Mark Perrow reports from Ashton GateWes Burns was the hero as City left it late to claim a second successive 3-2 home victory on another dramatic afternoon in BS3.
It looked as if Steve Cotterill’s side could become the latest victims to be unstuck by Sky Bet League One hotshot Eoin Doyle as the Irishman struck twice for fellow promotion hopefuls Chesterfield.
Twice City were in front either side of half-time, through Ian Evatt’s own goal and Derrick Williams’ first of the season, but twice Doyle had an answer, converting a 25th minute penalty before scrambling home his 15th goal of the season just before the hour mark.
But Burns would have the last laugh as the first-half substitute converted Wade Elliott’s cross three minutes into added time with a crashing half-volley to spark jubilant scenes at Ashton Gate.
Steve Cotterill named the same starting XI for the eighth consecutive league fixture, with Kieran Agard recovering from the dead leg which forced him out of the midweek victory at Cheltenham Town in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
It was the visitors and last season’s League Two champions who started on the front foot, forcing a succession of early corners and justifying their status as back-to-back promotion contenders.
City were penned in until Luke Freeman’s cute pass inside right-back Tendayi Darikwa released Joe Bryan. When his first cross was cleared back into his path, the Bristolian rifled a low ball across the six-yard box which Chesterfield skipper Evatt
could only slide into his own net.
It was harsh on the Spireites, who had done a fine job of exerting their authority on the contest only to fall behind at the end of City’s very first attack.
But the goal gave the home crowd a lift and the players responded. Suddenly Cotterill’s side were looking their usual selves, as Mark Little found space down the right flank and delivered a cross beyond Agard for the onrushing Elliott, who had to adjust at the last moment and was not far away from guiding the ball into the bottom corner.
Meanwhile, the variety of Freeman’s corners were causing the visitors a problem. When they were not short to Elliott or Bryan, they were swirling in deep towards Tommy Lee’s far post at a rate of knots.
City tails were up, but a catalogue of errors caused the home team to shoot themselves in the foot and surrender their lead.
Bryan’s easy pass down the touchline to Williams was slack and intercepted by Doyle, who exchanged passes with Gary Roberts and wriggled into the penalty area.
Even then, the prolific Irishman looked at a dead end, surrounded by three red shirts only for Williams to bring him down and leave referee Andy Davies with little choice but to point to the spot.
duly stepped up and sent his kick straight down the middle for his 14th goal in just 12 outings this season.
It was the second goal of the game to have come completely against the run of play, but City were stung into action and Bryan was determined to make up for his mistake.
Virtually straight from the restart, the wing-back found himself in a yard of space on the left side of the Chesterfield box and checked inside before sending a curling right-footed shot against the outside of the far post.
It was an effort deserving of a goal and City were dealt another moment of misfortune ten minutes before the break when Korey Smith went down injured and unable to continue.
With Marlon Pack seemingly the obvious choice to come on having impressed in the holding role against former club Cheltenham, Cotterill instead sprung a surprise by calling for Burns and switching to 4-4-2.
Ultimately the first half descended into a bad-tempered affair when Doyle was booked for leaving a foot in on Fielding when the goalkeeper temporarily spilled the ball, provoking an angry reaction from Aden Flint, but City regained their composure immediately after the interval.
Bryan’s surging run from kick-off culminated in a driven shot that looped behind for a corner, from which another dangerous Freeman delivery was met by an excellent Williams
header back across Lee’s dive to put City back in front.
Again the goal lifted the home team, and Freeman instantly embarked on an eye-catching dribble carrying him beyond a series of white shirts before supplying Bryan, who jinked past the first challenge and claimed a penalty under the second dismissed by universally unpopular referee Andy Davies.
The game was only just opening up and Chesterfield hauled themselves level again just shy of the hour mark as Doyle pounced for his second.
When Darikwa reached the byeline and picked out Sam Clucas, the midfielder looked certain to score only to scuff his shot from eight yards inadvertently into the path of Doyle
who prodded the ball over the line.
It was turning into another breathless encounter involving this wide open City side. Again there was no sign of Cotterill’s men being knocked by conceding, and Agard was soon left wondering how he hadn’t scored for the third game running.
Another Freeman corner not dealt with dropped his way from point-blank range. With his back to goal, the striker swivelled and hammered the ball goalwards only for Lee to spread himself and make a remarkable reflex save.
Then Freeman decided to have a go himself, as another driving run straight through the middle of the pitch sliced the visiting defence open and presented a shooting opportunity from 20 yards which the midfielder rifled against the top of the crossbar.
Still the chances were not restricted to one end, as Chesterfield substitute Ollie Banks tried his luck from distance with a deflected shot uncomfortably dealt with by Fielding before City escaped the ensuing goalmouth scramble unscathed.
Just as the game threatened to fizzle out into a stalemate, Burns
struck his second goal in two games to lift the roof off Ashton Gate and send City five points clear at the League One summit.