To lose a Football League place once could be considered unfortunate, but to lose it twice is just plain careless. Well, it was before the days of two-up-two-down. If the number of teams changing places was brought into line with other 24-team divisions (i.e. League 2 four up, or four down from the Conference), clubs will be swapping places regularly.
This would allow progressive non-league clubs the chance to yo-yo until they find their natural level, and larger clubs with a Football League tradition to bounce back faster. Instead we have a division this season featuring some very big clubs (Oxford, Luton), ambitious Conference nearly men like Stevenage, ex-League sides in the process of rebuilding (Wrexham, Mansfield). Plus the wild card that is AFC Wimbledon.
Which makes it all the more difficult for Chester to challenge next season, and it may require a fair few years of consolidation while they get over their financial difficulties before they can even think of bouncing back. In fact their biggest challenge next term will be avoiding the realistic possibility of back-to-back relegation.
The annoying thing for Chester fans is that perhaps if their club had been in the hands of responsible individuals during the two seasons they crashed out of the league, perhaps they might have steered clear of relegation. As it was, the first drop to Conference level came when American Terry Smith had his ‘interesting’ period in charge, last season the club took the drop under Stephen Vaughan (who you should remember from Barrow AFC’s file…). Vaughan’s two sons played for the first team at Chester last year, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions there…
But in a way Chester were quite lucky. They could have come under the ownership of The Worst Football Chairman In History Ever, John Bachelor. This was the man who wanted to rename the club after a soap that stopped running five years ago. Chester are a small side and always have been, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed there are a dozen or so similar sized clubs knocking about in League 2, so you have to feel a great deal of sympathy for the way they have attracted owners so keen to piss away their precious League place, as Blues fans themselves know they could be in for a long wait in regaining it this time.
As was the case in the late nineteenth century, football fever had taken hold and clubs were springing up everywhere. The clubs that survive to this day were normally the result of mergers, as smaller clubs pooled their resources and members. Chester was no exception, and Chester FC came into being in 1885 when Chester Rovers and Old Kings Scholars joined forces.
It took the new entity five years to join a league, the Combination League, and five further years to land their first silverware, the Cheshire Senior Cup of 1895. Like most of the sides we will encounter from the North-West next season, Chester had their spell in the Lancashire Combination from 1910 onwards before moving to the newly created Cheshire League after the First World War.
They took their place in the Football League in 1931, replacing Nelson who had finished bottom for the second year in succession. It took a second vote to see Chester elected though, and they played their first game in the Third Division North with a 4-0 victory against Wigan Borough, only to see the result struck from the records following their opponents mid season demise. So, fittingly, their first Football League result turned out to be a 1-1 draw against a side that would turn out to be the Blues biggest rivals – Wrexham.
Chester’s proximity to the border meant regular invites into the Welsh Cup, in fact they have the tenth best record in the competitions history. Meetings in this competition with Wrexham further intensified the rivalry. Of course both clubs find themselves in the same division again this coming season…
Back to the history, and Chester were regular challengers from promotion through the thirties, regularly finding their progress thwarted by a promotion system that saw only the champions go up. Following the war, The Blues found themselves consistently also-rans, placed in Division Four following the League reshuffle in the fifties. Chester had never won promotion as a League club right up until 1975, a season they managed to finish fourth as well as reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup, dumping out Leeds and Newcastle on the way before meeting their match in a narrow 4-5 aggregate defeat to Aston Villa.
It was around this point that the Chester youth team produced a gem of a striker by the name of Ian Rush, one of two strikers Chester developed that went on to become one of the greatest goal getters the world has ever seen (the other of course being ‘The Maradona of the Neville Ovenden Combination’ himself, Aiden Newhouse). In 1983 the club changed its name to reflect the status of its home community, becoming Chester City FC.
As mentioned above, Chester were first relegated to the Conference thanks to the amazingly inept period of ownership by American Terry Smith. Smith stated confidently the Blues would be playing Championship football within three years, but after Kevin Ratcliffe left the club claiming interference from Smith, the managerial hot seat was filled by, erm, Smith himself.
By no means the only owner-manager (think Noades at Brentford or Fry at Peterborough), at least those two came from a football background, and had the contacts and knowledge to make it work. Smith however did have a coaching background in football, sadly a different code. Quite what he thought he could bring to the table from his days working with the Manchester Spartans. His managerial career lasted four months and comprised four wins until he hired a proper manager, Ian Atkins.
Its fair to say Atkins had little to work with; a Chester exited the league at the end of the 99/00 season. That they were only out of the league for four seasons was in part due to Vaughan, who pumped enough cash into the club to see them promoted in 2004. Its fair to say progress has halted as far as Chester were concerned since that day, with finishes perilously close to the drop zone commonplace.
Chester dropped out of the league after a disastrous start last year. Bear in mind they were up against Rotherham (starting on -17 points), Bournemouth (-17) and Luton (-30), that they only finished above one of them, as truly awful sides such as Barnet, Macclesfield and Grimsby were saved by their ineptitude.
In a division where several clubs struggled to get over 2000 in for evening games, Chester registered several crowds well under that figure for Saturday games, which perhaps can be put down to the chaotic reign of Vaughan. It had started badly, a 0-6 defeat at Dagenham, but they put things right with a 5-1 win at home to Barnet, and actually went unbeaten through September (albeit only winning one game).
Their inability to won the big games ultimately cost them. During the run in they lost to Barnet, Grimsby, Macclesfield and Bournemouth, sliding into relegation trouble until it was confirmed following a 2-2 draw at Aldershot on the penultimate week.
Perhaps I was harsh on Vaughan’s sons Stephen and James in the preamble, you aren’t going to be a dud if you were on Liverpool’s books as a kid, as Stephen was. But there is a reason why players drop out of youth academies, it’s because they aren’t good enough. And Stephen has been with a few non-league clubs without establishing himself, what makes him good enough to even merit a squad place at Chester?
Plus James made 42 appearances for the club last season, you would hope on merit, but there are always going to be questions of nepotism asked if your dad is the chairman. Chester could have been down well beforehand if it hadn’t been for goals from Kevin Ellison – yet Ellison will be lining up for Rotherham next season, and Chester will be without nearly all their players following administration.
It all went a bit surreal as the season died out, as the financial problems that beset Darlington seemed to have offered Chester a lifeline. There seemed no way the Teeside club could continue, before things went a little strange. Vaughan was reported to have investigated a takeover there. But by this time it was clear that Stephen Vaughan was not the Stephen Vaughan that owned Chester City, the shares had been passed to his son, meaning Stephen Vaughan Junior was actually one of the very few player/owners the game has ever seen towards the end of last season.
As we now know, Darlington pulled through, Chester’s relegation was confirmed, and they entered administration with debts of £4.29m. £4m of those debts are coincidentally owed to Vaughan himself. Meaning if Vaughan was to take back the club, it will be with debts of only £290,000 to arrange. Anybody else looking to take over would have to face agreeing the £4m loan with Vaughan. Of course at the time of writing there is only one offer on the table – see if you can guess who its from.
So stop me if you’ve heard this before. Football club leaves historic old home to ground share in a town miles away, meanwhile said historic old home just sits there gathering cobwebs for years on end… of course its not us, its Chester. It must have been terrible for Chester fans as they took the trip down to Macclesfield every other week knowing Sealand Road was still standing, they could have returned at any time.
(Ground taken from them, owned by an arsehole crook that is taking the piss out of them – Chester are more Wimbledon than we are!)
The boxy-looking Deva Stadium eventually replaced the old place. With seats now added to the away end the capacity is now 5376, with 4100 seats. For some reason I’ve always loved the look of the place, very small capacity stadiums that are actually pretty decent have always appealed to me. I’m looking forward to our visit there. Finally I’m not going to mention the fact that the Chester club offices are in England but the stadium itself is in Wales, because everyone mentions it and it’d be lazy of me, you know, like I just get all my information from Wikipedia or something?
Unlikely to be finalised until a takeover happens, the administrator at Chester has advised supporters to keep hold of their money for now, instead of buying season tickets. Lets not forget there is still an outside chance the Football Conference could take one look at Chester and say ‘no way, we aren’t having you…’ and of them ending up in the Unibond.
AFC Era – None
All time Wimbledon –
All six fixtures took place in the early days of League football for Wimbledon FC beginning with a 2-3 Division Three home defeat on the 18th August 1979.