Spireites’ terrific season came to an abrupt end as they were beaten 3-0 at Deepdale by a Preston North End side that finished the league season 20 points ahead of Paul Cook’s side.
Two goals from Jermaine Beckford and a Joe Garner penalty gave the team that finished third in League One a 4-0 aggregate win despite Chesterfield bossing possession as they did in the first leg.
Not only did it end the season for Chesterfield, but the defeat has brought to an end the extremely successful two and a half years of Paul Cook’s management at the Proact Stadium.
He’s set to be unveiled as Portsmouth manager, taking his assistant, Leam Richardson, with him, whilst several of the players on show in Lancashire are unlikely to feature in Chesterfield blue again.
In Preston’s celebrations at the end of the game, with thousands of Lillywhites fans on the pitch celebrating their passage to Wembley, former Blackpool man Ian Evatt was allegedly attacked by home fans.
He’s made an official complaint to police and indicated that there’s TV footage of the incidents. “I was kicked several times, it was a disgrace,” said the central defender.
Cook said: “It’s going to be a heartbreaking time for us all going forwards. I’m sure we’ll speak tomorrow and the club will make an announcement on my future and the future of some of the players. It’s just sad that it’s come to an end for us all, it breaks my heart.
“The season’s been a massive success. We’ll now have plenty of time for people to dissect exactly what’s what. All I’ve ever wanted to do was to take the club forwards and I always knew there’d come the day when I’d feel that I can’t take the club forward anymore and unfortunately that day has come.
“We’re all hurting about the game today and I’ve had a terrible few weeks, a real poor few weeks in my life. I’d like to think I mean something to the Chesterfield fans and they mean the same to me.”
Spireites made two changes. Keeper Tommy Lee missed his first game in two seasons. Joe Murphy was drafted in as an emergency cover following Lee’s ankle injury picked up in Thursday’s game. Murphy subsequently conceded a penalty and was beaten by a 50-yarder from Beckford. Also in came Ollie Banks for Dan Gardner to add height to Chesterfield’s attacking midfield.
The visitors started well and Sam Clucas fired just wide within a minute and from then on Cook’s side, looking comfortable on the ball, camped themselves in the North End half, but their age-old inability to break down teams who get behind the ball was clear for all to see.
On Thursday the possession count was 65%, in this match 62%, but the team could not conjure anything imaginative enough to over-trouble home keeper Sam Johnstone.
Gary Roberts, Clucas and Sam Morsy were the early eye-catchers and their positive play meant it took Simon Grayson’s nine-time play-off losers over 20 minutes to register any effort of note, Paul Gallagher’s 20-yarder giving Murphy no problems.
It was ‘nearly time’ again for Spireites., Clucas nearly got a shot in after magical Roberts work and Dan Jones nearly found targets from several of his testing crosses.
On 32 minutes, Morsy sent Clucas free but his shot was saved by Johnstone’s legs and within three minutes Beckford did what he did in the first leg, showed he’ll score when given the chance.
Callum Woods’ free-kick was nodded on and Beckford shot on the turn from 12 yards to double the aggregate advantage.
Before the break Evatt saw a header cleared off the line by Gallagher but the second 45 was always going to be an uphill struggle and Spireites didn’t help themselves.
Jay O’Shea, Banks and Clucas all had half-chances before, shortly after the hour mark and with Chesterfield in gung-ho mode, a long period of blue-shirted passing saw a stray ball fall to Preston who broke quickly, two on one.
Neil Kilkenny had ex-Spireite Dan Johnson in acres of space to his left. The pass was slightly over-hit so Johnson had to move towards the left edge of the box, only for Murphy to slide in and take the midfielder off his feet. Garner converted the inevitable spot-kick.
Jimmy Ryan saw Johnstone tip one round the post and O’Shea’s shot from the second phase of the corner hit the post and, with time running out and every blue shirt up, Beckford gathered a yard or two inside the Chesterfield half and beat Murphy from almost half the length of the pitch to seal the win with a crackerjack.
O’Shea and Gboly Ariyibi had chances for a consolation but it was North End’s day to celebrate, though in Evatt’s case those celebrations turned into something ugly that will undoubtedly have repercussions.
Cook concluded in what is certain to be his final matchday review: “It probably was a harsh scoreline over the two legs but when you get to these semi-finals the only important thing is that there are winners and losers, and unfortunately we’re losers.
“But if you look over the two legs the players have conducted themselves in a great way. The supporters were magnificent again.
“The players are down, they’re devastated about the result, but we must congratulate Preston. They had the disappointment of losing at Colchester (which cost them automatic promotion) and they’ve bounced back well and in the front two of Beckford and Garner they’ve two players that can hurt any team.
“Make no bones about it, we’ve done really well. We were in the game, we had chances, but it never really went for us, and that’s football.
“You can’t just be a good winner. We had great days last season against Burton and Fleetwood and we really enjoyed it. Today we need to show a bit of class after losing and I wish Preston the best of luck in the final, like I’ll wish the winners of Sheffield United and Swindon on Monday.”
Speculation will now start as to who’ll be the next man in charge at the Proact. Early front-runners include Rochdale’s Keith Hill and Leeds United’s Neil Redfearn with long shots being looked at including former Manchester United pair Phil Neville and Paul Scholes.
As for the players, Ryan and Drew Talbot look certain to leave and it’s believed there is plenty of interest in Clucas and Morsy, so when Chesterfield begin their season in League One in August it looks set to be in a very different set-up.
This season has undoubtedly been a success at the Proact, but the cost is high, with the loss of a manager who’s brought two years of superb football and has found a unique link with the supporters.
Also, the development of many of the players he’s recruited will see some on them also move on.
It’ll now be a nervous wait to see who chief executive Chris Turner unveils as the new manager, even though Cook hasn’t yet formally departed the scene.
Goals: Beckford 38, 87, Garner 62 (pen)
Preston (4-3-3): Johnstone 6; Clarke 7, Huntington 7, Wright 8, Woods 6 (Humphrey 76); Johnson 6 (Laird 71), Welsh 8, Kilkenny 6; Gallagher 6 (Browne 52, 6), Garner 6, Beckford 8. Subs (not used): Stuckmann, Davies, Hughill, Robinson.
Chesterfield (4-2-3-1): Murphy 5; Darikwa 8, Hird 7, Evatt 7, Jones 6 (Ariyibi 67, 6); Morsy 8, Ryan 8; O’Shea 6, Roberts 8 (Gardner 82), Banks 5 (Gnanduillet 64, 5), Clucas 7. Subs (not used): Carter, Humphreys, Raglan, Harrison.
Hero: No question about the hero, manager Paul Cook. He’s brought the best-quality football to Chesterfield in years. Cook’s 30 months in the post will never be forgotten for the style he’s introduced to the fans, who all loved him.
Key moment: Sam Clucas one on one and seeing Johnstone’s legs win the battle. Less than three minutes later Beckford got his first chance, a really difficult one, and he scored. The tie turned on that passage of play.
Viewpoint: Chesterfield’s Achilles heel has been in recent years the inability to punish when on top in the possession stakes. Over 60% was witnessed in both play-off legs, but no goals were scored by Spireites. Oh for a Beckford who seemingly does very little bar score!
Chesterfield assistant manager Leam Richardson: “Although we were down, we were never out and we kept going, so it was just disappointing we didn’t get anything. They’ve got Joe Garner, Jermaine Beckford as well as Callum Robinson and Kevin Davies - it’s always about strikers, no matter what level it is. I’m sure they’ll be many discussions regarding players’ futures first and foremost. I’m sure we’ll have conversations over the next few days.
Preston striker Jermaine Beckford: “I had a word with Joe Garner five minutes prior to my second goal and he said ‘the keeper comes off his line quite far, so if you get half a chance have a look and hit it as hard as you can. Fortunately for me it flew in and the rest is history. The most important thing now is we apply ourselves right in a couple of weeks’ time.”
Ref Watch:Andy D’Urso (Essex). D’Urso’s last game involving Chesterfield saw him fail to deliver a penalty when Eoin Doyle was felled in the JPT Final against Peterborough, but in this game he kept things moving and snuffed out the early edge the match had as a hangover from the first leg.