A remarkable first season at the B2Net Stadium came to a dramatic conclusion against Gillingham this afternoon. That Chesterfield FC stood just one point away from being crowned champions of League Two might have been in everyone's hopes when The Spireites launched the season against Barnet on August 7th, but experienced supporters would never have dared to expect it.
To indicate just how successful this season has been, a substantial part of the usual pre-match build-up was occupied by a series of presentations that continued to occupy the half-time break, too. For the first time ever, two Chesterfield sides were set to win their respective leagues, and the youth team were given the opportunity to parade their championship trophy.
On an individual level, goalkeeper Tommy Lee started his 46th league game of the season today,becoming the club's first "ever-present" since Carl Muggleton, back in 2003-4.
Chesterfield kicked off, attacking the Printability Stand end, which hadn't seen a Spireite goal in the last three games. Deane Smalley started wide on the left of midfield, with Talbot on the right, and Allott and Whitaker in the centre.
Chesterfield began the brighter of the two sides and Holden saw a cross blocked for corner after 2 minutes. Danny Whitaker took it long and Dwayne Mattis saw his flicked header at the near post flash wide.
Gillingham were by no means inferior, growing in assurance as the half went on. They needed a win, really, and approached the game in a positive spirit. Chesterfield were required to work hard for everything and Jack Lester obliged, making runs to pull defenders about, and laying several deft flicked headers into the path of the persistent Craig Davies. Smalley, too, was busy down the left in the first half.
Lester was fouled on halfway in the ninth minute and took the free-kick quickly. The ball came to Talbot, who shot just wide from 20 yards. Gillingham had their moments too, and Bentley shot just over from the edge of box after neat passing movement that temporarily quietened the raucous din from the home supporters!
Lester nodded into Davies' path but Martin got in to clear for corner on 14. It was taken short and a goal kick resulted. The temperature went up a notch when Davies and Richards chased a ball towards the corner flag; in the whirlwind of arms that stretched for the advantage, Davies was accidentally caught in the face and reacted to this, continuing the disagreement for some minutes afterwards.
On 19, the imposing Akinfenwa flicked forwards for McDonald to run on to, but Mattis stretched his neck and his controlled header prevented the prolific frontman from capitalising on the move.
Griffiths went down the left on 27 but was shouldered off the ball. Smalley picked it up and crossed to Davies; he had to carry the ball out of box to find a lay-off to Holden, who shot just over from 25 yards.
Gillingham came closest to taking the lead when McDonald was put through after a fairly blatant Jackman handball was missed. Thankfully Lee came out to dive at his feet and save, cleanly, in the penalty area; to his credit, McDonald stayed on his feet when a few theatricals might have won a spot kick.
Akinfenwa went into the book on 44 after reacting badly to a fair but firm Mattis challenge that left the burly forward on his backside. In first half injury time Spiller followed him, yellow-carded for dissent after Davies was brought down near the corner flag. Whitaker's free kick found the unmarked Smalley but it swerved on the way and Smalley could only drive it out of play.
HT 0-0 Attendance: 10023 (841 Gillingham fans)
Gillingham enjoyed the better start, slightly, to the second half. A McDonald shot was blocked for a corner on 47; Mather's searching kick found Lee's fingertips and another corner resulted, from the other side. Jackman's kick was just as troublesome, and was cleared over the bar for a third corner. This one passed over everyone and out, for a throw in.
Chesterfield were committed to attack, but seemed careful not to over-commit. Lester produced a fine turn 40 yards out on 51 but was robbed by Bentley when he reached the edge of the Gillingham box. Three minutes later Chesterfield took the lead. Lester and his marker clashed on the edge of the box; while others were distracted by this DANNY WHITAKER took the ball round the goalkeeper's right and squeezed the ball home from the tightest of angles.
A Holden cross was cut out for a corner by Spiller on 58. Whitaker took it long and over everyone but it was recovered and worked back to Davies, who won a corner on other side. Whitaker took this one short and it was worked to Allott, who pulled a shot wide.
Gillingham made the game's first substitution, Weston replacing Spiller on 59. Talbot and Allott wored to block a Jackman shot from the edge of the box after Akinfenwa held the ball up well. Tommy Lee made an outstanding save on 65, denying Jackman by standing up to beat his powerful shot, which was seen late, around the post and out of play.
Minutes later, though, an apparent mix-up between Lee and Griffiths led to an equaliser. Akinfenwa played a ball through to McDonald on 67 and neither keeper nor full-back took the initiative; McDonald arrived at the same time as the chesterfield men and squeaked the ball over them both and into the net from the edge of the box.
Mattis was booked for bringing down the troublesome Akinfenwa 25 yards out as he burst past Holden's challenge. Jackman's cute lob over wall was well directed but Lee saved and a hushed ground sprang back to life!
Morgan replaced Davies to a standing ovation on 75. Everyone looked to see if Davies's departure would be strung out long enough to be interpreted as a conclusive "Goodbye," but Craig was giving nothing away. Within a minute, Chesterfield restored their lead when Scott Griffiths' low cross was turned into the net at the near post by JACK LESTER. The club's newest celebrity fan and Jack's good mate Graeme Swann responded as if he'd just bowled an Ashes-winning delivery!
Gillingham brought Rooney on for Bentley after 78 minutes. Chesterfield wrapped the match up on 81 minutes when Griffiths produced another low cross from the left that DEANE SMALLEY pushed home from a couple of yards out.
There was time for Chesterfield substitutions that had a ceremonial air about them. Veteran club captain Ian Breckin came on for Dwayne Mattis before the re-start and the Gills swapped Payne for Sinclair at the same time.
Scott Boden replaced Jack Lester 86 and the lynch-pin of the forward line received a mountainous ovation. Weston was booked for a foul as Chesterfield closed out the game and closed in on the League Two championship.
Chesterfield were deservedly crowned champions in post-game presentations that went ahead without interference from invading supporters. All 10,023 present - including the ultimately disappointed contingent from Kent - behaved impeccably, so everyone got to share in the glory. There were ovations for Dave Allen, Barrie Hubbard, and John Sheridan. The players were introduced two by two to the crowd, who roared appropriately, but found a higher pitch for Lester, Davies, Lee and the unfortunate Gregor Robertson. Dean Morgan was not the only one who appeared to be moved to tears by the experience, but no-one seemed to enjoy himself more than Danny Whitaker, who found himself in possession of the trophy after his team-mates had returned to the dressing rooms, but stayed on for at least half an hour after the final whistle to have his photo taken with gleeful fans at the end of what has been a remarkable season.