Chesterfield bounced back to winning ways with aplomb after a scintillating first-half performance saw them breeze past in-form Northampton Town with a 3-0 win on an arctic January afternoon at The Proact Stadium.
Paul Cook would certainly have been expecting a reaction following successive away defeats and he certainly got one, as his side blew the Cobblers away with a whirlwind performance in the opening half-hour which saw the Spireites breach the visitors' futile resistance on three occasions. Jay O'Shea crowned his permanent move to the club with his third goal in eight appearances on 18 minutes, spinning on a sixpence to slam home from close range after Danny Whitaker's incisive cutback before Marc Richards punished his former club just 60 seconds later, capitalising on Clarke Carlisle's mistake to bury his fifth goal of the season.
The 30-year-old striker looked like a man possessed in the opening half an hour and he raced clear of the trailing Kelvin Langmead to confidently dispatch his second in the 25th minute, as the Spireites reignited their dwindling play-off push and moved just one point behind seventh-placed Southend and five points away from an automatic promotion place.
The Proact has been a beehive of activity this week, with Craig Westcarr and Premier League winner Luis Boa Morte departing, while Brennan Dickenson returned to the south coast following the end of his loan deal from Brighton and Hove Albion and the Spireites returned to North Derbyshire after a disappointing start to the new year, having suffered back-to-back defeats on their travels against Accrington Stanley and Wycombe Wanderers respectively.
Cook chose to make three changes from the side that surrendered a one-goal lead at Adams Park, with transfer-listed Neal Trotman making his first appearance since the home defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge at the expense of Drew Talbot, who limped off in Buckinghamshire with a broken toe. Skipper Sam Hird shuffled across to right-back to accommodate the former Rochdale defender and Craig Clay was also introduced into the fray to replace Mark Randall.
Dublin-born midfielder O'Shea impressed during his loan spell from MK Dons and the Irishman made the switch to Whittington Moor a permanent one on Friday as he was named behind lone-striker Richards, with the returning Whitaker on the left but the Liverpudlian's resources were so stretched that he was forced to hand academy prospects Jack Broadhead and Tim Whittaker a premature place on the bench.
Aidy Boothroyd's side had been in fine form of late, amassing three successive victories to thrust themselves back into contention for the play-offs and if their lairy fluorescent change strip was anything to go by then confidence was certainly not in short supply at Sixfields. Northampton may be famous for one of the country's finest rugby union teams in the Saints but it was the Cobblers who made their intentions clear almost immediately when the gargantuan figure of Adebayo Akinfenwa clattered into both Nathan Smith and then Trotman.
Ben Tozer launched the first of many long throw-ins goalwards minutes after but Akinfenwa was again penalised for his over-robust approach as the ball spent most of the time in the swirling wind in the game's opening 10 minutes. Lee Nicholls, who was given his league debut by Cook for Stanley last season, was called into action for the first time four minutes later to clutch Richards' powerful free-kick before the game exploded into life with two goals inside 60 seconds.
Thankfully, they were both for the home side as the Spireites finally got the ball on the floor and carved Town's defence to shreds thanks largely to the effervescent O'Shea. The 24-year-old has made a positive impression since arriving on a temporary basis from Stadium:MK, and, buoyed by penning a one-and-a-half year deal with the club, he found enough space in the six-yard box to swivel and fire past the despairing Nicholls following Whitaker's intelligent pass.
There was hardly time to cease celebrating the opener though, as Richards doubled the hosts' advantage inside a minute when Carlisle failed to deal with another ball plummeting from the sky and the former Port Vale man raced clear to to end his barren spell of recently hitting the woodwork. It was richly deserved for Richards, whose season has been blighted by injury and he has often found himself isolated leading the line, but just six minutes later he set himself up for the perfect hat-trick as Cook's side completely blew Northampton out of the water with their third goal in just 25 minutes.
Richards this time demonstrated blistering pace and strength, holding off the attentions of Langmead before moving the ball onto his left foot and sliding into the far corner with consummate ease. It was finally the intensity that the 45-year-old has craved since his arrival from The Crown Ground as the Blues moved the ball quickly, often with limited touches, with Boothroyd's side failing to control the live-wire that was O'Shea.
Buzzing around in the hole, the elusive midfielder again evaded the attentions of Luke Guttridge and Ben Harding and he twice rifled over following promising moves. Clay also fancied getting himself on the scoresheet, trading passes with the Irishman before drawing a smart save from Nicholls. His opposite number, Tommy Lee, was not without incident himself though and he had to be alert to thwart Akinfenwa following another arial bombardment before the break.
Northampton, unsurprisingly, emerged quickly after the restart with Boothroyd's riot act presumably still ringing around a few sore heads in the visiting dressing room. Equally as predictable, was that it was the former Gillingham forward Akinfenwa who came closest to reducing the arrears as his volley flashed over Lee's crossbar with the tempo of a previously pulsating encounter beginning to dwindle.
Clive Platt had barely had a kick with 64 minutes on the clock, but he couldn't make himself the protagonist of an unlikely revival when he miscued wide after managing to wriggle free of Trotman and the woodwork, something which as been a source of much frustration so far this campaign for the Spireites, was left rattling when Chris Hackett slammed a powerful drive against the angle.
It was perhaps of some consolation that the post was becoming of help rather than hinderance, while Lee was down at his near post to push away the former Wycombe winger's curling free kick and when it wasn't the fingertips of the former Macclesfield man trying to preserve his clean sheet, it was skipper Hird who threw himself wholeheartedly into a brave block on the goal-line.
With the Cobblers' fightback seemingly over, Whitaker should have added another 10 minutes from time but he could only arch his effort over after Tendayi Darikwa's cutback before the sublime O'Shea and Richards were both withdrawn for their standing ovation. The final whistle was greeted with a mixture of jubilation and relief, as the Spireites arrested their recent slump ahead of the arduous journey to the English Riviera in seven days time but hopefully on this occasion, this step forward won't be followed with two steps back.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Hird (c), Cooper, Trotman, Smith; Togwell, Clay (Randall 76); Darikwa, Whitaker, O'Shea (Wafula 90); Richards (Lester 85).
Subs not used - O'Donnell, Boden, Broadhead, Whittaker.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - O'Shea (18), Richards (19, 25)
Northampton Town - Nicholls; Tozer, Langmead (c), Carlisle, Widdowson; Hackett, Guttridge, Harding (Demontagnac 83), Robinson; Akinfenwa (Hornby 74), Platt.
Subs not used - Snedker, Wilson, Moult, Dias, Turnbull.
Bookings - Carlisle (43), Robinson (68)
Goals - N/A
Referee - Mr. Stuart Atwell
Attendance - 5, 477