Chester FC: Why we should never, ever take our local clubs for granted

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustration by Philippe Fennr
January 30, 2018
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Most of us have cousins and most of us only see them at life’s big three of weddings, christenings and funerals. On these rare occasions conversations are struck and catch-ups caught and you are reminded of your familial connection, a bond that seems so strong when they’re right there standing in front of you yet vanishes the moment they’re gone. This is a guy who has 12.5% of the same DNA as you do. He is only one step removed from being a sibling, There are photographs in unseen albums of you both as toddlers on a beach and at family barbecues as cocky young kids with bad haircuts, arms around one another.

He’s a decent sort.

You resolve to stay in touch.

But you don’t because life gets in the way. There’s a crisis at work and a weekend away with the boys and before you know it you’ve gone your way again and he’s gone his and you’re back to hearing of his big moments second-hand via a parent. He’s become a dad again for the third time. He’s had a health scare. Learning of each development pricks at your conscience and you momentarily kid yourself that you’re going to make the call. You possibly would do – but probably wouldn’t – if you had his number.

Chester FC are my footballing cousin. Each time I drive past their ground that resides only five miles from my house and four from the home that I grew up in my conscience is pricked and I resolve to attend a game this season. After all they are only one step removed from being a blood relative; my team being Manchester City and the Seals for so long named Chester City. There’s weighty symbolism in that wordplay. Then there are the photographs, in these instance not physical artefacts but imprinted on the mind, of going to my first live games with my dad in tow, and later standing behind one of the goals with a group of school mates barracking the opposition keeper on floodlit Friday nights.

Those evenings were at Sealand Road – before the move to the Deva Stadium a mile or so further from town; before it all went to pot – and they were scheduled for that time so as to distance themselves from Liverpool and Everton fixtures that otherwise dominated local interest. Throughout the course of my lifetime, Chester has always been the poor cousin.
In the intervening years I have gone to watch the Blues if all too irregularly. There were no promotion days or relegation disasters to act as neat analogies of weddings, christenings or funerals; it was usually when the mood took me and opportunity presented itself. And on each occasion I would resolve to go again very soon. This was my local club and if I couldn’t commit to supporting them with my heart I should at least support them with my presence. They are 12.5% of my sporting DNA.

Only life would get in the way, usually in the form of Manchester City playing on the same day or a televised game that I needed to report on or sometimes just plain, ordinary life. On the last international weekend when Chester played at home I went to IKEA, then the cinema, and then had a meal out because I’d been writing about football for about sixty consecutive days and needed a break from it. Before I knew it my absence at the Deva ran into weeks, then months, then years.

Last week I learned second-hand that my footballing cousin was enduring a health scare. I had no idea. I write about football for a living and it had reached this critical juncture right under my nose and I had no idea. This was not a mere pricking of my conscience. The guilt has been like a second layer of skin ever since.

“If we can’t raise eighty-five thousand to ninety thousand pounds a month then we could be finished in a couple of months” – that’s how it was termed in a City Fans United meeting last Thursday to members some of whom were appalled at having the gravity of the situation kept from them until so recently. Worse was to follow with the news that fifty thousand pounds had to be found very quickly indeed.

To that end a staggering ten thousand has already been raised through donations while last Saturday the club’s new signing Shepherd Murombedzi agreed to play for free. If survival is secured next season’s budget is set to be cut from £450,000 to £250,000 including coaching and support staff costs slashed. A Chester youth game on January 31st is expected to raise further funds with a pay-what-you-want policy on the door.

More slender hope resides in the fee for James Alabi’s switch to Tranmere set to go to tribunal and Chester also have the option of selling their sell-on clause installed when talented defender Sam Hughes moved to Leicester. Fresh investment meanwhile is potentially available, a mystery benefactor put forward by commentator and lifelong Chester fan Jonathan Legard. Legard alluded on Twitter last week that the board’s running of the club has been a ‘shambles’. Yesterday the club’s chairman and two members of the board stood down.

How much of this equates to papering over the cracks depends on your disposition but what can be stated with certainty is that this current crisis has reignited local concern with 200 new CFU members signing up inside of three days. This is a huge fillip for a club that has seen dwindling attendances of late as their rise through the lower divisions levelled off in the National League.

Chester has been here before. They have overcome before. In the summer of 1999 an American named Terry Smith took control of the club and soon after sacked manager Kevin Ratcliffe. Smith, an eccentric individual by anyone’s estimation, then decided to take up the position himself despite having an extremely limited knowledge of the game. He appointed captains for the defence, midfield and attack. His team-talks consisted of the Lord’s Prayer. He believed that it was possible to substitute a sent off player.

Unsurprisingly Chester City FC went into inexorable freefall and lost their proud 69 year league status, yet Smith’s most grievous act was still to come when he willingly sold the club to businessman and boxing promoter Stephen Vaughn.

Vaughn is presently disqualified from acting as a director of any company following his involvement in an alleged VAT fraud at Widnes Vikings rugby league club. Prior to that he ran Chester into administration, reaching a nadir that saw the players refuse to play because they were receiving no wages and the police refuse to steward games for similar reasons.

In November 2007 a minute’s silence was held at the Deva Stadium for a man described as ‘a major benefactor’ to the club. The man in question was second in command to a cocaine empire who had recently been shot in a gangland killing in Speke, Liverpool.

In February 2010 Chester City was no more.

A year earlier saw the formation of the CFU (Chester Fans United), a group of diehard supporters who took the husk left behind by Smith and Vaughn and forged a new phoenix club named Chester FC. With help from the council and local businesses, one of only a handful of trust controlled clubs across the country was installed in the eighth tier of the football league system and soon after took flight with promotion after promotion taking them to their present plateau.

At its heart the ethos behind this fledging institution was simple and inspiring in that every fan had a vote, the board was made up entirely of supporters, and everything that had happened to them previously would never be allowed to happen again. The club was run sensibly with a clear community leaning. A ‘war-chest’ was retained for a rainy day.

That it’s come to this then is even more heart-breaking than the circumstances alone. If Smith’s part of Chester City’s downfall can be attributed to sheer lunacy, and Vaughn’s to alleged malfeasance, now it’s due to well-intentioned incompetence as illustrated by the schedule of last week’s meeting that had as its first order of business – ‘Welcome/apologies’.
So why is the first half of this sorry tale about me? I don’t matter in this one iota.

Well, precisely. If you believe this is a unique situation of a club heading for the wall then you’d be very wrong. Similarly if you think I’m the only one who has looked the other way, bedazzled by the shining lights of the top echelons of English football then you would also be astray.

Most of us have cousins. Most of us support a Premier League club. Most of us have a local club that is lightyears away from the Premier League that is struggling under our very nose.

I can safely say from very recent experience: don’t take something precious for granted until it’s nearly gone. Make that call.

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