Read via the Chesterfield Post
Chesterfield’s promotion hopes remain very much intact despite a 1-0 defeat to Preston North End in the first leg of the play-off semi-final at the Proact Stadium.
The Lilywhites stormed to an early lead through Jermaine Beckford but Chesterfield recovered from the setback and went on to dominate a fiery contest, producing everything but a goal.
Paul Cook will take his side to Deepdale on Sunday lunchtime with quiet confidence after Chesterfield questioned the visitors’ defensive resilience throughout the game, but lacked a cutting edge in front of goal to reflect their control in possession and territory.
One concern however will be an injury picked up by goalkeeper Tommy Lee, who struggled to see out the match after rolling his left ankle.
The Spireites’ boss named an unchanged starting line-up from the side that drew at Bramall Lane in the last game of the regular season, while Drew Talbot was deemed fit enough to make the bench after a three-week absence.
Preston manager Simon Grayson kept his faith in the side that fell 1-0 to Colchester which cost the club an automatic promotion spot.
Chesterfield’s October player of the month Daniel Johnson started in the centre of the visitors’ midfield as Kevin Davies maintained his place on the bench.
Chesterfield started the match nervy in possession as the visitors showed no sign of a hangover from Sunday’s bitter disappointment.
League One player of the year Joe Garner found himself in space on the edge of the box after an intricate passage of play but his quick-fire effort flew over Lee’s crossbar on five minutes.
Preston’s high level of intensity continued and only a minute later winger Chris Humphrey split the Spireite defence wide open with a clever through ball to find Beckford in acres of space, the former Leeds frontman found himself one-on-one with Lee and dinked the ball over the onrushing keeper to give his side the lead.
Preston recorded four attempts to Chesterfield’s none in the opening ten minutes as uncharacteristic stray passes and miscontrols encompassed the home side’s shaky start in front of the 8,409 in attendance.
Garner was again involved with a break down the left flank but his subsequent low drive did not trouble Lee who got down to save well.
After 15 minutes Chesterfield began to find a foothold in the game, with experienced campaigners Ian Evatt and Gary Roberts calling on their wealth of play-off experience to carry their side beyond their naïve nerves.
An interesting battle ensued between Evatt and Garner with the Spireite centre half dominating areal duels to propel his side into momentum.
Evatt’s impetus transferred to the rest of the side as Chesterfield recorded their first threat on goal after 20 minutes.
Dan Gardner found Tendayi Darikwa haring down the right flank to produce an inviting cross for Roberts, but his volley was blocked well by captain Tom Clarke. The rebound found Sam Morsy but his effort found the same result and was cleared to safety.
Chesterfield sparked into life and Roberts and Jay O’Shea’s influence on the game grew in the wide areas. A number of fouls were drawn from Preston’s midfield duo of John Welsh and Paul Gallagher as the Spireites began to camp in the opposing half, limiting Preston to nondescript counter attacks.
Paul Cook patrolled his technical area as Chesterfield’s onslaught forced Preston into a defensive unit, their concentrated and disciplined back line demonstrating why they have only lost one game since mid-February.
Such was the importance of the fixture and the atmosphere in the Proact, the game was played with a competitive edge which culminated in a scrap on the half hour mark after a foul on Roberts.
For all of Chesterfield’s dominance, they could not quite find the decisive final ball into lone striker Sam Clucas to add to his 12 goals for the campaign.
Jimmy Ryan saw an effort from 30 yards sail over Sam Johnstone’s crossbar before O’Shea came closer with a strike from a similar distance this time prompting a low parry by the Manchester United loanee-stopper.
Preston’s only sniff at goal after their initial 15 minute spell saw a clever piece of link up play between Beckford and Garner on the edge of the box, but the latter’s effort failed to hit the target.
Chesterfield were desperate to level proceedings before half time and came close with a goalmouth scramble, but a blue shirt could not find a clear sight on goal.
Neither side made a change at the break but the competitive edge that left the first half was soon found in the second.
Gallagher hassled Ryan in possession in the centre circle before the Spireite midfielder turned to fend off the tackle, leaving Gallagher sprawled on the floor. The referee booked both players to quash any worries of Chesterfield playing the remaining 40 minutes a man light.
Preston again adopted their defensive shape as Chesterfield continued in the ascendency.
On 55 minutes the talismanic Roberts cut in from the left flank beating several defenders and had an effort from the edge of the box, but his effort flashed agonisingly wide of the ‘keeper’s far post in Chesterfield’s first clear cut opportunity of the second period.
Roberts’ example inspired Gardner to produce a delivery of similar quality from the opposite flank into the danger area, but an absence of a blue shirt saw the ball cleared to safety.
The physical battle between Evatt and Beckford continued in the second half and the pairing of the former Blackpool defender and Sam Hird left Preston’s strike duo with little to prey on.
On 68 minutes Beckford could not capitalise on a through ball and Lee was quick out of his goal to gather the loose ball. Despite the routine nature of the save Lee looked to have sustained an injury to his left ankle after seemingly twisting it, prompting assistance from team medic Roger Wilde.
The ‘keeper was down for a matter of minutes as concerned Spireites looked to the bench in the knowledge of the absence of a replacement stopper, with Ollie Banks thought to be lined up as a makeshift substitute.
Lee was able to gingerly retake his position in goal but looked in considerable pain when on the ball for the remainder of the game. Whether the Spireite no.1 will be available for selection on Sunday is still unknown.
The second half was again a story of plenty of Chesterfield possession in the final third, but the side struggled to break down the gritty Preston defence to find a leveller.
Gardner was replaced by Banks in the 77th minute and the effect of the former FC United man’s directness was clear to see.
Only minutes after coming on Banks had a great chance to score after Hird found Clucas on the left wing with a delightful cross field pass, only for Banks to meet the subsequent cross on the stretch with the effort going just over the bar from a difficult angle.
Despite the dominant performance the Spireites could not find a goal but a spirited performance will leave the side with plenty to take to Deepdale, having defied the 20 point gap between the two sides after the final game of the regular season.
After the match Chesterfield manager Paul Cook was keen to reiterate that the tie is far from over.
He said: ‘After the disappointment of conceding early on I thought we were. It was everything I love about the game, wanting to get forward, wanting to play.
‘We’re so naïve at times with some of the things we do but we’re also so honest in how we play and I think our supporters respect that.
‘We’re looking forward to Sunday. Preston know that we’re still alive, at 1-0 the next goal in the tie is huge and we believe we can get it.’
On the bother that Jimmy Ryan found himself in with Paul Gallagher just after half time, Cook said: ‘The referee made his bed early on. Welsh should have been booked and Gallagher should have been booked and he made his bed by not booking people so in the end he made it difficult to do it.’
After saluting the Spireite support at full time, the 48-year-old said: ‘I must say a big thank you to our fans tonight, they were terrific. It’s difficult supporting a team sometimes because everyone wants the good times and sometimes it’s not always the case. True supporters are the ones that keep turning up and believing in the club and supporters last forever.’
‘It’s a good night for us. We’re still in the tie at 1-0 down and there’s a lot that can happen in football but we believe we can still get back involved.’
1 Tommy Lee,
2 Tendayi Darikwa, 4 Sam Hird, 23 Ian Evatt, 3 Daniel Jones;
8 Jimmy Ryan, 5 Sam Morsy ©;
7 Dan Gardner (24 Ollie Banks – 77’), 10 Jay O’Shea (9 Armand Gnanduillet – 87’), 11 Gary Roberts;
12 Sam Clucas.
Subs not used: 25 Drew Talbot, 16 Charlie Raglan, 28 Gboly Ariyibi, 15 Ritchie Humphreys, 18 Byron Harrison.
Preston North End:
34 Sam Johnstone;
5 Tom Clarke ©, 6 Bailey Wright, 23 Paul Huntington, 3 Scott Laird (15 Callum Woods – 78’);
7 Chris Humphrey, 19 John Welsh, 24 Daniel Johnson, 12 Paul Gallagher (8 Neil Kilkenny – 78’);
14 Joe Garner, 10 Jermaine Beckford (27 Callum Robinson – 86’).
Subs not used: 21 Thorsten Stuckmann, 4 Scott Wiseman, 9 Kevin Davies, 25 Jordan Hugill.