A valiant and combative display from Chesterfield couldn't prevent them from sliding to a second 2-1 cup reversal at the hands of Ronnie Moore's Tranmere Rovers this season, as the League One leaders inflicted defeat on Paul Cook's in-form side in an ill-tempered affair at his old stomping ground.
On loan Hull City defender Liam Cooper gave the visitors the lead in the 32nd minute when he converted Luis Boa Morte's near post corner, but Rovers hit back three minutes before the interval through the lively Cole Stockton's 25-yard pile-driver. Adam McGurk gave the home side the lead just shy of the hour-mark when he was on hand to sweep home Michael O'Halloran's cutback and that proved to be the decisive goal as the second tier table-toppers ensured their passage into Round Three.
The Spireites have been in imperious form in League Two recently - having suffered just one defeat in November and recording three wins on the bounce - but nonetheless, a place in the coveted velvet bag for Round Three remained a welcome distraction for Paul Cook. The Liverpudlian made two enforced changes from the side that edged a 1-0 win against struggling Plymouth Argyle on their travels seven days ago, replacing Chris Atkinson, who scored on his return to Huddersfield in their 4-2 defeat against Leeds United, for youngster Craig Clay.
On loan Brighton and Hove Albion winger Brennan Dickenson was ineligible, so Premier League winner Boa Morte stepped in to fill the void, while MK Dons loanee Jay O'Shea was cup tied and Mark Randall returned to the bench on Cook's return to Prenton Park. Tranmere themselves have been the early pace-setters in League One, but remained without a win in their previous three encounters, allowing Dean Saunders' Doncaster to draw level on 39 points at the summit.
Wolverhampton Wanderers loanee Jake Cassidy has been the protagonist in Rovers' recent revival, scoring 11 league goals, but he was unavailable for the hosts. It was a chilly day in Birkenhead and it was the visitors who carved out the first opportunity eight minutes into the contest when Clay surged towards the byeline, but his cutback was drilled over by Marc Richards on the turn.
Rovers' combative skipper James Wallace was then forced to be withdrawn just moments later, after he suffered a potentially serious injury following a thunderous challenge from Cooper and he was replaced by the superbly named Max Power. These two sides met at the Proact Stadium in the opening round of the Capital One Cup back in August and after a goalless 90 minutes, Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro's last-gasp strike sealed a 2-1 win for Ronnie Moore's side and on the evidence of the opening 15 minutes, it looked as though chances would be at a premium once again.
On 19 minutes though, Richards plunged his second attempt at goal from range after Danny Whitaker's ball inside, but it followed a similar orbit to his first effort and flew harmlessly over Owain Fon Williams' crossbar. It took a mis-placed pass for the home side to finally spring to life six minutes later, when Clay surrendered possession in the middle of the park and Michael O'Halloran set strike partner Stockton free on goal but his low drive was met by the strong palms of Tommy Lee.
The hosts had been surprisingly placid until then but buoyed by their opening foray into the Chesterfield area, Rovers once again tested Lee's reflexes through Stockton, who swivelled superbly to squeeze a powerful shot at the near post. The in-form League Two side roared back, however, courtesy of Whitaker's fizzing drive which was pushed round the post by the sprawling Fon Williams.
The Welshman would have been forgiven for having frosty fingertips in the arctic Wirral weather, but his mistake from the ensuing corner which led to the opening goal just after the half-an-hour mark would have infuriated boss Moore and the eerily quiet home support. Young Tiger Cooper has been in impressive form at the heart of the Spireites defence of late, but he has also found a ruthless streak at the other end and the 21-year-old was on hand to sweep home his second goal of the season from Boa Morte's scuffed cross after it had been allowed to creep into the six-yard box.
It was no more than the visitors had deserved in truth, but the League One leaders responded well and again called Lee into action when the pacy O'Halloran raced through on goal. Tranmere's front pairing had been sprightly in the opening period, exchanging passes and dropping deep to occupy Togwell's attentions but Stockton's patience was beginning to wear thin and he was booked for a nasty lunge on the former Scunthorpe midfielder.
However, when the 18-year-old forward focused his ability in the correct manner, he hauled the home side level with a wonderful 25-yard effort that skipped off the glistening surface and beyond the despairing clutches of Lee to ensure honours remained even as the teams headed back into the warmth of the dressing rooms. When play resumed, Boa Morte was confusingly booked by the erratic Mr. Madley after an innocuous collision with 40-year-old Ian Goodison when the Portuguese winger appeared to be clean through and three minutes shy of the hour mark, matters were made worse when McGurk gave the Super Whites the lead.
Andy Robinson had been quiet on the left by his usual standards, but he slipped O'Halloran free in the left channel and the former Bolton Wanderers striker tormented the Spireites' backline before sending the ball across goal for the onrushing McGurk to slide home. It prompted Cook to make a double change, introducing Jack Lester and Randall as the Liverpudlian shuffled to a 4-4-2 formation. The game had been threatening to boil over after the restart, not helped by the referee, and Tendayi Darikwa was booked before he was then scythed down by Ben Gibson after he had shown the left-back a clean pair of heels.
It was the visitors that were now in the ascendency, orchestrated by former Arsenal trainee Randall, but it was Richards who was next to pull the trigger when his deflected effort was comfortably gathered by Fon Williams. The classy midfielder then sent the former Vale marksman bearing down on goal with an inch-perfect through ball, but veteran defender Goodison was quick to cover and diverted the danger.
Robinson was then withdrawn for Joe Thompson and Tranmere's blatant and rather unsavoury ploy to try and wind Boa Morte up continued, as the former Leeds winger exchanged words with the Portuguese on his way back to the bench much to the disapproval of the away dugout. With seven minutes remaining, confusion reigned again as Tranmere's quick corner was forced to be retaken with the ball not placed correctly in the quadrant and from the following ball in, O'Halloran's close range header was somehow bundled away by Lee.
Still Chesterfield clung on and they were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when Richards' vicious goal-bound strike appeared to strike a flailing hand with an animated Cook protesting on the pitch, before Drew Talbot gallivanted forward from right-back but slashed wide with his weaker foot. Five minutes of added time were indicated, but in spite of Cooper's rasping drive, dreams of another memorable cup run were to end on familiar territory for Cook on Merseyside, who faces another difficult away trip to high-flying Port Vale next Saturday.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Talbot, Hird (c), Cooper, Smith; Togwell, Clay (Randall 62); Darikwa, Whitaker (Lester 62), Boa Morte; Richards.
Subs not used - O'Donnell, Forbes, Townsend, Boden, Wafula.
Bookings - Boa Morte (54), Darikwa (64), Hird (75)
Goals - Cooper (32)
Tranmere Rovers (4-4-2) - Fon Williams; Holme, Goodison, Gibson, Bakayogo; McGurk, Harrison, Wallace (c) (Power 10), Robinson (Thompson 76); Stockton, O'Halloran.
Subs not used - Black, Taylor, Kay, Daniels, Mooney.
Bookings - Stockton (41), Gibson (67), Goodison (70), Fon Williams (86)
Goals - Stockton (42), McGurk (57)
Referee - Mr. Andrew Madley
Attendance - 3, 781