Marc Richards ended his recent goal drought after just five minutes to give the Spireites another hard-fought 1-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Oxford United and move them to within eight points of local rivals Rotherham United who occupy seventh.
The former Port Vale striker gave the visitors a dream start when he confidently dispatched with all the precision of a seasoned marksman past the helpless Luke McCormick after Richard Brindley had slid an inch-perfect pass through a static Oxford defence and it proved to be enough after another monumental defensive performance ensured another clean sheet.
Chesterfield made the trip to a rain-sodden Kassam Stadium with their faint play-off hopes still agonisingly in the balance as Paul Cook's side found themselves within 10 points of Exeter City having played a game less at kick-off. The Spireites appear to have turned a corner of late, winning two of their last three games but still find themselves amidst mid-table obscurity after a disappointing run of just two wins in 10 games beforehand.
The manager chose to make two changes for the trip to Oxfordshire, replacing 37-year-old Jack Lester with Tendayi Darikwa after the Nottingham-born youngster completed his rehabilitation from a double hernia operation and Richards was preferred over Ivorian international Armand Gnanduillet with the former Port Vale striker searching for his first goal in nine starts.
In-form Oxford, on the other hand, have moved themselves up to ninth just five points behind the play-off places after a scintillating run of five wins in their last seven. Chris Wilder's side previously suffered a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Rotherham United, but have responded with back-to-back wins over struggling Torquay United and Barnet respectively courtesy of Michael Raynes' header five minutes into added time against Edgar Davids' struggling Bees.
Poet Matthew Arnold once famously dubbed Oxford as the City of Dreaming Spires in reference to the harmonious architecture of the University buildings and a contrasting mixture of swashbuckling sleet and a picturesque rainbow welcomed the 300-strong travelling contingent wishing for the proverbial pot of gold come the end of April. With the Cheltenham Festival having come to a conclusion yesterday, the going was certainly soft in places after a combination of the recent deluge and London Welsh meant that large areas of the surface were bathed in mud but the visitors were given a dream start by Richards after barely five minutes.
The 30-year-old striker has been forced to endure a tumultuous season since his switch from Burslem, adjusting to playing up front on his own whilst also battling a recurring hamstring twinge and following a barren spell stretching back to the 3-0 win over Northampton in January, the ex-Valiant made an intelligent run in-between the United back-four before latching onto Brindley's incisive pass and angling into the far corner.
It was the perfect tonic for manager Cook, whose decision to play the out-of-form striker was fully vindicated but with Exeter also winning down in Devon, the gap to seventh place remained nine points and the Liverpudlian's side were forced to withstand their first barrage of pressure midway through the first half when Sean Rigg squeezed a cross in from the far side and after Alfie Potter's deft header was parried by Tommy Lee, Deane Smalley's effort was scrambled away by Liam Cooper inside the six-yard box.
Urged forward by the Oxford Ultras behind the goal, it was the first sign of the yellows springing into life but with Nathan Smith clutching his ankle on the touchline, the game boiled over just shy of the half-hour mark when former Chesterfield loanee Smalley inexplicably attempted to hurl the injured Jamaican international off the pitch instigating a minor fracas. Smalley was booked for unsporting behaviour while Smith was withdrawn for Danny Whitaker following the incident with Conor Townsend dropping to left-back and with the on-loan Hull youngster caught slightly upfield, right-back Damien Batt was unfortunate not to find James Constable with a tantalising cross.
Our Conor clinched the JCB Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday and Chesterfield's very own Townsend came close to doubling the visitors' lead when he sent his dipping free-kick onto the roof of the net after Raynes had hurled down Richards 25-yards from goal, but he failed to intercept a Scott Davies' pass soon after and Cooper had to be on his mettle to deny Potter's ensuing drive.
The home side were now beginning to unleash an arsenal of crosses before the break, but the Spireites' vastly improving defence comfortably dealt with United's aerial assault until Neal Trotman mis-timed his jump from Potter's diagonal ball towards Smalley and after he had brought the ball down on his chest, Lee quickly raced off his line to smother his goal-bound shot and preserve the visitors' lead at the break.
The heavens opened once again as the teams came out for the second half and former Norwich trainee Brindley got himself on the front foot again almost immediately when he sent a teasing ball across the face of McCormick's goal that narrowly eluded the outstretched leg of Richards. Lee was called into action again after Smalley had managed to dance his way into the opposing area but his drive from an acute angle was gathered with ease before O'Shea, now meandering further forward alongside Richards, skipped between two yellow shirts before placing his effort narrowly wide of the far post.
Darikwa was replaced by Drew Talbot 20 minutes into the second half with his legs looking increasingly wearisome, but not before Richards appeared to have been bundled over in the box by Raynes as the Spireites' run extended to 53 league games without being awarded a penalty. The visitors were looking in complete command and with the natives becoming increasingly restless, Cook's side had the ball in the net once again but after Richards had volleyed Talbot's cross towards Whitaker to convert, the flag was raised on the far side to prevent the Spireites from moving out of sight.
Second-half substitute Tom Craddock forced Lee into a routine low save with 15 minutes left, but the hosts' endeavours remained fruitless as Cooper once again marshalled a ruthless Chesterfield back-line. The only real danger appeared to be for those parked in the car park behind Lee's goal, as Constable turned efficiently before slashing one towards an unsuspecting Toyota Yaris residing in harm's way and United's afternoon was probably summed up when the ball was stolen by a teenage delinquent heading for a Saturday night at the movies.
With St. Patrick's Day looming tomorrow, it appeared O'Shea was once again intent on celebrating with the man of the match champagne and after some more delightful footwork, his stand up to the back post was just inches too high for Richards before Wilder sent on former Chelsea graduate Harry Worley on up front as the home side resorted to the long ball.
But in spite of four additional minutes, the visitors held on for another hard-fought three points amidst a torrential downpour ahead of an arduous trip to Plainmoor on Tuesday night.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Brindley (Randall 89), Trotman, Cooper, Smith (Whitaker 28); Darikwa (Talbot 66), Hird (c); Togwell, Townsend, O'Shea; Richards.
Subs not used - Barrington, Clark, Henshall, Lester.
Bookings - N/A
Goals - Richards (5)
Oxford United - McCormick; Batt, Raynes (Worley 86), Wright (c), Davis; Potter, Davies, Whing, Rigg (Craddock 59); Constable, Smalley (Parker 78).
Subs not used - Burberry, Heslop, Brown, O'Brien.
Bookings - Smalley (27)
Goals - N/A
Referee - Mr. Darren Bond
Attendance - 6, 003 (385 away)