16 March ~ There is every chance that Chesterfield will return to League One at the end of a successful 2010-11 season. The club has a ten-point lead over closest rivals Bury and that looks healthy even allowing for the games in hand of most of the chasing teams. However, long-suffering fans will take nothing for granted after the club looked odds-on for the title in 2000-01 only to suffer a nine-point penalty as they fell into administration. Happily, the club’s fate this season will be decided on the pitch rather than in an accountant’s office. Chesterfield now represent something of a “new model” for lower-league clubs.
Their brush with administration came after a disastrous spell under the ownership of Darren Brown who, as the Guardian’s David Conn put it, “emptied the club of cash and drove it to the edge of ruin in a few hair-raising months”. Brown was eventually sentenced to four years in prison. The Football League described the case as a “landmark” in that it moved them, finally, to establish a fit and proper person test for club owners. For many, the League’s “landmark” was as much hubris as fact: under the new rule Brown would, in all probability, still have been able to take over the club and wreak his havoc.
A more substantial landmark was the supporters’ role in leading the club out of administration. The Chesterfield Football Supporters’ Society (CFSS), newly formed in 2001, bought a 78 per cent holding for a little over £6,000. Over the next 18 months, with the help of local businessmen and the neighbourhood lottery winner, it was able to move the club’s finances along significantly, and through participation in the board to play a major role in the club’s redirection.
Survival remained a problematic and the club faced challenges common to many in the lower divisions: an ageing stadium, crowds below break-even level and a shortage of cash. The club’s ground, Saltergate, had a reasonable claim to be the oldest football ground still in use, and despite investment and hard work by CFSS it remained an unsatisfactory base. Average attendances had ebbed away from a decade high just short of 5,000 in 2004-05 to under 4,000 in 2010.
A significant part of the club’s re-emergence is the investment of a new majority shareholder, casino entrepreneur Dave Allen. Although it’s worth recognising that Allen is less popular at Sheffield Wednesday, who he has recently left, his investment was a key to securing funding from the Football Foundation and the East Midlands Development Agency to build a new 10,000-seat stadium. A further part of the new model has been the club’s ability to secure a long-term title sponsor for the ground. B2net, an IT company, has the naming rights for the next 11 years, maintaining a longer-term relationship with the club.
On the pitch the relatively new management team lead by John Sheridan has built what looks like a promotion-winning side. Allen’s investment has been almost exclusively in the stadium development and so Sheridan has taken the well trodden path of bringing together cast-offs, loan signings and players with a point to prove, perhaps typified by serial underachiever, but now leading scorer, Craig Davies. There are plenty of clubs looking enviously at Chesterfield’s success: new ground, successful team, apparently stable finances and increasing attendances (60 per cent up on last season). Not bad for a club characterised in 2005 as having a history of “serious uneventfulness”. Brian Simpson