Chesterfield FC – a club that can’t stop the slide

In football, you’re always told to savour the moment when things are going well as you never know when you’re going to get it as good again.

Chesterfield fans were probably told that after reaching the League One play-offs in 2015. Hopefully, some took that advice – because it could be a while before they re-scale those heights.

Not even the most pessimistic of Spireites fan could have anticipated the four years that followed their team’s triumphant march to the play-offs.

Since that superb 2014-15 campaign under the stewardship of current Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook, it’s been an endless run of setbacks and unremitting failure. A period that’s seen them go through six managers on a dramatic slide from the cusp of the Championship to a relegation dog-fight at the bottom of the National League.

A club that famously reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1997 is at serious risk of suffering a third relegation in four seasons and heading into the sixth-tier of English football and all-time low point in their history.

But how have things gone so wrong so fast for Chesterfield?

Catalogue of mistakes

Liam Norcliffe, Chesterfield reporter for the Derbyshire Times and the Sheffield Star, believes poor decision-making from the top has played a massive part in the Spireites’ ignominious fall from grace.

“I think the main reason why things have gone so wrong for Chesterfield in the last four or five years is down to a catalogue of bad decision-making,” said Norcliffe.

“Paul Cook left and a number of key players were sold and not replaced with the same quality. They’ve been on a downward spiral ever since and not able to turn it around”.

“They had a struggling season in League One after they missed out in the play-offs and then suffered back-to-back relegations out of the Football League. A number of managers have tried to get the club going again but have been unable to.”

Owner Dave Allen has received the brunt of the fans’ frustration over the course of the miserable last few years. By his own admission, his only goal was to get the club into the Championship and then “flog it”.

After just missing out on achieving that feat in 2015, a bitter relationship between the owner and the club ensued as they tumbled down the leagues.

Fans have been staying away, attendances have dwindled and the atmosphere has often been toxic at home games this season. Norcliffe is of the opinion that this has done nothing to help matters on the pitch for the struggling Spireites.

“You can’t doubt the level of investment that Dave Allen has put in,” he said.

“But I think the fans think the club has been left to dwindle away and he’s lost interest. He doesn’t come to games anymore, he only appears and talks to the media when they announce a new manager or to ask for backing from the fans.

“I think that’s a lot of the frustration, there’s not much passion there anymore”.

Managerial merry-go-round

Chesterfield sacked yet another manager in January when they axed boss John Sheridan, ending his second spell in charge of the club after just under a year at the helm.

Supporter Kurt Bigg thinks that Sheridan’s lack of experience in non-league was one of the main contributing factors behind his struggles.

“What went wrong for John Sheridan is that he was not a National League manager. He started off well but the difference between the EFL and non-league is bigger than people realise.

“It’s the same with the players as well, and that is where he went wrong. The side didn’t look like they want it as much as teams like Barrow and Bromley want it.”

Again, a bitter relationship between Sheridan and the fans began to brew, with fans desperate for change but with the journeyman digging his heels in and the club reluctant to pay him off.

Since Cook’s departure for Portsmouth in 2015, Chesterfield have tried everything to try and breathe some life back into the club.

They’ve gone for young and hungry managers like Jack Lester and Gary Caldwell, and they’ve also gone for more experienced coaches like Danny Wilson and Martin Allen – but no one has been able to restore the club’s fortunes.

Norcliffe feels that the environment that these managers have had to work in has left them with little chance of success and, again, the owners are at fault.

He said: “On paper, you can see why they went for them. Jack Lester is a legend of the club and they thought that might galvanise everyone, Martin Allen is an experienced manager with great knowledge of the lower-leagues, Gary Caldwell did a decent job at Wigan.

“In terms of why it’s gone wrong, it’s a number of different factors in terms of the way the club’s been run. There’s not much of a connection between the fans and the owners. They’ve never really replaced the players that left when they were in League One and it just needs someone to kick-start the club”.

Fresh hope?

Late last year, it was revealed that Dave Allen’s reign at Chesterfield could be coming to the end with Chesterfield FC Trust completing their due diligence on a deal which would see them increase their shareholding in the club to 84%.

However, on 17th January it was reported that the takeover bid had suffered a “setback” and the future of the club was plunged back into major doubt.

Bigg is desperate for the issues in the bid to be resolved and the takeover to go through, as he feels it would present the fans with fresh hope that the club can start moving in the right direction again.

He said: “We already saw an increase of 600 home fans for the game against Sutton and the takeover will bring back a lot more who are still staying away for the time being.

An evening game at the 10,500-capacity
Proact Stadium: Photo by Craig D Hannah via Flickr Creative Commons

“A club like Chesterfield is too big to be in the National League. And once under stable ownership and with the right manager, we can march towards the Football League and a brighter future”.

The next managerial appointment will be key for the Spireites. John Pemberton, currently caretaker boss, is in the running and has already put smiles back on faces with two wins in his first two matches in charge.

“Pemberton knows the club well,” says Norcliffe.

“He was the academy manager, and the fans have taken to him really well as he had a little stint as caretaker boss last year as well and got a couple of decent results.

“He comes across really well, the players like him, he’s a good coach. It’s his job to lose.

“He’s definitely said the right sort of things so far, it’s just about whether he can get a couple of results over the next month or so to get them away from the drop-zone.”

Whoever takes charge has got a huge job on their hands, not just in keeping the club up, but also restoring the pride and enthusiasm back into the town. That will only happen once a fanbase that’s been battered and bruised by four years of hurt can learn to truly love their club again.