’s a tidy précis of Brealey’s work in football up to 1999 here, courtesy of When Saturday Comes’ venerable Sharp End column from November of that year, while the Sunday Herald took a look at his business dealings at that time while he was seeking to take control of St Mirren. Brealey was previously declared bankrupt in September 1998.
No matter who the owners of the club are by August, though, Chesterfield Football Club will be inhabiting a somewhat different football planet by then. The League Cup will be something that happens to other people (though how much of an annoyance that will be is open to question, when we consider that they haven’t won a single match in that competition since the 2006/07 season, when they knocked out Wolverhampton Wanderers, Manchester City and West Ham United before going out in the Fourth Round to Charlton Athletic), while they’ll have to play in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, too. There’ll be a significant cut in revenues, and as one of the “bigger” teams in the division, supporters can probably expect quite a few fixtures to be moved in order to accommodate the National League’s television deal with BT Sport.
On the upside, the BT Sport contract does give a reasonable opportunity for supporters to track their opponents, whilst the broadcaster’s weekly half-hour highlights show is uploaded to YouTube every Monday. In addition to this, Chesterfield’s travelling supporters will get the opportunity to visit some new grounds, the play-offs stretch down to seventh place in the table (which yes, does suck for the team that has finished the season in second place in the table – as a new innovation for this season, we’ll know in a few weeks the extent to which it has been a success or a failure), there’s no more Check-a-Trade Trophy nonsense, although the FA Trophy offers the opportunity of a trip to Wembley.
None of this means that life in the National League will necessarily be easier for Chesterfield than life in League Two, though, and this is a division that is strewn with the carcasses of those who believed otherwise. Of the twenty-four clubs currently in the division, eight clubs – Macclesfield Town, Tranmere Rovers, Aldershot Town, Wrexham, Dagenham & Redbridge, Leyton Orient, Hartlepool United and Torquay United – have played in the Football League since the introduction of automatic promotion and relegation with the Football League for the 1987/88 season, while a further one – Barrow – saw League football prior to this and a further four – Gateshead, Maidstone United, FC Halifax Town and Chester – are reformed versions of clubs that went out of existence but which played League football in the past.
And it can be tough. Two of the clubs mentioned above – Torquay United and Chester – have already been relegated to the National League South and North respectively, whilst only three of the division’s current top seven teams have had any experience of the Football League before. In the other direction, York City and Stockport County have both found life in the National League North to be more difficult than they might have expected following relegation, although Stockport have at least earned themselves a place in this year’s play-offs. The “size” or “stature” of a club can count for little, when it comes to the forty-six match grind of which a National League season consists.
The point about the National League is that it requires delicate handling, and the rush to get that “Football League status” back has blinded many club owners to the realities of the challenge ahead at the start of a season. And it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that delicate handling is exactly what Chesterfield requires at the moment. As founder members of Division Three North in 1921, memories of being a non-league club are outside the scope of the living memory of the club’s supporters, and if Chesterfield are to make a swift return to the Football League, it will require a level of managerial competence that the club hasn’t seen for several seasons now. While it remains mathematically possible that Chesterfield could theoretically survive, the likelihood is that the National League beckons for the club. It is to be hoped that they are prepared for it, but the evidence of the last couple of years doesn’t fill us with a great deal of reason to believe that they are.
Edit 25/04/2018: With the sort of timing that makes me wonder why I even bother with this sort of thing in the first place, Newport County’s 2-1 win against Accrington Stanley last removed the last mathematical possibility of Chesterfield staying up this season.