Chesterfield were the better side on the night but an early goal from Preston gave the visitors the advantage in the tie ahead of Sunday lunchtime’s second leg at Deepdale.
Jermaine Beckford found himself in space on the box edge with just six minutes played and the experienced striker calmly slotted the ball beyond Tommy Lee to give the visitors the lead after solid build up play involving Joe Garner and Chris Humphrey.
From then on the hosts dominated, possession statistics showed 65 per cent in favour of Spireites who had 20 shots to 11 and prevented North End from earning any corners, but try and they did.
Chesterfield’s Achilles heel of not scoring when dominant was again in evidence.
But they are still very much in the tie and Preston will know they have plenty of work to do.
There will be a nervous wait for news on Tommy Lee after the keeper picked up a leg injury and was clearly struggling. Spireites have no fit back-up for the ever-present keeper.
Paul Cook went into the play-off arena seeking to become the first Chesterfield manager to lead his team out at Wembley twice and also be the first to win back-to-back promotions.
Spireites have twice before reached the play-offs, both at level four, and both times the team made it to Wembley while opponents Preston North End are unsuccessful in nine play-off attempts.
That said, boss Simon Grayson twice won the play-offs as a player and he’s tasted success at Wembley as a manager with Blackpool and Huddersfield Town, so he will be hoping to have the magic touch to break the Lilywhite’s hoodoo.
Cook had a full complement of outfield players to select from. Drew Talbot had shaken off the hamstring injury he picked up in the 6-0 demolition of Colchester United and he returned to the bench.
The visitors, looking to recover from last week’s devastating loss at Colchester United, were also unchanged. Former Spireites hero Kevin Davies was on the bench having played a starring role in North End’s 2-0 win at the Proact in February, a game in which Joe Garner scored both goals on his return from injury. Garner hardly had a chance in this game as Ian Evatt marshalled him with great skill.
The game at Deepdale was a classic 3-3 draw, Spireites fighting back from being three down through an Eoin Doyle hat-trick.
Spireites, who have not played in the second tier since 1951, went into the game with a decent home record in season extension matches; they saw off Stockport County 4-0 in 1990 and Mansfield Town 5-2 five years later, the latter after extra time against a nine man Stags outfit.
The game started slowly and North End’s goal was played out in almost slow motion and it clearly cleared the Preston hangover from their devastating defeat at Colchester which saw them topple out of the automatic promotion places.
Chesterfield began to construct a number of attacks but nothing of great note until a clash between Paul Gallagher and Gary Roberts after a foul by the Preston man lit the blue touch paper.
The Blues stepped up a gear and dominated the following half-hour up to the break, though they did not test keeper Sam Johnstone as much as they would have wanted to.
Jay O’Shea, following brilliant work from player of the year Tendayi Darikwa, did not quite catch the shot right. Jimmy Ryan also had an effort that he did not clip as well as required while Roberts, Sam Clucas, Ian Evatt and Dan Gardner all went close in the wave of home attacks.
The second half mirrored the first with Preston starting well but Chesterfield soon got into their rhythm and once again took the game by the scruff of the neck. North End were forced into a tactical switch with Scott Laird moving up from left back into midfield to counteract Spireites’ dominance in that area, but the move failed to stem the blue tide.
Another Gallagher scuffle, this time with Ryan, once again lifted the atmosphere further and ignited Cook’s side. Ryan could count himself lucky only to have got a yellow card, the Preston boss said: “It was clearly an elbow,”
Roberts forced the best save of the game. Clucas just misjudged a header and O’Shea hit high and wide from good positions and sub Ollie Banks, at full stretch, hit narrowly off target.
Cook took to the centre circle after the final whistle in what could well be his final match at the Proact, it certainly felt like that, and after the game he indicated his pride in the players’ performance,
The manager said: “We played well tonight but you must give Preston great credit.
“They had a massive disappointment on Sunday but Simon has some great players, so after our disappointment after conceding early, we were terrific.
“We showed everything I love about the game; we wanted to pass, we wanted to get forward but we are naïve at times but we’re so honest in the way we play.
“It was a good game, a bit of spice in it, that’s good in games. We’re looking forward to Sunday, Preston know full well we’re still in the tie.
“At 1-0 the next goal in the tie is massive and we believe we can get it.
“If we don’t, we’ll keep working away throughout the 90 minutes.”
Chesterfield: Lee; Darikwa, Hird, Evatt, Jones; Morsy, Ryan; O’Shea (Gnanduillet 88), Roberts, Gardner (Banks 76); Clucas. Subs not used: Talbot, Humphreys, Raglan, Harrison, Ariyibi.
Preston: Johnstone, Clarke, Wright, Huntington, Laird (Woods 78), Humphrey, Welsh, Gallagher (Kilkenny 78), Johnson, Beckford (Robinson 87), Garner. Subs not used: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Hugill, Davies.