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Football League

Spireites on steep rise to the top

Chesterfield have a lovely new ground, a talented manager and an entertaining team, so life is sweet for Sheri

The club crest may sit above the main entrance but when visiting teams arrive at Chesterfield these days they find that seeing is one thing, believing quite another. Saltergate, at 139 years the oldest venue in the Football League until the Spireites moved out in June, was used to film The Damned United because it still looked like Derby County's Baseball Ground from the 1970s. Moving to their new home at the b2net Stadium, Chesterfield have been not so much dragged into the 21st century as jet-propelled across two centuries at once.

The effect has been startling. The stadium, which nestles alongside a superstore on the north side of the Derbyshire town, cost £13m – funded largely through grants, the sale of Saltergate and the deep pockets of former Sheffield Wednesday chairman Dave Allen – but is already generating income streams of which the club could previously only dream. Revenue from banqueting alone is expected to exceed £1m and gates are up 60 per cent.

But it is not simply the novelty of a modern ground attracting crowds. After 60 years confined to the lower divisions, Chesterfield fans are becoming accustomed to seeing their team winning matches – and doing so while striving for technical quality from a different level.

Given the identity of their manager, perhaps that should not be a surprise. John Sheridan's passing skills impressed Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday fans in the 1980s and '90s. Sheridan's stunning goal beat Manchester United in the final of the League Cup under Ron Atkinson and Wednesday went on to finish third in the Premier League under Trevor Francis. He also won a place in Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland team at the 1994 World Cup.

"I played in some decent teams and, as a manager, while primarily I want us to be a winning side, I like us to play football the right way," he said.

"At times we can be a bit too entertaining," he adds – wincing at the recollection of a 5-5 draw against Crewe, in which Chesterfield trailed 4-1 after 26 minutes, and a 4-3 win over Shrewsbury after leading 4-0 with 10 minutes to go – "but anyone who comes to watch will get their money's worth.

"I think it is an underrated division. People might think at League Two level it is all about long ball and set plays but it isn't. There are teams who are counterattacking and try to play like Premier League teams.

"The game has changed," he added. "It's quicker and you need to pass well to get anywhere. I say to the younger players that if you want to play at a higher level you have to learn to play the right way, take care of the ball."

So far, the approach is working for Chesterfield, who drew 0-0 at Stevenage yesterday to remain three points clear at the top. "Results-wise and position-wise we could not be better, but we have to have more consistency," Sheridan said. "There is a long way to go. Last season we got ourselves close to promotion or a play-off position only to fall back a bit.

"But we had to rely too much on loan players last season and it is a bit more my own side now. I've not got a massive budget – the club is not well off, despite having a lovely ground – but I've brought quality players in." Among those is striker Craig Davies, a free transfer from Brighton, who scored the first goal at the b2net and is in double figures for the season.

If Chesterfield are enjoying a renaissance, Sheridan is benefiting from a fresh start, having left his first managerial post, at Oldham, amid headlines after he and his top scorer, Lee Hughes, were accused – wrongly, he says – of fighting on a club night out at the Belle Vue dog track. "A lot was made out of something that never really happened. There were people involved who did not get spoken about whereas Lee Hughes was very unfairly treated – as I was – because he was not involved in anything. It was disappointing, but that's life."

He has a fully supportive chairman now in Barrie Hubbard, a 72-year-old former printer who made his first visit to Saltergate in 1946. "John's teams play football. He is a good manager and there is nobody better for bringing players in," Hubbard said.

Hubbard wanted a new stadium the first time he was chairman, 27 years ago, and now it has finally happened, he wants it to be the first step, not the last. "We are hoping to have Championship football," he said. "It was sad to leave Saltergate but there was nothing we could do there. This opens up possibilities we could not have envisaged."