United's unbeaten start to the season was ended by the runaway league leaders this afternoon as a Ritchie Humpreys goal gave Chesterfield a 1-0 win. The U's had chances in a fine advert for League 2 football but skipper Andy Whing's red card left them with just too much to do as they lost for the first time.
The way that Chesterfield started the game underlined why they are top of the table. Easy on the eye and using the full width of the pitch they are certainly the best side that United have faced so far. It took a magnificent save by Ryan Clarke to keep it 0-0 after 12 minutes as another flowing move saw Drew Talbot cross and Tendayi Darikwa ping in a shot from six yards out. Somehow Clarke was equal to it, pushing the shot round the post when a goal seemed certain. Clarke’s return to fitness should never be underestimated in United’s fine start to the season.
Right-winger Eoin Doyle fizzed a 15th-minute shot across the face of goal as the Spireites continued to press United back, but United stayed strong and will never fold and on 18 minutes should have been in front as Potter put in a perfect cross and Smalley timed his run sweetly to outjump the defence at the far post. Unfortunately his header flashed just the wrong side of the post with keeper Tommy Lee nowhere.
It was an excellent game to watch, with a high tempo and plenty of skill to match plenty of good honest hard work. Smalley’s partnership with Dave Kitson up front gave United real focus and the pair’s ability to hold the ball allowed wide men Alfie Potter and Asa Hall
to join in. It’s worth noting as well that Hall’s versatility meant that United were able to switch from their initial 4-3-3 shape to 4-4-2 and fight their way into the game.
However the visitors continued to impress and only a vital interception from Clarke on 28 minutes took the ball off of the toe of Darikwa inside the area. It proved a temporary reprieve as on 29 Chesterfield took the lead. Doyle again caused the problems, this time on the Spireites’ left. His ball into the box picked out Ritchie Humphreys around the penalty spot and his left-footed volley flashed past the helpless Clarke.
United almost hit back quickly as Smalley’s curling effort went just wide on 31, and right on half-time Smalley had one final chance to get United level at the break, slicing his shot wide after a typically tenacious piece of play by Whing had forced an opening on the edge of the box.
Attacking their own fans in the second half, The U’s closed Chesterfield down, kept playing decent football and stayed in the game, although they needed a block from David Hunt to deflect a goal-bound effort wide on 50 minutes. Hall had put in a lot of work on the left but the final half hour saw a change as the more direct Sean Rigg returned on that flank after injury. United then started to enjoy a spell of pressure and were pressing the leaders back until the red card took all of their momentum away.
Kitson had just been felled by a crude-looking challenge by Sam Morsey and the tension was building as both sides scrapped away. As Doyle looked to control the ball on half way the flying figure of Whing hurtled in to try and take the ball. He didn't catch Doyle fully but it wasn't the best of challenges and ref Trevor Kettle had no hesitation in reaching for his red card.
It made a difficult job even harder and it took another Clarke save on 72 to keep an O'Shea effort out. To their credit United made the attacking decision to take off Raynes and bring on midfielder Scott Davies, leaving just three at the back to try and get something out of the game but that meant extra space for the visitors and it took another good save from Clarke to deny Doyle once more on 78 minutes. Smalley headed a Hunt cross into the arms of Lee on 80 before United's bravery nearly paid off. Kitson crossed, Smalley met the ball powerfully but his downwards header struck the foot of the left-hand post.
The side that finish above Chesterfield will win League 2 this season; they combine a solid defence with some very good ball players and clever movement up front. They are now the only unbeaten side left in the division and it will be interesting to see how long that run continues.
United will regroup and come again. They remain in the chasing pack and still have 38 games still to play. There is still a very long way to go.
Report by Chris Williams, pictures Steve Daniels, Stats by OPTA
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