Chesterfield couldn't recover from a disastrous start at Plainmoor as they succumbed to a disappointing 2-1 defeat against struggling Torquay United on a cold seaside evening on the English Riviera.
Notts County loanee Joss Labadie gave the hosts the lead inside two minutes when he ghosted into the penalty area to meet Thomas Cruise's clipped ball with a powerful header that nestled into the far corner before Rene Howe doubled the Gulls' advantage following a deft flick that cannoned in off the near post and left a flummoxed Tommy Lee with no chance.
Centre-half Liam Cooper gave his side a glimmer of hope with 14 minutes remaining, glancing home unmarked in the six-yard box from substitute Mark Randall's sumptuous free-kick but it was too little too late for Town who couldn't close the gap on seventh place to five points as their play-off hopes took an almost fatal blow in Devon.
Chesterfield made the arduous journey down to Plainmoor on Tuesday evening off the back of a rich vein of form, having clinched three wins from their last four games. Striker Marc Richards put an end to a run of nine starts without a goal at a rain-soaked Kassam Stadium to comfortably dispatch his seventh goal of an injury-ravaged season in the 1-0 win over fellow promotion chasers Oxford last time, moving the Spireites to within eight points of the League Two play-offs.
Manager Paul Cook made just one change from the side that defeated Chris Wilder's side on Saturday, replacing the injured Nathan Smith with Drew Talbot while Hull City loanee Conor Townsend deputised at left-back for the Jamaican international. The Liverpudlian's side have also conceded just one goal in their last five outings but were only able to name six substitutes with the hectic fixture schedule in March beginning to take its toll.
Torquay, meanwhile, have slid perilously close to the Football League's trapdoor after a run of just one win in 18 games has seen the Gulls become embroiled in the League Two relegation scrap. Manager Martin Ling has been on sickness absence and his deputy, interim boss Alan Knill, has seen his side become one of five teams stranded on 40 points at the foot of the division.
United's last win came way back at the end of January when they beat local rivals Exeter City 1-0 at St James Park courtesy of Rene Howe's penalty and they also managed a creditable draw with play-off chasing Southend United in their last encounter and the home side got themselves off to a flyer inside the opening two minutes when 22-year-old Labadie stole a march on the Town midfield before dispatching a well-placed header beyond the despairing Lee.
It was the first time in 11 games that the Spireites had conceded a first-half goal and unaccustomed to going a goal down, skipper Sam Hird attempted to grab his side by the scruff of the neck when he released Richards but with the ball running away from him, the 30-year-old couldn't gather enough purchase on the shot to beat the onrushing Michael Poke. And with the visitors still reeling from their first concession, they left themselves with a mountain to climb just seven minutes later when Howe doubled the lead with a sublime piece of skill.
Having been watertight at the back of late, it was disappointing that Cook's side were unable to clear their lines sufficiently from a poor corner at the front post and when Jordan Chapell lashed the rebound goalwards, Howe executed a deft flick with the back of his heel that cannoned in off the post. In spite of languishing towards the foot of the table, those clad in yellow were certainly not bereft of confidence and following Talbot's header, Howe almost had his second inside a disastrous opening 15 minutes when his drive flew narrowly wide of the far post.
The visitors' start was probably summed up with their best chance of the game in the 17th minute after Talbot had managed to squeeze a dangerous cross towards the far post but when the attempted clearance had narrowly escaped Richards' trailing leg, Jay O'Shea rifled his effort into the grounded former Port Vale man when he looked destined to score. United's tenacity was telling as three yellow shirts hunted down Talbot on the touchline while Tendayi Darikwa slipped on the byeline with nothing going the visitors' way beside the seaside.
Townsend came close to reducing the arrears just after the half-hour, when he sent a trademark curling free-kick over the wall only to see Poke nudge it over the top as United preserved their advantage with steely determination that bordered on the over-zealous, none more so than when Elliot Benyon was extremely fortunate to remain on the field after he thundered over the ball with both feet to leave Liam Cooper crumpled in a heap.
But with all eleven somehow still on the pitch, the hosts should have made it three after Townsend was caught napping by Ryan Jarvis on the near side and after he sent a teasing ball across the face of the goal Cruise could only angle his effort over under pressure from Neal Trotman. Two minutes of additional time were added and Hird was himself fortunate to escape a booking for a high boot but it was going to take a monumental effort from the visitors after the break if they were going to salvage any points from this encounter.
Jack Lester was sent on in place of Darikwa for the second-half as Cook moved O'Shea to the right of a four-man midfield, but the home side were back on the offensive in the 49th minute and forced another corner which Chesterfield eventually scrambled clear after Cruise's looping ball had slipped straight through the grasp of Lee. It must have been contagious, as at the other end Poke let one slip but he gathered it at the second attempt with Lester sniffing around.
Lee Mansell had the ball in the net moments later, but his effort was chalked off with the flag raised on the far side after he had slipped it beneath Lee and after a series of niggles Angus MacDonald and substitute Lester were both booked for an off the ball altercation in spite of referee Mr. Stuart Atwell having his back turned to the incident. With just over half an hour remaining, Cook introduced Mark Randall at the expense of Sam Togwell in an attempt to add some creativity to the midfield and a flurry of corners soon ensued for the visitors, who were finally beginning to find their rhythm but in spite of O'Shea's fancy footwork he couldn't find a way past a wall of yellow shirts on the edge of the area.
On the hour, Randall overcooked a pass intended for Richards and with the ballboys in no rush to retrieve it, Cook raced down the touchline eager to resume play with his side seeking a route back into the contest. Danny Whitaker was thrown on for Townsend with 17 minutes to play as Cook played his final card and with 14 minutes on the clock, the outstanding Cooper set up a grandstand finish when he met Randall's wonderful delivery with a glancing header six-yards out to finally give the 94 travelling supporters who had made the trip something to shout about.
Following their recent run, Plainmoor was soon transformed into an eerie silence as the nerves jangled amongst the home crowd and after O'Shea had squirmed free in the box he sent a powerful drive across the face of the goal that Lester was within an inch of converting at the far post. With under 10 minutes left, the only problem was whether the visitors had enough time to claw themselves back from oblivion but Brian Saah should have put the game to bed when he volleyed Mansell's looping free-kick straight at Lee and Howe had another effort ruled out for offside but it mattered little in the end, as the home side managed to hold in spite of five additional minutes to clinch three precious points in their quest for Football League survival.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1) - Lee; Brindley, Trotman, Cooper, Townsend (Whitaker 73); Hird (c), Togwell (Randall 57); Darikwa (Lester 45), Talbot, O'Shea; Richards.
Subs not used - Barrington, Henshall, Clark.
Bookings - Richards (13), Lester (55), Hird (90+1)
Goals - Cooper (76)
Torquay United (4-4-2)- Poke; Oastler, Saah, MacDonald, Cruise; Chapell (Macklin 90+4), Mansell (c), Labadie, Jarvis (Leadbitter 84); Howe, Benyon (Craig (77).
Subs not used - Rice, Nicholson, Lathorpe, Stevens.
Bookings - Saah (13), Benyon (37), Labadie (53), MacDonald (55)
Goals - Labadie (2), Howe (9)
Referee - Mr. Stuart Attwell.
Attendance - 2, 047 (94 away)