Phil Tooley reviews the Spireites’ year
For me, you can directly trace the change in ownership of Chesterfield FC that occurred in the summer of 2020 back to the 4-0 defeat at Sutton United in September 2019. That horrendous performance left Spireites in 23rd spot with just eight points from 12 games and it clearly rattled the hierarchy.
I had a number of telephone calls on the long journey home with club officials indicating that is was looking increasingly likely that Dave Allen wanted to sell the club on as soon as practically possible. That prompted me to speak to a pal who was seeking to pull together interested parties, who’d had a bid rejected in 2018, indicating it may be time to revisit that plan.
A few weeks and a number of conversations later, I first heard that the Community Trust was also thinking of approaching the club and I arranged a productive chat between the Trust and the consortium. As time and deadlines passed, the Community Trust was given access to club accounts and began to carry out a due diligence process and progress looked inevitable, but Coronavirus reared its head, and inexorable delays and uncertainties began.
In July 2020, after months of frustration for owners, bidders, employees and fans alike, Chesterfield Borough and Derbyshire County Councils gave their approvals for long-term loans that enabled the Trust to enter final stage negotiations with the incumbents and in early August, Chesterfield Football Club became the first ever professional club to be owned by a charitable organisation, thanks to Mr Allen’s willingness to take a major financial loss and his belief that the Trust would be the right owners for the club.
With little to no cash-flow, season ticket sales on hold, employees on furlough and fewer players than you need to fill a team sheet, the early days for the Trust were tough. One easy decision was to make manager John Pemberton’s position permanent. He’d done a great job in the nine games that secured safety during the truncated season and his temperament was bang-on for a community club. A real no-brainer.
As the rescheduled September start grew closer, the clock was ticking for new signings and the gaffer put his trust in a number of out-of-contract players with only a couple of genuinely new faces coming in ahead of the first game at Wealdstone, keeper Kyle Letheren and midfielder Milan Butterfield, who’d been a player at Kidderminster Harriers when Pemberton was there.
An uninspiring but short pre-season programme was completed and as Covid-19 started to spike again, it meant no fans could attend games, but Government compensation had been agreed in principle if not in detail. There was hope as the few members of the press set off for our first ever trip to Wealdstone, only for torrential rain to ruin the day and we all had to U-turn back home.
Three days later, Hartlepool outplayed us but a 4-0 win over Woking, despite the visitors being a more than decent side, followed. Torquay United, Stockport County and Wealdstone then all scored winners in the final ten minutes to frustrate all Spireites.
A penalty win in the cup at Stockport and a 1-0 win at a poor Yeovil Town restored hope, only for the Cup tie being ordered to be replayed due to a technicality in the registration of Jordan Cropper. That was a huge blow to the team and it was taken badly by the fans, heaping pressure on the new regime in a way that was unexpected and unwanted. The Cup game was played again and the Spireites were well beaten before both Maidenhead United and Altrincham came from behind to win. Things were clearly not right and clearly not working.
I was the last person to interview the manager after the Altrincham loss, at around half-past-ten, and John looked and sounded extremely frustrated. The few of us there could see and feel his pain, but we didn’t think that his spell in charge would necessarily end the next day, but when it did, it wasn’t a huge surprise. In keeping with his values, John realised that it wasn’t working, and he wasn’t prepared to outstay his welcome, so he and the club came to a mutual agreement to terminate his appointment. I for one wish him well and thank him for bringing some much-needed candour to the position.
Assistant John Dungworth switched to a 4-4-2 formation and it almost earned an unexpected win against Notts County, but two stoppage time goals from the Magpies turned the result on its head and led to even more frustration amongst the fanbase, giving the Community Trust a major task to make the next managerial appointment quickly, but more importantly, get it right.