Chesterfield: Saunders must follow in Cook’s footsteps to win over fans

Paul Cook celebates after winning the League Two title with Chesterfield
Paul Cook celebates after winning the League Two title with Chesterfield
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New Spireites boss Dean Saunders has some huge boots to fill.

The 50-year-old Welshman, a fine and highly decorated footballer throughout his distinguished career, has a mighty job to do to win over the many doubting Chesterfield fans that seem underwhelmed with his appointment.

Wind the clock back two and a half years and many Proact punters were somewhat underwhelmed with the appointment of a certain Paul Cook.

A few months at Accrington Stanley having previously being sacked by Southport in double quick time before being exiled to Ireland and Sligo Rovers. He brought a bit of silverware their way, but ‘it’s only Ireland, so that hardly counts’ was the general feeling.

Admittedly Stanley played well in their 4-3 defeat against Tommy Wright’s Chesterfield a few weeks before his Proact appointment, but they had lost four on the trot prior to Cook’s unveiling in North Derbyshire. It appeared an underwhelming appointment.

A last gasp home defeat against a poor Barnet side was witnessed a day after Cook’s appointment but a week later and Hartlepool, struggling in League One, were hammered 6-1 in the FA Cup and the new manager had arrived.

Dean Saunders is unveiled as Chesterfield boss

Dean Saunders is unveiled as Chesterfield boss

But a draw at Bradford and a defeat at Bristol Rovers saw Spireites fall to 18th spot in the basement and Cook’s arrival was immediately being questioned.

Four League Two wins on the spin, including a fine 4-1 triumph over a decent Cheltenham side, began to demonstrate the neat style of football Cook wanted to play and the team steadily improved, finishing just outside the play-offs after a last day 4-0 win at home to Exeter City, the day Jack Lester bowed out.

Fans questioned Cook’s decision not to retain the club’s most popular player of the generation and that in itself mean that he had to succeed in 2013-14.

In came names that have subsequently become synonymous with the club and Cook’s 4-2-3-1 style of play. Roberts, Morsy, Ryan, Evatt, Humphreys, Doyle to join top signings from the previous campaign, namely Cooper and O’Shea.

Spireites began Cook’s first full season in top gear, seven wins and a draw in eight, the football was outstanding and the team gelled straight away.

Seven without a win followed and many thought the bubble had burst. But a solid run was not far away and the team was top by Christmas and only rarely looked like not being there for the rest of the season.

The Spireites had everyone agreeing they played the best football in League Two, a title-clincher against rivals Fleetwood Town confirming that view.

Throw in a trip to Wembley in the JPT, losing to Peterborough despite being the better side on the day, and the season had been one of incredible success and incredible entertainment.

Cook had won over every doubter and underwhelmed fan. But the hard work was only just beginning.

John Sheridan won the basement title in style in 2010-11, but a lack of summer shopping saw the team go straight back down which ultimately led to Cook’s appointment that Autumn.

Word was that Cook’s budget was virtually unchanged; out went Richards, Smith and Togwell with only Dan Jones and Romy Boco coming in. The omens were not good.

Armand Gnanduillet, an opinion splitter and a gamble signing from French amateur football in January 2013, was set to start as Cook’s lone striker for the season’s opener at Leyton Orient, the previous season’s play-off final penalty shoot-out losers. The big striker turned an ankle the day before the game so Doyle got the shirt and scored in a 2-1 win. He then began scoring for fun.

Early season form was good, early season entertainment was top-drawer and Spireites followers were enjoying the ride, few thinking that the season would be much more than an enjoyable mid-table adventure with avoiding the drop remaining the target.

But Doyle kept scoring, back to back hat-tricks against Preston and Scunthorpe, and the team hewn in League Two showed it could more than compete in the higher sphere, though by mid-November the team sat in 14th spot despite the exceptional football on show.

By the end of January they’d nipped into the FA Cup fourth round and the top five of the table.

Then Doyle, with 25 goals under his belt, was sold to Cardiff and Caolan Lavery was borrowed from the Owls as his replacement. A freak Lavery goal nicked a win at Notts County before four straight defeats saw a drop to tenth and the accusations of lack of ambition in under-selling the club’s prize asset.

But then Cook’s resilience shone through, seven wins in nine to set up a play-off challenge with virtually the same side he had led a season earlier in a division lower. Play-off success proved to be elusive with suggestions of Portsmouth wanting Cook coming to the fore and those rumours proved to be true.

He leaves a huge gap, his huge personality will be severely missed and the football he oversaw has not been witnessed since the days of Arthur Cox and Frank Barlow in 1979 through to 1981.

Cook can be easily compared with the most successful of Chesterfield’s modern managers such as Jimmy McGuigan and John Duncan and that means that Saunders has a massive task to convince the supporters that he is the right man as some of Cook’s prize assets look set to depart.

Many thought Cook’s appointment wasn’t the right one but he quickly won the doubters over; Saunders will be hoping to make a similar impact, but it will not be easy.

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