D3D4 Chesterfield Correspondent Phil Tooley assess the Spireites chances ahead of the new campaign…
It’s been a difficult time being a Spireite over the last couple of seasons. Following on from a terrific League Two Championship under Paul Cook in 2014, Chesterfield beat the odds to reach the play-offs a year later in the higher section so to most outsiders, things would have looked rosy down at The Proact. How wrong that was!
With substantial operating losses sustained only by a plethora of player sales, something not a regular feature with the club, coupled with a catalogue of off-the-field issues indicating all was not well in the upper-echelons of the club and the departure of Cook to Pompey, insiders all knew that 2015-16 would be tough and the appointment of Dean Saunders as boss didn’t boost many supporter hopes.
Saunders bought in too many players that weren’t fit enough but would have been earning top dollar, he extended the contracts of too many make-weights and he over-complicated on-the-park tactics, so it was no real surprise that his tenure was short at a club not known for shoving out gaffers after a bad run. Danny Wilson came in, added more pragmatism to the team’s showing and managed to avoid the drop, but last season, hamstrung by Saunders’ signings, disappointed by some of his own acquisitions, as the weeks went by, relegation began to look inevitable.
Wilson, a playing hero at the club, was moved out and ex-Wigan boss Gary Caldwell put in charge a few days before the January window closed. He didn’t help his cause by bringing in five panic signings that managed to weaken the squad whilst his desire to play pretty football with a squad that was low on confidence and even lower on any Barcelona resemblance led to hardly any points being garnered and even fewer shots on target being recorded. His start at the club was as inauspicious as any and even Coventry managed to overhaul Chesterfield.
With no pound notes to spare, an owner who was seeking to sell the club at an overinflated price (it’s since officially ‘off-the-market’) and a manager who’d coached his side to avoid shooting whilst bringing in some dross, the season ended with no silver linings to be had.
There were the inevitable departures of high earners such as Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Jay O’Shea, Angel Martinez and Dan Jones whilst Charlie Raglan, Jon Nolan and Dan Gardner found employment opportunities in League One, older players in Ritchie Humphreys and Thorsten Stuckmann moved out along with the unlucky Liam Graham, who’d made it into the first team and became a New Zealand International, but picked up an injury playing for his country and that directly led to the end of his Proact tenure. Other less established players also made it through the exit door.
Caldwell made a few backroom changes and announced that training would start on June 19th and that there’d be a training camp in Spain & Portugal featuring a couple of games. In came Bradley Barry from Swindon to little cheer but when League One play-off makers Joe Anyon and Scott Wiseman from Scunthorpe joined in, there was a ripple of hope.
Gozie Ugwu (Woking), Jordan Sinnott (Halifax) and Delial Brewster (Everton) were in the ‘somewhat unknown but we can’t really complain’ file but then came Jerome Binnon-Williams, the beast from Peterborough and the highly competent marquee signing Chris O’Grady and all of a sudden a few crisp tenners were being deposited down the bookies!
Add to that, five graduates of the academy, most notably Joe Rowley, Charlie Wakefield and Ricky German, started the season as professionals, so numbers were not a problem, though quality was still lacking, particularly in midfield.
Northampton engine-roomer Jak McCourt met the lads at the airport for the trip to Spain, soon followed by Blades loanee Louis Reed to join a squad that had easily and impressively notched up plenty of goals against Sheffield FC, Matlock Town & Buxton.
Cook had taken the squad to Portugal a couple of times for what a squad member described as ‘stag parties’ but Caldwell’s camp was very, very different. Training was meticulously planned, the games against Benfica B (0-0) and Middlesbrough (0-2) were just right and his 3-5-2 style of play was looking solid and it was clear that everyone there was there to work; I know, I too was there and was privileged to be allowed to attend training sessions and squad meetings.
Down sides of the trip were clear, a broken collar-bone for young Rowley and a three-month ankle injury for Binnom-Williams, who up to then had looked the signing of the summer.
Back home and a step up in friendly matches; defeats against Blades, Stoke U23 and Millers but all featured some positive points, particular the return of goalkeeper hero Tommy Lee after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.
A trio of triallists are currently being assessed; Frenchman Mickael Latour (midfield), ex-Man City defender Ellis Plummer and former two-times promotion winner with Burton, Robbie Weir (midfield), who’s on his way back from a cruciate injury. All have shown promise and it would be no surprise if one or two were involved in the big kick-off game against a Grimsby Town side who’ll be cheered on by around 2000 supporters.
The bookies have The Spireites down to finish around 10th spot; it’s clear that the squad is good enough to stop the rot of the last two seasons and if Caldwell can find a central midfield combination that works, that position should be a minimum target with the play-offs being a realistic goal.
But there’s still time for changes, with outs seemingly inevitable; Reece Mitchell & Paul McGinn look the most likely (pushed) leavers whilst last season’s top scorer Kristian Dennis plus versatile Welshman Dion Donohue are both attracting interest (and cash) from higher up the food chain.
If Donohue went, the left side would be bare until Binnom-Williams recovers, so his departure would have to attract a direct replacement and whilst Dennis would be a massive loss, O’Grady and Ugwu look to have enough to frighten most League Two defences.
At the back, Ian Evatt looks a different man, a stone lighter than a year ago and in the shape of his life, Sam Hird, Wiseman and Laurence Maguire will jockey for position to line up alongside him in the back three. Barry and Donohue are set to run the wing-back channels with any three from McCourt, Reed, Conor Dimaio, Sinnott and Wakefield laying claim to a start against The Mariners, with Latour and Weir hovering in the background.
Caldwell, who ended last season with little terrace support has, through sheer hard work and some decent recruitment, aided by new recruitment man Guy Branston, won back many of the fans’ belief. But he need to start winning rapidly, particularly at home, with his own team otherwise it will be back to the indifference shown towards him in the Spring, crowds will tumble and the winter will be long and hard.
Can The Spireites bounce straight back? The squad is a match-winning, scoring midfielder short of being able to answer that in the affirmative, but if the time between now and August 31st sees a slight improvement in the quality in the middle, the team may be worth a flutter.
words Phil Tooley