Preston North End earned a slim lead over Chesterfield in the first leg of the League 1 play off semi-final on Thursday 7th April 2015.
Jermaine Beckford scored the only goal of the game after just six minutes after Chris Humphrey’s pass cut through a nervy Spireites’ defence.
The hosts responded strongly – Gary Roberts and Ollie Banks both coming agonisingly close to scoring in the second half, but a solid Preston defensive unit held on and head back to Deepdale on Sunday with a 1-0 lead in the tie.
On a personal note, this was my first time reporting from the press box at the Proact Stadium – a very exciting experience and one I look forward to continuing next season!
Two teams with highly contrasting emotions met on this Thursday evening in North Derbyshire.
For tonight’s hosts, it was a major achievement to be in this position on their return to the third tier – only the second season they’ve spent in the division since 2007/08. Even the most optimistic of Chesterfield supporters would have struggled to imagine them finishing in the top six this season.
It was a very different situation for Preston. After spending a large part of the campaign in the top two, they had suffered the devastation of just missing out on the final day despite amassing 89 points – a remarkable total not to gain automatic promotion.
Having finished 20 points above the Spireites and picked up four points against them in the normal season, there was no doubting that Preston were the favourites.
But Chesterfield had plenty of reasons to be hopeful. An outstanding run had seen them lose just once in their last eleven outings, while the Lilywhites’ failure to gain promotion in any of their previous nine play-off campaigns was another positive for those in the blue corner.
Paul Cook and Simon Grayson both named unchanged elevens from the final match of the season.
Chesterfield’s side had finished the season strongly with a 1-1 draw at fellow play off hopefuls Sheffield United, with the attack led by Sam Clucas and Gary Roberts.
Meanwhile, a Preston team that included the division’s top scorer Joe Garner, on-loan Jermaine Beckford and former Spireite Daniel Johnson looked incredibly dangerous but had fallen to a 1-0 defeat against Colchester on the final day – opposition that the Spireites had outclassed 6-0 a few weeks earlier.
Any thoughts of a hangover from Preston following Sunday’s disappointed was quickly squashed, as the visitors made a fast start.
There was a superb atmosphere inside the Proact Stadium with two loud, passionate sets of fans. But the home supporters were briefly stunned into silence as the Lilywhites took the lead after just six minutes.
Chris Humphrey’s ball cut through a clearly nervous Spireites back line and left Beckford through on goal. The experienced former Leeds man made no mistake with a comfortable finish to hand Preston a dream start.
It was a high intensity start for the Lancashire club and Garner almost added a second early on, Tommy Lee getting down well to deny the effort.
Chesterfield were struggling to get a foothold in the contest. With around 20 minutes on the clock, the home side suddenly burst into life with waves of attack.
Tendayi Darikwa’s dangerous cross found Roberts, whose shot was blocked before Sam Morsy hit an effort that saw the same outcome. The Spireites quickly won a free kick on the edge of the area, but Jay O’Shea’s effort came to nothing.
The Irishman had an even better chance to level five minutes later – only to fail to properly connect with the ball and scuff it wide of the target.
It was a passionate, feisty affair and with half an hour gone a number of players got into a minr scuffle, with Roberts and Paul Gallagher at the forefront – but the referee kept the cards in his pocket.
End-to-end action followed with two sides playing football the right way.
Ian Evatt jumped highest to meet Roberts’ free kick, but couldn’t repeat his actions from Sunday and Sam Johnstone dealt with the effort comfortably.
The Lilywhites charged straight down the other end and came close to scoring again – Beckford’s clever overhead effort saved by Lee.
But the home crowd were now rejuvenated after a poor start and roared on their side as they searched for the equaliser towards the end of the half.
Jimmy Ryan, Dan Gardner and Evatt all saw efforts from distance stopped by the visitors, before O’Shea went on a mazy run into the box that resulted in a heart-in-mouths scramble in front of goal – Preston finally clearing it away as no Chesterfield man could get a telling connection.
The second half got off to a unsavory start as Ryan and Gallagher got into a scuffle, with arms flying everywhere, and both men earned a booking for their involvement.
It took a while for the period to regain the intensity of the first, but ten minutes in Roberts went on a great run before firing just inches wide of the far post – the closest the Spireites had come so far this evening.
The action at both end picked up towards the hour mark. O’Shea saw a couple of hopeful efforts sail off-target during a sustained period of Spireites pressure, while Beckford almost broke through at the other end but was unable to get a shot away.
With 70 minutes gone, Beckford had a golden opportunity to double the led. The man on loan from Bolton charged in on goal, but a weak sidefoot effort was comfortably held by Lee.
Chesterfield’s ‘keeper appeared to fall awkwardly during the save and limped for a while after the incident. With no goalkeeper on the bench for the home side, it was worrying times, but thankfully the experienced shot stopper managed to see out the remainder of the evening on the pitch.
The Spireites continued to look dangerous as the game headed into the final ten minutes, yet lacked the final penetration they desperately needed to find an equaliser.
Their best chance of the evening came with eight minutes of normal time to go. Clucas’ cross to the far post found Ollie Banks in prime position to level. However, the substitute instead rifled the ball over the bar and the home fans began to think it simply wasn’t their day.
Five additional minutes brought a final roar from the crowd, but in the end this proved to be the case as the game ended in defeat for the Spireites.
Paul Cook and man of the match Gary Roberts spoke to the press afterwards, both still full of belief that Chesterfield could turn it around – Roberts telling how “we made a good team look ordinary at times tonight.”
The Chesterfield boss noted the pride he felt towards his players’ efforts before stating the importance of the next goal in the tie. The interview did end on a slightly unfriendly note however, as Cook responded – understandably – frustrated when asked by a journalist about rumours of becoming Portsmouth manager at the end of the season.
The second leg of this play-off semi final takes place at Deepdale on Sunday afternoon and Chesterfield now have it all to do if they are to continue the Championship dream on to Wembley.
Chesterfield 0-1 Preston North End
Lee, Evatt, Morsy, Darikwa, Ryan, Hird, Gardner (Banks ’77), Jones, O’Shea (Gnanduillet ’88), Roberts, Clucas
Johnstone, Laird (Woods ’79), Clarke, Wright, Humphrey, Beckford (Robinson ’87), Gallagher (Kilkenny ’79), Garner, Welsh, Huntington, Johnson
Attendance: 8,409 (1,458 away)