Contributors: Sky Is Blue and The Beautful History, The Guardian and iNews
From glimpsing Championship football to staring non-league full in the face, Chesterfield’s decline has been eye-watering. Three years of failure on the pitch is bad enough, but for all the defeats, it is off-field scandal, gaffes and poor decisions that have compounded supporters’ misery. In May 2015, Paul Cook led a Chesterfield team that included Premier League star Sam Clucas to the League One play-offs. Three years later Cook is celebrating promotion from League One with Wigan while the Spireites are managerless, rock bottom of League Two and will exit the Football League for the first time in 97 years. It has been a bitter, bewildering decline.
Paul Cook led Chesterfield to the League One play-offs in 2015. It’s been all downhill since he left (Getty Images)
Until the 2018/19 season, they were the only one of the Division Three North founding members who hadn’t resigned, been voted out or relegated from the Football League.
The 1990/01 season saw them finish 18th in Division Four, on two occasions in the 1960s they came within one place of having to reapply for re-election to the League and in 1962 they finished 19th but Accrington’s departure meant only three clubs were up for re-election.
Ex-Wigan boss Gary Caldwell arrived, signed a bunch of kids on loan and watched helplessly as the inevitable relegation occurred. Head of recruitment Paul Mitchell had been allowed to leave during Wilson’s tenure and not replaced, until Guy Branston stepped forward, the new chief scout tasked with building a 2017/18 League Two promotion winning squad.
In an all-too familiar scenario, a poor start to the season meant another new manager.
Director Ashley Carson said he wanted experience and promptly appointed rookie Jack Lester. The club legend tried to whip an imbalanced squad into shape, but an injury crisis and a knack of conceding late goals brought another relegation and his departure.
There are considerable doubts concerning the early days of Chesterfield FC, one of the oldest clubs in existence. These include the dates when they played at their two grounds (both just off Saltergate), their possible folding at one time, and the relation with neighbouring Spital Football Club. It’s all very confusing.
The formation of the club has been recorded as 1866 though concrete evidence exists only of a formation in 1867. A reconstitution occurred as Chesterfield Town in 1884 and a team went under this name until 1917, followed in 1919 by Chesterfield Municipal, with the reversion to plain Chesterfield a year later. The early club played on several sites around then, including 2 fields just off Saltergate, it’s only ever permanent home. In the early days it was referred to as the Recreation Ground, which is still its official name, but any references to playing at Spital should be treated with scepticism.
The club’s original members played only friendly matches until 1891 when they turned professional and did not play any matches at all for a time around 1881. Anyway, in 1871 club issued a set of rules, still in existence today, drawn up by club President John Cutts, a local solicitor and town clerk, together with Mr C.W Rollinson who was Secretary and treasurer. They were the driving force behind the club at the time. In 1884 the club officially moved to the Recreation Ground, Saltergate which in those days was little more than a mowed, enclosed field with a small cover on the half way line on the Compton Street side.
In the 1892-93 season, Chesterfield’s first team sported a most unusual outfit of patriotic shirts with a large Union Flag (did you know it should only be called a “Union Jack” when it’s flown on the jack mast of a ship?) emblazoned across the front. They were found in the loft of the Spital Hotel by the landlord, who then donated the shirts to the club. The shirts were almost certainly those of the defunct Spital Olympic club.
Other interesting club colours in the early days were cardinal and sky blue, myrtle green and red stripes (reintroduced as an away kit in 2002-03 season) and away kits of black and yellow hoops. The early football league outfits were white shirts with black shorts, followed by black and white striped shirts with white shorts. Following the re-election failure of 1909 the club colours were red shirts and white shorts. Just prior to rejoining the league in 1921, the Municipal run club wore black and white hoped shirts with white shorts. Older fans still remember with affection the outfits from 1928 to 1945 of blue and white striped jerseys with either navy or black shorts. In 1870 the club records show that blue and white jerseys and white trousers were the official dress and despite the numerous changes over the years already mentioned, this traditional outfit has remained as the basic kit since 1945. It will therefore come as no surprise that Chesterfield are sometimes nicknamed “The Blues”, but more often referred to as “Town”. The crooked spire of the Church of Chesterfield inspired the other more romantic name, ‘The Spireites’ which is the official nickname.
Chesterfield’s arms were granted in 1955. The shield represents a pomegranate tree, taken from the town’s ancient common seal. Catherine of Aragon is thought to have introduced the pomegranate to Britain and the view of the college of arms is that the use of the pomegranate tree is, in fact, a royal allusion to the pomegranate of Granada which was used as a badge by Catherine of Aragon, by her husband Henry VIII and by Mary Tudor.
The crest depicts a ram indicating the town’s association with the county of Derbyshire and the mural crown represents a town wall and is appropriate to a Borough like Chesterfield. The town was one of the first six boroughs of ancient domesne in the country from the Roman days it was called Cestrefeld, meaning ‘the open field near the camp’. The base of rock and moorland signify the proximity of the Peak District. The supporters are a cock and a pynot (or magpie), each wearing around the neck a ducal crown. They represent a public house by the name of ‘The Cock and Pynot’ at Old Whittington and commemorate the scene of a revolutionary plot, hatched here in 1688, by the Earl of Devonshire, the Earl of Danby and John d’Arcy who was the heir to the Earl of Holderness. The motto: “Aspire” encourages people to aim for higher things and at the same time is a punning reference to the famous Crooked Spire of the Parish Church.
Grounds like the Recreation Ground are becoming fewer in number and, with the departure of the Chesterfield Football Club to a new stadium in the summer of 2010, that number became one fewer. Football had been played at the Recreation Ground, on Saltergate, since 1871, but the old place changed beyond all recognition in that time.
Prior to using the Recreation Ground the earliest Chesterfield Football Club – no more than an arm of the cricket club – played at the Recreation Ground. Bear with us: this Rec was a hundred yards or so closer to town than the current place, and Tennyson Avenue runs up the middle of what was the field that was once our home. When the cricket club fell out with the owner of the Rec the club moved a bit further along Saltergate to what was immediately known as the New Recreation Ground. The word “new” dropped out of use over the next ten years or so. Interestingly, it was not until the 1920s that it began to be popularly known as “Saltergate.”
Football shared with cricket until the mid-1890s.Looking around the developed stadium, it was difficult to imagine a cricket field fitting in the perimeter, but with everything demolished in 2012, it was easier to appreciate how the cricket might have taken place there.
Pre-season training in 1955.
The Cross Street end was once known as the Cricket Pitch End, but this pitch would not have had a ‘square’, as such, since it was customary in those days for the visiting team to decide where the wicket would be pitched, anywhere on the field. This end has also been known as the Brickyard End, since there was a brick yard off Hawkesley Avenue, and Brickyard Walk, which runs from Marsden Street to Tennyson Avenue, continued along behind the ground before it was opened out by the council to form the Cross Street extension in 1921.
The club made a gift of the necessary land for the council’s scheme in exchange for the building of the wall at the back of the Cross Street end. This wall was the oldest surviving feature of the ground at the time of its closure. To accommodate Cross Street the pitch was shifted around twenty feet closer to Saltergate, and levelled by as much as four feet along its length. There used to be a noticeable hill in the Compton Street/Cross Street corner of the ground: much of this was dug out to fulfil a condition of entry to the Football League in 1899, but an appreciable slope remained until the 1921 alterations.
A wooden stand sat along what became St. Margaret’s Drive .This was put up around 1893 and originally held about 400. It was steadily doubled in size to hold 1600, eventually, and was roofed over when the Town club joined the Football League in 1899. This stand lasted until 1936, when it was replaced by the most recent edifice. It didn’t quite run the length of the pitch; its northern end was where the later players’ tunnel was, and a ramshackle hut between that and the Cross Street end served as changing rooms. Each extension took it closer to Saltergate until, by the time of its demolition, there was a tidy symmetry to the thing. Directors’ rooms and offices occupied land between the stand and Saltergate.
To get into it, you paid ground admission at Saltergate and then paid to transfer to the enclosure or the stand. For a number of years, women were admitted free of charge, since it was felt that their presence had a calming effect on their men folk. The lack of a ‘wet’ bar would have been of greater effect, though: the club banned the sale of ale at the ground after the First World War following continued scenes of drunkenness and vile behaviour, and it was some years before such facilities were reinstated.
Little appeared to have changed in eighty years. A fan from the early 1920s would have certainly recognise the Cross Street end and “Pop” side as they most recently were, just – Apart from the laying of concrete terracing and the replacement of wooden crush barriers with metal ones around 1950, the only change of note to the away end had been the removal of the half-time scoreboard. Similarly, although the Pop Side roof was replaced once since its installation in 1921, you’d hardly know, and the television gantry was the only new feature (beyond fences and safety steps) to be added there for fifty years until seats were added at the beginning of the 21st century. The Kop was roofed while the club was at its lowest ebb for some time, in 1960. There were a number of stone or metal plaques built into these improved features to mark the role played by the supporters in raising the money for the improvements. A pleasing touch saw these memorials carefully removed during demolition with a view to their being installed in displays at the new stadium, as a small memorial to all those who have tried to improve their club over the years.
Chesterfield vs Walsall at The Recreation Ground, on January 22nd, 1972.
The major changes over the last fifteen years of the Rec’s life all came about as a result of disasters at other stadia and are not too obvious – rewiring and the installation of fire doors tend not to capture the imagination. The most obvious change on Saltergate’s face was the floodlights.
The club resisted the installation of lights for too long, and were the last League side to use them at home. Ironically, we might have been the joint-first club to play a League game under lights, but the board turned down Rochdale’s suggestion that we play under the Spotland lights around 1955. Our first set came second-hand from Bramall Lane and lay rusting behind the Kop (on the area that old players who trained there refer to as “Scar Park”) before the money and will was found to get them up. As each one was put up, they began to twist, and the first one was erected and dismantled more than once. In the end three were erected before the whole thing was written off as a bad job, and a new lot were bought. Some ten years or so after fans first began to press for their installation, the club played its first League game under the Saltergate lights on October 23rd., 1967.
Here is an irony. Many critics of modern stadium design condemn the sameness of new grounds, of their resemblance to DIY superstores or industrial units. They are derided for their lack of “character.” Well, by the mid-fifties, The Recreation Ground was a textbook, modern Archibald Leitch ground, consisting of three sides of open concrete terracing and a single main stand. The terracing used patented Leitch crush barriers, identical to those at every other Leitch ground, and the stand design was noticeably similar to other modern Leitch ones at Derby County, Crystal Palace and Blackburn Rovers, with its brick front and small pitch-side windows. In short, the ground looked neat, modern and strikingly similar to a lot of others.
It was the Bescot Stadium of its day. Subsequent modifications, the Kop roof, the television gantry and different colours of paint – gave the ground its “character,” and the effects of weathering gave it an appeal that can be described as “homely.” The Rec’ was probably the last football ground in the country to undergo a complete transformation at the hands of Leitch’s firm, and the work on the terracing carried out around 1950 is possibly the last major work that his firm did, in a stadium setting. The Leitch barriers are considered to be of such importance that two of the old ones from the Rec’ were salvaged and sent to the National Football Museum in Manchester and the Scottish Football Museum in Glasgow, Leitch’s home city.
Apart from an empty bank account, a string of understandably stroppy creditors and the seething hatred of almost everyone in football, Darren Brown also bequeathed us a string of broken promises to the Football Licensing authorities regarding ground development. Faced with the real prospect of having three sides of the ground closed, the CFSS had to do something about the place and did a fine job, re-terracing the standing areas and putting seats onto the Pop Side in recent times. As welcome as the work was, though, it kept the club only barely viable.
It was sad to leave, but most of those fans of other clubs who have gone down a similar road would not go back. For Chesterfield FC the choice was move away, or pass away. After laying idle for a couple of years, the Recreation Ground was demolished in the spring of 2012 to make way for a housing development whose name – Spire Heights – gave a respectful nod to the site’s former users.
“Great games, great days”
“We thought there might have been eight goals but we didn’t think we’d get four of them!” Dave Lancaster.
Chesterfield visited Anfield knowing that in their previous home game Liverpool had scored six in a European tie. However the Spireites took a three goal lead in front of the Kop against a team featuring David James, Jamie Redknapp, Mark Wright, Ronnie Rosenthal and Jan Molby. By the end of the match Chesterfield had scored four goals in a cup game against Liverpool at home for the first time that century.
Strikers Dave Lancaster and Steve Norris each scored a brace but every one of the player that night might have made a claim for Man-of-the-Match. The Sheffield Star awarded their Star player to each of the thirteen!
Over five thousand Chesterfield fans travelled to Liverpool for this second round League Cup tie. For those at home noting the scores on the ticker on the new Sky News service, the presenter did confirm that at 0-3 the goals were the right way around!
TheSpireites were the main stoiry onthe sports pages of all the next day’s dailies. The Sun went with What a Kop Flop Souey! “Liverpool suffered one of the biggest embarrassments in their history last night as they were made to look like Coca-Cola clowns by little Chesterfield.”
Chesterfield v Middlesbrough – recalling that 1997 FA Cup semi-final
So near yet so far: The FA Cup semi-final of 1997
Chesterfield will always feel they were denied a place in the FA Cup Final when leading 2-1 they had a blatant goal disallowed. Big boys Boro ended up clawing it back to 3-3 before smashing them 3-0 in the replay.
In modern times
Founder members of the Third Division (North) in 1921 and solidly in the Football League throughout the 97 years since, Chesterfield overcame a crisis in 2001 caused by Darren Brown, then 29, who was subsequently sentenced to four years in prison for fraudulent trading. The supporters trust, the CFSS, took over a club in financial ruins, had to put it into administration, then passed its running to four wealthy local supporters who steered it back to solvency .
Needing millions to bridge the gap between selling Saltergate and building the new stadium, in 2009 the shareholders ceded majority ownership to Dave Allen, the Sheffield casino owner, as did the CFSS, which had formed a community-centred vision for the future termed “the club’s the hub”.
The fruits of that approach, The Hub, excellent facilities built into the stadium’s east stand in which the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, a registered charity, runs school and social inclusion projects and programmes for people with disabilities, shone on Saturday like a beacon in the gloom. To Chesterfield’s proud history as the world’s fourth oldest professional club, formed in 1866, can be added a modern distinction, as the originators of walking football, the ambulant form of the game drawing in crowds of mostly senior citizens nationwide.
How all this progress stumbled as low as dropping out of the EFL is a dismal saga of budget overruns on the stadium, a boardroom walkout by Allen and latterly a run of unsuccessful managerial appointments. Allen, an archetype of a blunt-talking Yorkshireman who previously ran Sheffield Wednesday in a difficult period financially, became disillusioned after the initial £4m he was asked to provide for the stadium steadily increased.
Promoted in 2014 under Paul Cook’s shrewd management, Chesterfield made the play-off semi-final for promotion to the Championship as recently as three years ago but lost to Preston, then Cook took up an offer to manage Portsmouth. Chesterfield sold players, including Sam Clucas to Hull City for £1.3m, in an effort to balance the books, but Allen said he agrees with many at the club that the subsequent departure of Paul Mitchell, who headed player recruitment under Cook, was a severe loss.
Allen’s disenchantment escalated in November 2016, when he asked the other directors to set aside repayment of their own loans and waive interest. Some at the club say the directors were prepared to do that except for one loan from a director’s company; Allen responds that “collectively” they did not agree. He immediately resigned from the board, and has barely been to the stadium since.
The other directors soon also resigned, leaving only the long-serving Mike Warner as the chairman, John Croot, the chief executive of the community trust, and Allen’s long-term associate, Ashley Carson, on the board.
Carson holds the historic position in Sheffield of assay master, the silver hallmarking authority, but at Chesterfield, following the disappointments of relegation back to League Two in 2016 and four managers since Cook, he has been the focus of criticism. At the Wycombe defeat, there were calls of “We want Carson out” from a group of supporters who mustered a protest.
The Spireites today
Like ourselves, Chesterfield can be seen as a traditional and well-remembered foorball league club. Today they are fifth-tier and similarly struggling. September saw a slight turnaround in results where the Spireites hauled themselves out of the bottom four. But this past month has seen them slip back into the mire, taking only a solitary point from their four games.
November Spawned A Monster
Our game up at the Proact Stadium not so long ago had Chesterfield fans shaking thier heads in disbelief at how they had managed to win the game as the Shots largely dominated the match and blew chance after chance, even contriving to miss a spot-kick.
League games between us and Chesterfield in the National League area mixed bag. This image charts football league results over ther years also.
Any true football fan will wish Chesterfield and current manager John Sheridan well but not on Saturday as we hope to continue our mini-revival with three more much-needed points.