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Chesterfield scuppered the chance to stay within touching distance of the top of League Two with a frustrating draw with Newport County.
The Spireites suffered a Wembley hangover as a late Newport equaliser cancelled out Jimmy Ryan’s second half goal to deny Paul Cook’s side a vital three points at the Proact Stadium.
Paul Cook made one change to the line starting line up from the defeat at Wembley, with the injured Ollie Banks, who will be under the knife on Monday with ligament damage to his foot, replaced by Daniel Kearns.
Dan Gardner returned to the bench after a month out with an ankle injury ahead of the five game run in after today’s draw, alongside Armand Gnanduillet and Nathan Smith who missed out on a Wembley appearance.
A concern for Paul Cook in the promotion campaign run in is a recurrence of Drew Talbot’s abductor injury, which has seen the 27-year-old absent from the side since early February.
Justin Edinburgh made four changes from the side that lost to Portsmouth as his side searched for only a third win since the turn of the year.
In a slow and scrappy start to the half, Chesterfield looked far from the side which Darren Ferguson tipped for back-to-back promotion.
Slack early passing coupled with slow pressing allowed for Newport to use the physical presences of forward Shaun Jeffers and Lee Minshull as Chesterfield made a lethargic opening to their return to league action.
Paul Cook was absent from the Chesterfield technical area with a reported two-match touchline ban handed to the 47-year-old, as a result of the incident away at former club Accrington Stanley on 8th March which saw him sent to the stands at the Crown ground.
Daniel Kearns, on his return to the side after being ineligible for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final, was the only player in blue who seemed sharp, providing a threat down both wings as he swapped flanks with Gary Roberts.
Ian Evatt was forced off after five minutes with an opening to the eye wound which saw him absent from Peterborough’s first goal last Sunday, with Morsy filling in at the back.
The Exiles looked to capitalise on the numerical advantage and Jeffers came close to breaking the deadlock with the Welsh outfit’s first sniff at goal as the former Coventry prospect saw his a curling effort from the edge of the box fly just wide of Tommy Lee’s post on six minutes.
Eoin Doyle looked to respond after a clever Jimmy Ryan pass found the Irishman down the right flank, but his forceful low cross evaded a blue shirt.
After the two early chances the game settled into what Ryan termed after the match as a ‘dead game’, with Chesterfield struggling to sustain meaningful spells of possession.
Newport looked the better side during a first half spell which saw Jeffers again test Lee with a curling effort, prompting an assured low save from the former Manchester United youngster, making his 50th appearance of the campaign.
Unlike Chesterfield’s usual dominance at home, Paul Cook’s side started the game with an unusual lack of intensity in both their passing and pressing.
Ryan, arguably the Blue’s most accomplished player in possession this season, looked far from comfortable which epitomised Chesterfield’s sluggish start to a fixture Paul Cook had labelled a cup final.
Gary Roberts and Jay O’Shea had been absent until the 20 minute mark, when the attacking duo linked to find Kearns on the left flank for the Peterborough loanee to cut in and shoot, only to see his effort rise above ‘keeper Ian McLoughlin’s cross bar.
Cook’s absence from the sideline was notable in a flat opening 45 minutes, with a mere consolation from the first half a promising spell in the final five minutes before the break.
Threatening runs from O’Shea and Roberts stretched the visiting defence before Evatt found the latter whose clever pass played in Ryan in a dangerous position, but the 25-year-old dragged his shot wide of McLoughlin’s far post for the best chance of the half.
Neither side made a change at half time and Newport soon had an attempt on goal as Robbie Willmott saw a headed effort dart just over Lee’s bar.
Chesterfield were soon down the other end in response. Darikwa haired down the right flank and produced a threatening deep cross which centre back Ismail Yakubu did well to clear for a corner.
A succession of set pieces followed before a Kearns short corner routine found Ryan on the edge of the box, who burst forward and dinked the ball over to the back post in search of Roberts but the speculative effort looped in to the top corner to make up for the earlier miss and hand Chesterfield the lead.
Strong words must have been exchanged at half time as Chesterfield started the second half an invigorated side camped in the visitor’s half.
O’Shea twice came close to doubling the lead with efforts on 51 and 54 minutes, the first should have been taken as the Irishman’s run was found by a clever Roberts pass, but the former MK Dons man failed to hit the target from six yards.
Moments he second attempt from distance saw McLoughlin forced in to a difficult save, palming a low right footed effort round the post.
The breakthrough handed the Spireites an air of confidence which was absent in the first half, with passes now more accurate and intentful.
A neat interchange between O’Shea, Roberts and Morsy found Doyle running in behind the Exile’s back line but his well timed volley was ruled offside by the official on.
Only seconds later Chesterfield had the ball in the back of the net again as Roberts’ low cross across the face of goal was tapped in at the back post by Kearns, but the 21-year-old was adjudged offside by the linesman.
The Spireites looked far from the side that produced a lacklustre and at times lazy first half, with the likes of Doyle, Kearns, Roberts and Doyle now a yard quicker than the Newport defence and alert in possession.
A double substitution from Justin Edinburgh slowed the play down as Rene Howe came on for Jeffers, who had caused problems for the Chesterfield rearguard throughout the first half.
The game became more balanced after Chesterfield’s 10 minutes of sustained pressure, before Kearns made way for Sam Hird on 71 minutes.
Richards replaced Doyle on 75 minutes and Chesterfield looked set to secure a vital three points in the run in for the promotion race.
Substitute Christian Jolley had Newport’s first sniff at goal since going a goal down with a mazy run into a dangerous area of the box, but an assured Evatt challenged extinguished the threat of a comeback.
Evatt again left the field to receive medical attention, having his head bandaged.
On his return, Hird’s clearance from a 33 goal kick found Ryan whose clever chipped through ball to Richards found the striker one-on-one with the on rushing keeper but the veteran striker, only minutes into his appearance, could not find the height on his half volley to lob the keeper in another missed opportunity.
As has been too common a feature of Chesterfield’s recent displays, the Spireites would rue missed chances as only seconds after Richards’ chance Newport drew level through Max Porter.
The midfielder found space on the edge of the box and the subsequent shot seemed to take an age to find the far corner despite the best efforts of sliding Chesterfield defenders, for the midfielder’s first goal in 15 months on 82 minutes.
One last effort for Paul Cook’s side to salvage an essential three points fell to Darikwa after Roberts beat left back Andrew Hughes to find Morsy, whose lay off found Darikwa but the Chesterfield academy product could not find the composure to finish as his effort sailed over the bar.
The Spireites’ woes were impounded in the dying minutes as Ryan received a tenth yellow card of the season for a late tackle on Hughes, to earn the ever present midfielder a two match ban to miss the trip to Hartlepool and visit of Exeter.
The result leaves the Spireites third in SkyBet League Two, four points adrift of Rochdale and Scunthorpe with five games to play.
Wins for Fleetwood and Burton, both of whom Chesterfield have still to play, reduced the gap between the Spireites and the play-off places to three points.
At full time Paul Cook insisted that his players will keep their focus and achieve the pre season objective of promotion to League One.
Cook said: “We missed a couple of good chances to go over the line and it’s two points dropped at home at a crucial stage of the season.
“But with five games to go we must keep our focus and it’s important to have a good, clear mind.
“We have five league games left and if we win more games than the teams around us, we are promoted which was the target at the start of the season.
The 47-year-old instilled his faith in his squad, adding: “I couldn’t question the players, they are fantastic although they are very down which happens when you drop points.
“We created really good opportunities in the second half and had clear-cut chances to kill the game, but we haven’t done it so you don’t look for excuses.
“It think it’s quite obvious that we should have won but we didn’t and you’ve got to give credit to Newport, they are a tough team to play against and we have to make sure we keep going and stay together as a group.”
Chesterfield travel to Hartlepool before the visit of Exeter on Good Friday, before trip to Dagenham precedes what will prove to be season defining games against Burton and Fleetwood.
Darikwa, Evatt, Cooper, Humphreys;
Kearns (Hird 71′), O’Shea (Bennett 85′), Roberts;
Doyle (Richards 75′).
Subs not used: Dunbavin, Smith, Gardner, Gnanduillet.
Jackson, Feely, Yakubu, Hughes;
Porter, Minshull, Flynn (c), Willmott;
Subs: Pipe, Sandell, Burge, Naylor, Jolley, Holloway, Howe.