Chesterfield fans celebrate after winning the National League and securing promotion to League 2

The Promise Land: How Chesterfield made it back to the English Football League

Ciaran Connolly discovers what Chesterfields dominating season and long awaited return to the EFL means for the club and fans alike. How did Chesterfield manage to return? And what do the people who surround the club think about their return? 

The 2023/24 season has saw Chesterfield return to the Football League after a six-year absence. Their time in the National League saw multiple play-off disappointments and managerial changes. Despite a grueling period, the Spireites are now back in the EFL.

Chesterfield parade their National League Trophy after title win

As the final whistle was blown and the 2017/18 League Two season was brought to a close, Chesterfield found themselves rock bottom of the league table. Relegation was confirmed for the Spireites, who were suffering their second demotion in as many seasons. It was a bleak time for the club, and it would remain bleak for quite some time.  

“Extremely disappointing. It’s been a whole life in the EFL and we’ve been relegated to the National League” said Jack Mitchell, a lifelong Chesterfield fan and season ticket holder. Mitchell also sponsors Chesterfield’s player of the season Tom Naylor’s shirt alongside his mother, Stella. “It was just a complete sinking feeling thinking we’d never get out and never get back to the EFL.”   

Jack Mitchell holding the national League trophy with Chesterfield manager Paul Cook. Credit: Jack Mitchell

The first two years were almost as disastrous as the years prior, with the club finishing 14th and 20th to remain in the league they hadn’t played in since 1921. 

The following two years saw the Spireites finish in the play-off places, but a quarter-final defeat to Notts County and a semi-final loss to Solihull. Hope was dwindling amongst the fans, but the return of a familiar manager would soon prove to be fruitful. 

Paul Cook, who had previously taken Chesterfield to the League Two title and League One play-offs, returned to the club after seven years away. Cook was brought in for one reason and one reason only, to drive the club back to the EFL where their fans believe they belonged. 

“Paul Cook enjoyed success in his previous spell at the club and nearly got up to the championship” said Nick Johnson, head of media at Chesterfield FC.  

“Fans were very excited when he returned and by his own admission, he took a little time to get to grips with the National League,” said Johnson. 

Despite feeling that he needed to adjust to the National League, Cook’s impact was almost instantaneous. Chesterfield were top of the league after the first month of the season with Cook winning manager of the month.  

The Spireites finished third in the table and after a victory against Bromley in the semi-final, were poised to play Notts County in the final. Chesterfield took the team that finished 23 points above them to penalties but lost 4-3 in the shootout. Despite the result, there was a sense of hope around the fanbase that the club would build upon what they had already achieved.  

Chesterfield lost on penalties to Notts County in the promotion play-off final in 2023

“Losing Notts County and Wrexham was vitally important” added Johnson. “I really fancied the club to go up given that both those had gone out to the division. 

“You look at other clubs like Stockport County and Wrexham where it’s taken them longer to get back into the Football League. And, yeah, I think it was a massive problem for the club to go down but fortunately, we’ve managed to rebuild and come back stronger,” said Johnson. 

The following season proved to be the one that the Chesterfield faithful had been waiting for since 2018, the season when they finally return to the EFL. Breaking a previous club record of 27 wins in a season, the Spireites finished top of the league on 98 points.  

Despite the league being as “weak” as it’s been for a long time, Mitchell doubled down on how important it was for the team to be promoted this year. 

“It was critical that this year we did the right thing, and just pushed on and be champions and didn’t risk anything by sitting around in the playoffs for another campaign.” 

Johnson added that the exposure the club would now get after the promotion is invaluable to the club and the town of Chesterfield as a whole.  

“Being in the Football League significantly raises the profile of the club and the town, you know, because it’s not only the club that benefits,” said Johnson.  

“I think everybody in the area is excited about returning to the EFL.” added Johnson. “it’s been six years, and we’ve certainly missed that sort of exposure that you get, you know, there’s the new deal from Sky Sports as well. 

“I think given our role in the community, where we, you know, we have a very close link with people in the local area, because the community trust gets involved in all sorts of projects, helping young and old. So yeah, there is a very good community link between the club and local people,” said Johnson. 

As the club prepares for their return to the EFL, hopes are high amongst the Chesterfield fanbase. Mitchell believes that pushing for the play-offs is a “realistic ambition” 

“We don’t really know the sort of quality we’ll be up against. We have played League opposition in the FA Cup numerous times while we’ve been in the National League, we’ve fared pretty well, particularly this season beating the likes of Portsmouth and Leyton Orient. So yeah, I think we’ve got a good chance and my ambition is playoffs” explained Mitchell. 

It is set to be an exciting season for the Spireites and their faithful, with many thinking they have the potential to achieve back-to-back promotions. It surely would be a stark contrast to how they fared between 2016 and 2018 but the fans are ready. Chesterfield are back in the EFL.