Season review: recruitment, injuries and change as Spireites avoid drop

When Chesterfield beat Barnsley on the opening day of the 2015/16 season, who could have predicted the two clubs' fortunes?

Tuesday, 17th May 2016, 7:26 am
Updated Tuesday, 17th May 2016, 9:31 am
Barnsley vs Chesterfield - Lee Novak celebrates his goal - Pic By James Williamson

Both would end their campaign with a different man in charge to the one leading them into the season opener, but the Tykes would finish in the play-offs and Chesterfield just seven points clear of the drop.

The Spireites, under new boss Dean Saunders might have ended the first month of the season in the play-off spots, but they spluttered through September and dropped all the way down to 17th.

As it turned out, their position at the end of September was a far more accurate portrayal of the season to come than the lofty heights reached a month earlier.

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Bradford City vs Chesterfield - Danny Wilson and Chris Morgan - Pic By James Williamson

Saunders began life at his new club without influential characters like Jimmy Ryan and Gary Roberts who both moved on, the Welshman vowing to replace them.

Sam Clucas was sold for £1.3million to Hull, Tendayi Darikwa to Burnley for around half that.

It wasn’t until March 2016 that Jamal Campbell-Ryce brought balance to a Chesterfield side desperately needing a replacement for Clucas, and the right-back berth would present a problem for much of the season.

Players who came into Saunders’ squad were simply unable to live up to the billing of those departing.

Chesterfield vs Port Vale - Injured pair Angel Martinez and Liam O'Neil - Pic By James Williamson

Striker Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Chris Herd had underwhelming campaigns, given their previous employers, and Ángel Martínez suffered a season ending injury almost straight away.

Halfway through August Saunders did pull off a move that will be looked on with positivity by almost every Spireite, with the arrival on a season long loan of Lee Novak.

Time will tell if others who joined during summer 2015, namely Rai Simons, Jake Orrell, Dion Donohue and Liam O’Neil will also come to be viewed in such favourable light.

Chesterfield went out of the League Cup and the Football League Trophy at the first hurdles, losing to Carlisle and Rochdale respectively.

Chesterfield vs Doncaster Rovers - Sylvan Ebanks-Blake - Pic By James Williamson

But by the end of October they were up to 10th in League One, wins over Crewe, Walsall, Southend and Fleetwood giving rise to optimism.

A banana skin was avoided in November, FC United going down 4-1 in the FA Cup to the side who took both Ollie Banks and Charlie Raglan from them.

That brief highlight was followed by a horrible month, four straight losses dropping the Spireites to 16th and costing Saunders his job after a 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Swindon.

The midwinter was somewhat bleak, an FA Cup exit and three league defeats comprising the ‘managerless’ spell in which academy boss Mark Smith took care of the first team.

Bradford City vs Chesterfield - Danny Wilson and Chris Morgan - Pic By James Williamson

And then came the change, Danny Wilson watching on in the final game of 2015 as his new club held Coventry to a 1-1 draw and ended the year 20th, a point above the relegation places.

His first trick was to mastermind a 7-1 thrashing of Shrewsbury, a result no one saw coming, and one Wilson would later admit was a false dawn.

More importantly, he would go on to mastermind a second half of the season that kept the Spireites in League One.

The ex Northern Ireland international had to do that without captain Sam Morsy who was sold to Wigan, leaving Chesterfield light in the middle of the park.

So he brought in Gary Liddle and made him captain, signed centre-half Tom Anderson on loan from Burnley and left-back Declan John from Cardiff.

Hometown boy Connor Dimaio moved over from Sheffield United, Chris Morgan also coming to Chesterfield from the Blades as Wilson’s number two.

Chesterfield vs Port Vale - Injured pair Angel Martinez and Liam O'Neil - Pic By James Williamson

Liddle showed, in flashes, the disruptive force he could be in the middle, but wasn’t quite able to prove his manager’s prediction of consistency right.

He was, at times, a bit like the club he joined – capable of mixing it but prone to lapses in performance.

Liddle did, however, embody the realism and honesty of the Wilson era, never hiding away from the grim reality of their league position and fronting up to the media despite disappointment.

Anderson showed himself to be a no-frills defender, kicking it and heading it at every opportunity, with relish, and acquitting himself well in his first taste of League One football.

There were, of course, a couple of mistakes, but the youngster was never the worst performer.

John looked a prospect on the left, but his stay was hampered and then cut short by injury, the full-back positions a bit of a menace all season long.

Dimaio looks one for the future but provided a couple of nice moments, like a spectacular goal against Crewe.

Campbell-Ryce was a welcome addition in March, he and Gboly Ariyibi capable of causing opposition teams nightmares on both flanks, the latter playing the regular football he craved before the season began.

Safety from relegation wasn’t confirmed until the end of April, by which time the players had been booed off the pitch a couple of times, once famously at half-time against Port Vale before a stirring second half comeback saw them win 4-2.

Barnsley, the team who rose from the relegation places to the ‘right end’ of the table were surprisingly beaten by a Chesterfield side edging to safety.

But a humbling 3-0 defeat at home to Sheffield United and a draw with lowly Doncaster kept feet on the ground.

Saturday 30th April saw Bury arrive at the Proact with nothing to play for, and leave with red faces after a 3-0 shellacking, Wilson’s men securing League One football for next season.

The rock of consistency Sam Hird and the leading goalscorer Novak lapped up applause in the traditional lap of honour, along with Jay O’Shea who produced some magic and Dan Gardner who came back from a loan spell at Bury to play his part right at the end.

And it was a whimper, not a bang, that heralded the end of the campaign, a 2-0 defeat at Bradford rounding off a disappointing season for the Spireites.

An inability to replace talented players like-for-like was a big problem, and injuries played their part too, the club robbed of Martinez for almost the entirity, Dan Jones and Ian Evatt missing the second half of the season.

Goalkeeper Tommy Lee and O’Shea were the only ever presents, playing every game, and Novak ended up top scorer with 15 goals, five more than Ebanks-Blake who played very little football towards the end.

The former Preston North End man was rumoured to be on his way out before Wilson’s assertion last week that there was still a place for the forward at the Proact.

This season proved to be Drew Talbot’s last with Chesterfield however, his name the most eye catching in the list of seven players released by Wilson.

And now comes the rebuild, Kristian Dennis already signed from non-league and a list of targets, including Novak, drawn up by a manager who will be looking to drastically improve the club’s fortunes in his first full season in charge.

Recruitment almost broke the 2015/16 Spireites, but it could make the 2016/17 season.

Chesterfield vs Doncaster Rovers - Sylvan Ebanks-Blake - Pic By James Williamson