Saturday 6th March 2021, 1500 Kick Off
Chesterfield FC vs Yeovil Town FC
The Build Up
Whilst the machinations rumble on regarding the prospect of anymore Step Two football this season, Step One marches on unabated, so on the first Saturday of meteorological spring I found myself making the drive north to Derbyshire, and the home of Chesterfield.
The Spireites struggled initially this season, but after John Pemberton departed by mutual consent (having saved the club from relegation last term), they brought in the highly rated James Rowe, and have gone from strength to strength. With three wins and two draws in their last six matches, the 1997 FA Cup Semi Finalists have risen to 13th in the league, but have played fewer than the teams around them – on PPG they’d be 9th, ahead of today’s visitors Yeovil Town.
Formed in 1866, the club were liquidated and re-formed in 1919, and have played under various guises, including Chesterfield Town and Chesterfield Municipal. Founder members of the Third Division North, much of their history has been spent between the second and fourth tiers of English football winning the third tier twice and the fourth on five occasions. That was until 2017, when consecutive relegations saw them drop out of the Football League for the first time since 1921, and enter the 2018/19 campaign in nonleague. They started life in the National League under Martin Allen, but after finishing 14th he was replaced with John Sheridan, who subsequently took them the Spireites into the relegation zone in 2019/20. Sheridan was given his marching orders in January, as the club brought in Pemberton, who led them to safety by only three points, before eventually making way for Rowe in the autumn of 2020. Rowe had started the season with Gloucester in fine form, and has since brought across a number of his key players, including Akwasi Asante and Gavin Gunning.
The visiting Glovers had an equally bad start to the season, but having stuck with Darren Sarll have also seen their form improve. Five wins and a loss in their last six have seen them shoot up the table to 10th, and their improvement has been matched (or possibly catalysed) by that of Rhys Murphy, who has scored six goals in that run. Formed as Yeovil Casuals in 1895, the Glovers started out in the Somerset Senior League alongside such luminaries as Chard Town and Peasedown Miners’ Welfare, and first made it to the Conference almost a hundred years later, in 1987. One of the most feared nonleague names in cup competitions, they claimed FA Cup scalps of Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Blackpool amongst others whilst a nonleague side, and spent sixteen years in the Football League between 2003 and 2019. Getting as high as the Championship was an incredible achievement for the Somerset side, but a gradual decline in the second half of the last decade saw them back in the National League last season. They almost bounced straight back, too, but a Play Off Semi Final tie against Barnet saw them come unstuck, with Mauro Vilhete and Paul McCallum condemning them to at least another season in the division.
Positioned closely in the league, everything was shaping up for this to be a tight match – if Chesterfield won, they would overtake Yeovil, but if the Glovers picked up the points, they could finish the day in the Play Off spots.
The Spireites home ground of the Technique Stadium hosted the 4th largest crowds in the National League last season, with only Notts County, Stockport and Wrexham boasting larger average attendance that Chesterfield’s 3,670. Sadly, as with all grounds, it is a shadow of itself when shorn of fans, but at a capacity of 10,500, the 5th largest ground in the division seems emptier than most.
As I drove up the A61 to the ground, I was able take in the famous crooked spire of Chesterfield from which the Spireites take their name, before arriving at the ground. Originally based at the historic Saltergate stadium, Chesterfield moved to the Technique Stadium (formerly the B2net Stadium and the Proact Stadium) in in 2010 – as an aside, it has a great car park, but is unusually cold inside.
The Glovers started marginally the brighter of the two sides, but by quarter of an hour we were still waiting for anything of real note to happen in the match. A 12th minute free kick which Jak McCourt sent high of the goal was the most to speak of until the same player finally warmed Adam Smith’s gloves on 17 minutes. After nice play by Curtis Weston and George Carline, the ball was rolled into the path of McCourt, but the summer signing from Macclesfield put his effort straight at Yeovil’s ‘keeper.
By 25 minutes the game was showing some signs of warming up, and was finely poised, with neither side having the upper hand on the pitch. Yeovil had lofted a few crosses into the box without ever really threating, whilst Tom Whelan – formerly of Yeovil – drew a shaky stop from Smith with a straightforward effort from around 25 yards. Two minutes later, he turned playmaker, as he drove through midfield in possession, before setting him his midfield partner McCourt for a rasping drive which was well tipped over by Smith.
With half an hour played, Josh Neufville had Yeovil’s best chance of the game so far, but he blazed over from a good position near the penalty spot. Four minutes later, the Spireites had a big shout (which I didn’t see) for a handball during a spell of penalty area pinball before Curtis Weston hit a shot over. They were claiming a penalty again on 37 minutes when Luton Town loanee Neufville brought down Liam Mandeville in the box. If we’d had VAR at this level (thank Christ we don’t) it would have been obvious that the ref made the correct decision, as the below pictures clearly show – Neufville got a foot to the ball first.
The match was now cooking along nicely, and Chesterfield were in the ascendancy. On 44 minutes they very nearly took the lead when Weston shot from 25 yards, forcing Adam Smith to save down low. The Sunderland born number one pushed the ball away, but it was close to Chesterfield danger man Asante, who like my favourite ever player (Romario) appears to do very little beside score goals. However, he’s very good at that. With eight for Gloucester, and eight for Chesterfield at the start of play, he’s the highest scoring player in the National League, and he almost added a 17th here, but his effort clipped off the head of Smith and deflected wide.
Nil nil at half time, but had the first period last even five minutes more I suspect Chesterfield would have taken the lead, and they did so within 90 seconds of the restart, through that man Asante. A neat ball through from Whelan gave Asante the opportunity to run across Smith’s goal. He rounded the goalie, and slotted a left footed effort into the net – a nice way to celebrate the contract he signed at the club this week, and bring himself onto nine league goals in Chesterfield colours.
Yeovil looked to respond, and had a succession of free kicks, but they were easily dealt with by a mixture of Laurence Maguire, Gavin Gunning, and Grant Smith, who arrived in January from League One Lincoln City. Liam Mandeville almost added a second around the hour mark when Asante sent a dangerous ball across the box, but he couldn’t grow the extra foot he needed, and the ball sailed Gascoigne-esque past his outstretched leg.
The Spireites did get the second goal their performance deserved on 68 minutes, and it came shortly after Tom Knowles had seen a decent drive from the edge of the area well held by Grant Smith. Up the other end, it was Whelan who made the result safe with a neat curled finish into the bottom corner from 25 yards. The signing from Weymouth, who was previously at Huish Park, has been inspired for Chesterfield, and he was the most accomplished player on the pitch today. This was his first strike for his new club, to add to the four he’d notched for Weymouth already.
If the finish was good, the time and space afforded to him was shocking, and was endemic of a Yeovil performance that was in real danger of spiralling out of control. They’d been firmly in the match in the first half, but Chesterfield had expertly closed them out of the game in the second. Rowe’s 5-3-2 formation suffocated the Glovers, giving them no chance to build from the back, and completely choking the supply to Reuben Reid and Rhys Murphy up front, who were resigned to chasing hopeful balls out of the back, and getting dominated aerially by Kerr, Gunning and Maguire.
So it was no surprise when the Spireites added a third on 80 minutes. Whelan found substitute Joel Taylor beautifully in midfield, and his fresh legs were too much for Alex Bradley as he breezed past the right back before standing up a cross to the back post. McCourt was waiting there, and given the freedom of Derbyshire to pick his spot, he made no mistake, placing into the roof of the net, despite a desperate effort by Michael Kelly to block on the line. Three nil and game well and truly over.
Knowles had another half chance on 85 minutes when he shot left footed on the turn, but it was impossible to generate any power, whilst Jack Clarke had one final chance for Chesterfield when he shot over the bar moments later.
The Wash Up
A completely dominant second half by James Rowe’s side means that Yeovil faced the four hour journey back down the M5 with their fine recent form in tatters. They looked bereft of ideas against such a solid Chesterfield side, and will need to find their spark again quickly before they visit Sutton United on Tuesday. The first half performance was fine, even if they never really threatened, but in the second half they couldn’t come close. Their best player in the second half was probably Tom Knowles, who as least showed some drive, as did Charlie Lee when he came on. Beyond that, Jimmy Smith’s elbows were probably the most effective performers in the white of Yeovil’s away strip.
For Chesterfield, the system was and is king. I was hugely impressed with their performance here. Keeping things tight for the first half, then picking the visitors off at will in the second. A 5-3-2 system gave both solidity and attacking impetus down the wings, and the trio in midfield were impeccable. Curtis Weston is one of the finest bastards in the National League, as evidenced by his late yellow when he hauled down a counter-attacking Knowles, whilst Jak McCourt was effective in both directions.
At the back, Maguire, Gunning and Kerr were pretty much untroubled and physically dominant throughout. Weirdly, Gunning also took the corners, which is the first time I’ve ever seen a centre back do that. At right wing back, George Carline was tremendous. Up top, whilst Asante will no doubt take the plaudits, he is only as effective as he is because of the work rate of Mandeville, who is due to be canonized as the patron saint of lost causes.
Man of the match today though was Whelan, who finished the game with a goal, an assist, and the warm glow of three points against his old team. It was a big three points, too, as it takes Chesterfield to 9th place, just two points from the Play Offs.