Spireites: Dean Saunders faces tough challenge as Chesterfield FC look to maintain League One momentum

Sam Clucas has departed to Hull City for a club record �1.3m deal. Pic by James Williamson.
Sam Clucas has departed to Hull City for a club record �1.3m deal. Pic by James Williamson.

Chesterfield fans will be hoping that the club can maintain its momentum of recent years in the coming season, despite a summer which has seen a drastic turnover of players and management.

Tasked with renewing the club’s propulsion, new boss Dean Saunders faces a vital opening few months in his bid to win over the support of fans demanding a continuation of recent success which has seen the Spireites climb from the tail end of League Two to the League One play-offs via a Wembley appearance and league championship in two-and-a-half years.

Gary Roberts has joined former boss Paul Cook at Portsmouth. Pic by James Williamson.

Gary Roberts has joined former boss Paul Cook at Portsmouth. Pic by James Williamson.

Paul Cook’s decision to leave the club for Portsmouth saw his assistant Leam Richardson soon follow suit, leaving Chesterfield’s board to source a replacement capable of steering the Spireites to success in League One for a second consecutive season.

Saunders was soon appointed and the Welshman was quick to recruit his trusted lieutenants from tenures with Wrexham, Doncaster and Wolves as assistant manager Brian Carey and strength and conditioning coach Mal Purchase were installed at the Proact.

Only days into the job, Saunders was dealt successive blows when influential play-maker Gary Roberts followed his former manager to Fratton Park on the same day as midfield orchestrator Jimmy Ryan’s move to League One rivals Fleetwood Town was confirmed, following the expiry of his contract.

While the loss of Roberts was seen as good business with an ageing top-earner with questionable fitness off the books, the departure of Ryan without a compensatory fee left a feeling of disappointment with fans and management alike – leaving a serious dent in midfield options for Saunders to explore.

Saunders sought assurances from the Proact Stadium board that no more of his squad would leave unless the offer could not be refused, only for his headache over a depleting first team to be aggravated by Sam Clucas’ departure to Hull City for a club record £1.3 million days later.

Defender Tendayi Darikwa has joined Clucas in the Championship, while club captain Sam Morsy is understood to have had his head turned after the club rejected an offer from the second tier for his services.

With three players now gone and that number inevitably set to rise, Saunders has been able to recruit one big-name signing to the club which has solved Chesterfield’s lack of a senior striker, with Sylvan Ebanks-Blake signing for the club in a bid to rediscover the form which saw him win the Championship’s golden boot in two successive seasons during his time at Wolves.

Now at the age of 29, Ebanks-Blake will be central to the Spireites’ target of at least matching the sixth place finish achieved in the last campaign.

The presence, pace and power demonstrated by the former Manchester United prospect while leading the line in pre-season will give hope to Chesterfield fans that the void left by Eoin Doyle following his January switch to Cardiff City last season can be filled.

Ebanks-Blake will also be crucial as a mentor in Armand Gnanduillet’s development after the Ivorian striker was handed a year’s contract by Saunders when it had looked as though he would be released at the end of his contract on June 30.

Gnanduillet’s impressive and eye-catching displays in the pre-season programme will give hope to sceptical Spireites that the raw talent possessed by the 23-year-old can finally be honed under the guidance of Saunders after inconsistency became a hallmark of his play since his move to the club in January 2013.

Further inbound business has seen youngsters Dion Donohue and Jake Orrell sign at the Proact, both of whom are set to start the season in Chesterfield’s reformed reserve squad, alongside former Leeds ‘keeper Alex Cairns who has signed a six-month deal to provide backup to Tommy Lee should current number two Aaron Chapman be loaned out as planned.

Undoubtedly involved in the recruitment of the three youngsters will have been the newly-entitled head of player recruitment and development Paul Mitchell, whose decision to sign a new five-year-deal with Chesterfield, despite a staunch campaign from Cook to lure the former chief scout to the south coast, will undeniably prove to be Chesterfield’s most important signing of the summer.

Both unearthed and brought to the club under the recommendation of Mitchell, Gboly Ariyibi looks set to put Dan Gardner’s starting position on the wing into question after impressing following his breakthrough to the fringes of the first team in the second half of last season.

Ariyibi has continued his form into pre-season and caught the eye of chairman Dave Allen who prompted fans to expect to see more of him in the coming season.

Other youngsters who face an important season in their development with the club include midfielder Michael Onovwigun and Mani Dieseruvwe, who are both thought to have caught the attention of Saunders and his staff in training and pre-season matches with the former providing a dominating persona in the heart of midfield.

If Saunders does not find replacements who match or exceed the ability and influence of Roberts, Ryan and Clucas in his quest to snap up the off-cuts of Premier League and Championship trialists who are not handed a contract, it will be up to players on the fringes including Ollie Banks, Ariyibi and Gardner to convince Saunders of their merit of a first team place ahead of the season opener with Barnsley.

Lee Johnson will bring his side to the Proact on August 8 after a busy summer in the loan market which has seen a double swoop of Old Trafford, with midfielders Joe Rothwell and Ben Pearson both secured at Oakwell until January alongside Bolton striker Conor Wilkinson who links up with Johnson again after two loan spells with his former club Oldham.

Influential midfielder Conor Hourihane, who notched a total of 14 goals in 53 appearances for the Tykes last season, is set to miss the start of the season after suffering a medial knee ligament injury in training.

Saunders faces a difficult start to the season with a new-look Sheffield United the second opponents of the league campaign before trips to newly-promoted Shrewsbury, Rochdale and Millwall complete the first month of the season, during which Saunders and his backroom team will have to juggle recruitment with ensuring a strong start to the campaign to secure the faith of Spireite supporters.