If ever it’s possible to glean pleasure from a defeat, this game came close to that for the spirited Spireites.
Despite conceding a goal in each half to an experienced former England international, Darren Bent, and one of the country’s hottest prospects, 19-year-old Will Hughes, who both demonstrated speed of thought and skill in executing their chances, Paul Cook’s Chesterfield side out-possessed their lauded Premier-League-chasing hosts and out-shot them too.
That said, Steve McLaren’s Rams did carve out the best chances during a thrilling encounter but they found Tommy Lee in fine form whilst Spireites showed too much profligacy with their numerous chances, but they come away having forced their hosts into a half-time formation switch.
“We played two up front in the first half but Chesterfield nullified us,” said the former England boss. “We didn’t get organised but we got the goal and we decided in the second half to match then up.
“We should have been out of sight early in the second half, but we weren’t so it became a very difficult game for us. Chesterfield are a good side that look well capable of making the play-offs.”
Cook decided to go into the game with a 4-4-2 formation and he made just one forced change. Hamstring victim Gary Roberts gave way to Irishman Jay O’Shea who stood out as the Spireite most willing to have a shot from range. He forced a save, a block and put a couple very close to the target from around the box-edge.
McLaren gave Bent, on loan from Aston Villa, a first start while defender Raul Albentosa, signed from La Liga side Eibar for £600,000, was handed a debut. He was the sacrificial Ram at half-time when his manager switched from three at the back to a back four.
In only Spireites’ second FA Cup fourth-round tie in 60 years, around 5,500 fans made the short journey down for the Derbyshire derby, the first time the two sides have met competitively since 1986, a 1-0 third-level league win for Spireites, and the first time in the FA Cup since 1948, a game won 2-0 by the hosts at their former home, the Baseball Ground.
Spireites started well and it took County eight minutes to break into Chesterfield’s penalty area. Armand Gnanduillet got in the game’s first two efforts on target but a close-range attempt was blocked by Dutchman Kelle Roos while a ten-yard angled shot malso saw the keeper win the battle.
County opened the scoring against the balance of play after 20 minutes from their first corner, taken from the right by Omar Mascarell, on loan from Real Madrid.
It was headed downwards by Jake Buxton and, as the ball bounced up, Bent anticipated better than his marker and tracked its likely trajectory with the predatory instinct that’s brought him over 100 Premier League goals. He got his head to the ball a yard out a millisecond before Lee’s despairing attempt to punch the ball away, a real poacher’s goal.
That setback didn’t faze the visitors. O’Shea delivered three of his efforts, Sam Clucas shot wide and Jimmy Ryan had the ball nicked off his toe at the vital moment following an impressive 60-yard drive forwards.
Tendayi Darikwa, with a series of extremely effective burst sdown the right, and skipper Sam Morsy, calm and always available for the pass, were the men to catch the eye at this stage as Chesterfield dominated the ball and prevented any meaningful attacking play from County.
Chesterfield left the field at the break desperately unlucky to be trailing.
Derby switched shape and so too did Chesterfield, pulling Eoin Doyle back to play in a 4-2-3-1, and it was Rams that re-started the quicker.
Bent found himself in a one-on-one with Lee and the keeper’s legs came out on top. Sub Johnny Russell saw an angled drive blocked by a combination of Lee and Darikwa as Spireites, for the only spell in the game, looked vulnerable, though in the midst of the County pressure O’Shea, Clucas and Dan Jones all had shots blocked.
Bent’s chip was palmed wide by Lee before Spireites got back into the action, seeing Doyle turn to hit wide. He also had a shot saved well, Ryan blazed over from a great position and O’Shea volleyed high.
Derby replacement Simon Dawkins headed goalwards, Lee and the bar simultaneously stopped the ball and the effective Sam Hird cleared the dropping ball away from off the line, but the game’s killer goal, like the first, came with Chesterfield enjoying most of the play.
Clucas was caught in possession by Hughes a few yards outside the box and the teenager punished the error to the maximum, shaking off a couple of challenges to score with aplomb, showing exactly why he’s rated so highly by so many.
That 82nd-minute goal effectively ended the contest but the impressive visitors continued to press and, result apart, delight their travelling army who were able to rightfully say that their heroes never looked out of place against a side that could be in the world’s richest league next season.
Derby (3-5-2): Roos 6; Keogh 7, Buxton 7, Albentosa 6 (Russell HT, 6) (Ward 65, 6); Christie 8, Hendrick 7 (Dawkins 70, 6), Mascarell 6, Hughes 7, Forsyth 6; Martin 6, Bent 7. Subs (not used): Mitchell, Bryson, Shotton, Warnock.
Chesterfield (4-4-2): Lee 8; Darikwa 9, Raglan 7, Hird 7, Jones 7; O’Shea 7 (Gardner 75), Morsy 8, Ryan 7 (Banks 75), Clucas 7; Doyle 7, Gnanduillet 7 (Dieseruvwe 87). Subs (not used): Wright, Humphreys, Evatt, Talbot.
Ref watch: Lancashire’s David Webb let the game flow. You hardly noticed him. No attention-seeking, no howlers and no controversies. Just how a game should be controlled.
Attendance: 28,392 (5,433 away).