A composed finish from Jermaine Beckford on five minutes was all that separated Chesterfield and Preston in a pulsating play-off semi final first leg at the Proact Stadium.
The Spireites threw everything at Preston and could count themselves unlucky not to have found the back of the net on a night that saw Paul Cook’s side register 20 shots on goal.
Chesterfield were at their free-flowing best and rose to the occasion, particularly in the second half, and will travel to Deepdale on Sunday with confidence, having rocked Simon Grayson’s Preston.
Chesterfield remained unchanged from Sunday’s derby at Bramall Lane against fellow play-off contenders Sheffield United. The Spireites came in to the game full of confidence whereas their opponents Preston were anything but having missed out on automatic promotion on the last day of the season at Colchester at the expense of MK Dons.
However, after a bright start from the visitors, all was forgotten when they took the lead on five minutes through Beckford. Chris Humphrey picked up Tom Clarke’s sliding interception and sent a searching ball forward that Joe Garner stepped over and the former man raced through unmarked, chipping the ball over Tommy Lee for the breakthrough.
Preston showed no sign of nerves and moved the ball around early on. They went close to a second moments later when Garner wriggled his way through in to the area and forced Lee in to a smart save low to his right from the angle. Sam Hird threw himself in to harm’s way to block Garner’s next effort after the striker had found an inch of space in the area.
Chesterfield clawed their way back in to the game and, when Tendayi Darikwa pulled the ball back, Gary Roberts’s shot was quickly charged down by Preston skipper Clarke. The Spireites began to build up a head of steam and when Darikwa found Jay O’Shea, the Irishman dragged his shot wide under pressure from a swarm of yellow shirts.
The game had been simmering, as Chesterfield refused to lie down, and threatened to boil over when Roberts and Paul Gallagher got in to a tangle. The Preston man was late in and the two were locked at each other as players from both sides joined the melee halfway in the visitors’ half. The referee waited to calm it down, leaving the home crowd incensed.
Roberts’ resulting free-kick to the back post saw Ian Evatt, the former Blackpool man, rose above his marker and headed down towards goal that Preston keeper Sam Johnstone scooped up. In an end-to-end game, Beckford’s acrobatics failed to test Lee moments later.
The tide had turned from those tentative early minutes and, when Roberts was tripped near to the byline, his resulting free-kick was measured to Jimmy Ryan 20-odd yards out and his drive was always rising over Johnstone’s bar. Garner continued to make a nuisance of himself in the final third and sent a driven effort wide of Lee’s right hand post.
The Spireites were enjoying pockets of space and O’Shea twisted one way then the next before offloading to Gardner, who checked back on to his left foot and forced a strong save from Johnstone diving low to his left. Chesterfield were edging closer to an equaliser but the ball just wouldn’t fall for Ryan, O’Shea, Gardner, Roberts and O’Shea once more.
A tussle between Gallagher and Ryan led to both players being cautioned within minutes after the break. Gallagher a too eager in his attempts to get possession and in doing so caught one off Ryan. The Spireites midfielder was involved at the other end of the pitch moments later in an interchange with Roberts that saw the latter shot blocked by Scott Laird.
Half the home faithful were on their feet when Roberts got away from a handful of dangling legs to work himself a shooting opportunity and fired a shot across goal that fractionally missed the far post with Johnstone well beaten. Chesterfield weren’t just knocking, they were banging on the door.
O’Shea’s drive from distance went wide of the post, he sliced wide moments later, then Sam Clucas was unable to conjure up the power to test Johnstone. It had been one way traffic for the majority of the second half but the hosts were almost caught out when Garner held the ball up, turned and fed Beckford for Lee to save. But the keeper fell awkwardly and concern spread as there was no reserve keeper on the bench. Fortunately, Lee signalled he was fit to continue.
After another goalmouth scramble inside the Preston box, substitute Ollie Banks was presented with a glorious opportunity at the back post when he raced on to Clucas’ inviting centre. Banks though put his half volley over the bar from close range to let the visitors off the hook - time will tell how important that miss could be for the Spireites’ Wembley hopes.
Part two at Deepdale on Sunday with it all to play for.
Spireites (4-2-3-1): Lee; Darikwa, Evatt, Hird, Jones; Ryan, Morsy (c); O’Shea (Gnanduillet 87), Roberts, Gardner (Banks 76); Clucas. Subs not used: Talbot, Raglan, Ariyibi, Humphreys, Harrison.
PNE (3-5-2): Johnstone; Clarke (c), Huntingdon, Wright; Humphrey, Johnson, Welsh, Gallagher (Kilkenny 78), Laird (Woods 78); Beckford (Robinson 87), Garner. Subs not used: Wiseman, Davies, Stuckmann, Hugill.
Referee: Mark Haywood (West Yorkshire).
Attendance: 8,409 (1,458).