Branston og 57
Bryan 21, Nelson 26
by RICK COWDERY
ARGYLE took another step towards securing their Football League safety as John Sheridan made a triumphant return to the club that sacked him at the beginning of the season.
The Pilgrims fashioned 2-0 lead by midway through the first half through goals in quick succession from Joe Bryan’s – his first for the club on his temporary spell from Bristol City – and Curtis Nelson.
Chesterfield, stung, and needing at least a point to keep their outside chances of making the League 2 play-offs, pulled one back before the hour when Guy Branston shinned a ball past his own goalkeeper.
The Pilgrims, though, are used to having to hang on to precious leads – never more so than since Sheridan’s arrival – and, although the next hour was not always comfortable, it was familiarly effective.
Sheridan had made three changes to the Pilgrims’ starting line-up that suffered late heartbreak at Burton three days earlier, only one of which appeared to be from necessity.
With Jason Banton having returned to Crystal Palace after the abrupt and early termination of his loan, Sheridan needed someone to fill the attacking midfield role. That job went to Andres Gurrieri, meaning a recall for Paris Cowan-Hall on the right side of midfield.
Banton, incidentally, did not make the Palace 18 on duty at Ipswich.
Conor Hourihane’s availability after a two-match suspension saw Luke Young demoted from the central middle ranks, with previous captain Nelson keeping his somewhat new posting in the engine room.
The third change was in central defence, where Paul Wotton resumed as Branston’s partner after a back twinge, replacing Max Blanchard.
Sheridan’s successor at the Proact Stadium (née the b2net), Paul Cook made one change to the Spireites’ side from that which had secured a 2-2 home draw against Bradford at roughly the same time Mark Patterson was denying Argyle a point the previous Saturday.
That was up front, where Marc Richards replaced Armand Gnanduillet, presumably much to the relief of visiting radio commentators.
Argyle made a solid start, keeping the ball better than they had done in the early stages of their previous two games thanks, in no small part, to the physicality of Hourihane and Nelson in central midfield.
Cruising through the gears, they created the first chance of the game after ten minutes when Hourihane burst into the box and cleverly shot across goalkeeper Tommy Lee, only for the custodian to stick out his left leg and just block the shot.
Immediately afterwards, Bryan burst down the left and cut the ball back to Reuben Reid on the edge of the penalty area for a powerful first-time shot that was always going to be high of the target.
Chesterfield made one or two breaks which threatened more than they delivered, but the Pilgrims’ sweet keep-ball was by far the most eye-catching feature of the first 20 minutes.
That was until Gurrieri linked together another fine passing move which ended with the Argentinean feeding Bryan on the left.
The young Bristolian cut inside and, from the edge of the penalty area, curled a ball towards the far post.
Only Bryan knows whether he was seeking Cowan-Hall at the far post or trying an audacious shot but, frankly, who cares? The ball arced over Lee’s head and flailing hands to nestle sweetly in the net behind which the Green Army were celebrating wildly.
Five minutes later, Argyle’s long-suffering loyal supporters were having it large again after the Pilgrims increased their lead from a set-piece after the ever-willing and seldom properly appreciated Reid had been fouled midway inside the Chesterfield half.
Wotton took the free-kick, and found the gnarled old head of Branston at the far post for a knock-down that dropped into the Spireites’ six-yard box. Nelson was simply the quickest to react, poking the ball past Lee into the roof of the goal.
A combination of embarrassment and the realisation the their season was on the line – not to mention a healthy half-time fear of a dressing-down – spurred Chesterfield into action and Argyle spent the remainder of the half more in defence, than attack.
Despite this, they still looked the team more likely to score, with Gurrieri tying everything together in midfield, and pulling the strings of the likes of Bryan and Cowan-Hall on some purposeful breaks.
Chesterfield started the second period on the first foot, as they had to, and nearly reduced the arrears immediately when Conor Townsend crossed low to Richards at the near post. Branston stuck out a size ten to block the effort.
Argyle should have put the game beyond doubt in their first attack of the half, when Bryan stole in on a poor back-pass to be one-on-one with Lee. The angle, though, was with the goalkeeper and the Pilgrim could find only the side-netting from wide out.
Cook mixed things up by bringing on Mario Balotelli lookalike Gnanduillet and Alex Henshall for Richards and Richard Brindley, and the substitution had an immediate effect.
Henshall took on Durrell Berry down the Argyle right, beat him, and crossed the ball low and hard across the box begging for a touch. It came, inadvertently, from Branston’s shin and the ball bounced over his own goal-line.
Suddenly, the game – the season – took on a different hue. Now it was Chesterfield who wanted the ball, passed it assuredly, made space, and pressed the opposition.
Through a strange mixture of disciplined calmness and controlled panic in equal measures at different times, they stuck to their task effectively.
Chesterfield’s need ensured the game was never going to peter out and that there was, at times, going to be space for Argyle to exploit so the match remained a lively, tense, affair.
With eight minutes to go, substitute Nick Chadwick played in the hard-working Gurrieri for a golden chance to kill all the anxiety, but Lee made a fine save to deny him some just deserts.
Argyle, though, could not be denied.
1 Tommy Lee; 17 Richard Brindley (7 Alex Henshall 55), 5 Neal Trotman (6 Sam Hird 72), 31 Liam Cooper, 33 Conor Townsend; 12 Tendayi Darikwa, 34 Jay O’Shea, 23 Mark Randall, 8 Sam Togwell, 25 Drew Talbot; 9 Marc Richards (21 Armand Gnanduillet 55). Substitutes (not used):
15 Craig Clay, 18 Scott Boden, 22 Jonathan Wafula, 40 Josh Barrington (gk).
Talbot 36, Randall 64.
1 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Guy Branston, 15 Paul Wotton, 14 Onsimor Bhasera; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 17 Curtis Nelson, 27 Andres Gurrieri, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 18 Joe Bryan; 24 Reuben Reid (9 Nick Chadwick 81). Substitutes (not used):
4 Maxime Blanchard, 8 Luke Young, 20 Rene Gilmartin (gk), 26 Anthony Charles,28 Ronan Murray, 29 Tyler Harvey.
4,988 (399 away).
Pictures by Dave Rowntree