The Dean Saunders era got off to the perfect start as Chesterfield turned around an early deficit to defeat local rivals Barnsley 3-1 at the Proact Stadium.
A nightmare start to the new campaign saw the Spireites fall behind to a Conor Wilkinson goal after just four minutes, but second half strikes from Jay O’Shea, debutant Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and captain Sam Morsy gave the home side victory as they turned the contest around in style and got the 2015/16 campaign underway with a victory.
The new season had finally arrived and the usual buzz of excitement was increased with an intriguing opener against local opponents Barnsley, who were making only their second ever competitve visit to the Proact Stadium, losing 2-1 here last campaign.
But despite the anticipation of a new start, there was a feeling of apprehension for many Chesterfield supporters.
Having unexpectedly reached the play-offs, the departure during the summer of four crucial players – Jimmy Ryan, Gary Roberts, Sam Clucas and Tendayi Darikwa, as well as manager Paul Cook had left a bitter and concerned taste in the mouths of many supporters.
Yet there were still reasons to be hopeful. New manager Saunders had brought in experienced striker Ebanks-Blake, who was set to make his competitive debut this afternoon, and led the club to an impressive pre-season that witnessed just one defeat – a 3-1 loss to Championship outfit Hull City.
Barnsley had enjoyed a similarly positive pre-season on the field, similarly losing just once, to another Championship club in Middlesbrough.
However, there seemed to be far more optimism around the Yorkshire side as Lee Johnson, a former Spireites player, took charge of his first full season at Oakwell after turning around a near-disastrous campaign last time around.
It was a glorious summer day and as is often the case with a season opener, there was a wonderful atmosphere inside the stadium at kick off as the two sets of supporters dreamt of what the new campaign may hold.
But any optimism among the home fans was quickly dented as things got off to a nightmare start. With just four minutes on the clock, a quick Barnsley counter attack led to Wilkinson, on loan from Bolton, finding the net with a composed finish.
The Spireites quickly got to work finding an equaliser – looking to put a fast end to the chants of “we are top of the league” from the joyous visiting supporters.
And it almost arrived nine minutes later when experienced centre back Sam Hird forced an instinctive close range save from Adam Davies as he got on the end of Dan Gardner’s far post cross.
Continuing to make use of counter attacking tactics, the Tykes had a chance to double their advantage around the 20 minute mark but Sam Winnall’s weak effort flew straight in to the arms of Tommy Lee.
But it was Chesterfield who, after a poor start, were beginning to look the more threatening side by utilising the flanks at every opportunity. But the home side struggled to break down the tightly-packed, disciplined Barnsley defence in the centre.
O’Shea came close to finding the top corner from a short corner, but his curling effort was held by Davies between the posts.
Gboly Ariyibi proved to be a bright spark in the Spireites’ attack all afternoon and the Barnsley defence were rarely able to deal with his fast movement and skill on the ball, causing problems for the Tykes full backs over and over again.
And the US-born winger provided one of the most exciting moments of the first half, skillfully bursting past two men with ease as he raced goalwards before ‘keeper Davies managed to charge down the ball at his feet.
Some tremendous work from club captain Sam Morsy at the back tehen denied the dangerous Wilkinson from adding another goal to his tally, before Marc Roberts glanced a Conor Hourihane free kick wide of the target during a decent spell from the visitors.
But the Tykes looked content mostly with defending their lead, putting as many as seven or eight men behind the ball and then hitting on the break.
The two additional minutes saw the Spireites pile the pressure on the Barnsley defence. Dan Gardner caught nearly everyone by surprise, unleashing a powerful strike from range that forced a fingertip save from the stopper.
Sam Hird came close to poking home from close range after Ollie Banks nodded down a corner in the final opportunity of the half, but Davies once again got his body behind the ball to keep the away side in front at the break.
It had been a nightmare start for the Spireites, falling behind after just four minutes, but a positive reaction meant there was certainly reasons for Saunders and the fans to be positive heading into the interval.
And in a fast start to the second period, Chesterfield finally found themselves an equaliser.
Just four minutes into the second half – the same amount of time it took Barnsley to score in the first, O’Shea found the net with a powerful strike after some excellent work from Dan Jones and Ebanks-Blake to set up the Irishman.
Barnsley became more open following the goal and this appeared to work in Chesterfield’s favour, giving them a chance to show off their free-flowing style of football as they began to look the far more likely to find the next goal.
Tykes boss Johnson attempted to combat his side being on the back foot with a duo of substitutions – including goalscorer Wilkinson being replaced by Marley Watkins.
As the game passed the hour mark it was end to end action at the Proact.
Alfie Mawson’s header clipped the near post from an awkward angle and led to a blistering counter attack from the Spireites – Ariyibi playing the perfect low cross to Ebanks-Blake, who failed to find the target with the seemingly goal at his mercy.
The former Wolves man cut a frustrated figure at times as the lone forward was crowded out by the defence, seeing the majority of his efforts blocked or deflected.
However, with 72 minutes gone the 29 year old put his new club ahead. The ball bounced around the area from a corner and landed at the feet of the attacker, who turned and found the net with a neat finish to make his competitive debut a memorable one.
And the Spireites were in dream land when Morsy furthered the lead to 3-1 just a minute later with a effort from range that clipped the post before rolling over the line to the delight of everyone in the blue corner!
Saunders has praised Chesterfield’s ability to see out games during pre-season and they showed the strength of this attribute once again, not allowing the visitors even the slightest chance to launch a late comeback.
Armand Gnanduillet and Mani Dierseruvwe both received late run outs as Ebanks-Blake and Ariyibi left the field to deserved standing ovations from over 6,000 Spireites supporters.
The full time whistle was greeted by a huge cheer from three sides of the ground as the new era at Chesterfield got off to a winning start.
Saunders refused to get carried away with the result, stating “if we’d lost I wouldn’t have been down in the dumps, so I’m not going to be sky high now.” However, he admitted his delight with the performance and the fitness levels of the side, while picking out O’Shea, Morsy and Ariyibi as notable peformers.
Barnsley boss Johnson admitted his obvious disappointment, claiming his side “capitulated” but refusing to put the blame of his young team’s lack of experience – which included Arsenal loanee Dan Crowley, who turned 18 last week.
It was the perfect start for Chesterfield on a sunny afternoon in North Derbyshire. The Spireites will now look ahead to next week’s league game at Sheffield United, who were humbled 4-0 at the hands of Gillingham today, with much optimism.
Line-up: Lee, Talbot (Raglan ’80), Hird, Evatt, Jones, Gardner, Morsy, Banks, Ariyibi (Dieseruvwe ’90), O’Shea, Ebanks-Blake (Gnanduillet ’81)
Scorers: O’Shea ’49, Ebanks-Blake ’72, Morsy ’73
Line-up: Davies, Scowen, Mawson, Roberts, Nyatanga, Smith (Rothwell ’83), Crowley (Williams ’57), Pearson, Hourihane, Wilkinson (Watkins ’57), Winnall
Scorers: Wilkinson ‘4
Attendance: 8,117 (1,975 away)
Date: 8th August 2015