‘We took the club over during a pandemic and people said we were crackers,” says Chesterfield’s chief executive, John Croot, as he considers the thought of 6,000 long-suffering fans converging on Stamford Bridge. “But someone had to do something.”
On Saturday evening the National League side will face Chelsea and, whether or not they contrive a shock for the ages, their presence advertises an eye-catching change in fortunes. The Spireites had been a staple of the Football League’s lower divisions for almost a century when they plummeted through the trapdoor in 2018 and things almost got much worse. But last year they were saved by a takeover from the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, an independent charity affiliated to the club since 2009, and the turnaround in the subsequent 17 months has been extraordinary.
“When we completed the deal, the fans asked us what our ambition for the year was,” says Croot. “We just said: ‘To make sure we’ve got a football club at the end of the season.’”
Chesterfield ended up with more than that. They rediscovered genuine hope on the pitch, rebuilding a side that had finished 20th in 2019-20 and, via a play-off defeat by Notts County in June, finished 2021 two points clear at the top.
A return to the fourth tier under James Rowe, their bright young manager, looks distinctly possible. But they also forged a bond with their local area that few can match. No other club in the top five divisions is entirely fan-owned and they hope the model can point a way forward.
“It’s given us a unique opportunity to embed the club in the community,” Croot says. “While multimillionaires might buy a club, I’m not sure they ever truly own it.”
Once a programme seller at Saltergate, Chesterfield’s former stadium, Croot became a club director and headed up a supporters’ society that saved them from being kicked out of the league in 2001.
When the trust took over from Dave Allen last August, backed by Chesterfield borough council and Derbyshire county council, the club had faced another existential crisis. Now they are making a difference: the trust is on course for a £2m turnover, a world away from the £30,000 it took after being formed, and Croot says every pound it receives from the county council generates a £12 economic return on social outcomes.
A list of its schemes would stretch to several pages. Last week several hundred hampers were delivered to deprived families across north Derbyshire; Croot is particularly proud of the alcohol and substance recovery programme, as well as the walking football initiative it founded a decade ago.
Supporters feel the club are looking out for them and the goodwill works both ways: late last year, some time before hearing they would land a Chelsea-shaped windfall, Chesterfield sought crowd funding of £15,000 for new pitch covers and the target was exceeded comfortably.
“We needed to reinvigorate the community and the next generation of supporters needed to be inspired,” says Rowe. “Now it’s about the progression.” The 38-year-old, whose father Colwyn coached the Botswana national team in the 2000s among other diverse roles, has been at the forefront of that. They have not looked back since he arrived from Gloucester City in November 2020, finishing the last calendar year with the third-best record in the country and losing once in the league this season.
Rowe was a prolific non-league striker before retiring at 27 and taking youth coaching roles with Birmingham and West Ham. After the latter he relocated to the Netherlands, taking a master’s in coaching at the Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam, and he credits the experience as being transformative. While many managers will reel off instantly recognisable names as their coaching inspirations, Rowe admits his is “a bit out of the box”: he describes Maarten van Heeswijk, a former Dutch Olympic hockey coach who is a professor on the course, as “my mentor … still a strong influence on me now”, and the pair speak weekly.
He has assembled a team of varied talent that includes the sought-after striker Kabongo Tshimanga, who has 19 goals this season, and Harry Maguire’s brother Laurence. The goalkeeper Scott Loach, 39-year-old forward Nathan Tyson and captain Curtis Weston add the kind of experience that will be valuable in west London.
Weston became the youngest player – at 17 years, 119 days – to appear in an FA Cup final when playing the final few minutes of Millwall’s defeat by Manchester United in 2004. He swapped shirts with Mikaël Silvestre and hopes his seniority earns him a crack at N’Golo Kanté this time. “It brings back memories,” he says. “I’d only played one senior game before that. It was heart-racing time, very nervous, even if I only played a couple of minutes. I just wanted to get out there and rub shoulders with some of my idols.”
Rowe will not begrudge his players butterflies for this one, admitting you would be “in the wrong sport” if they did not rear up when lining up opposite Chelsea. It is a cliche but there is a sense Chesterfield have already won by progressing this far. “It’s a bonus, a fantastic marker to say we’re back on the map as a club,” Rowe continues. “It’s a day to smile, to take it all in and put it in the memory.”
For Croot, it is a chance to pause briefly and dwell on their rejuvenated prospects. “To find ourselves walking down the King’s Road now, playing the European champions, is unbelievable,” he says. “I can’t say the job is complete, but there will be a bit of reflection when I look over to our fans.”