Cod Almighty | Article
by Pat Bell
14 August 2006
Chester City? Who might they be?
To the outsider, and even to some insiders, it may seem odd that Chester has a professional football team at all. On the obviously unimpeachable evidence of the conversation I had with a volunteer at the Oxfam bookshop on the occasion of last August's postponed match, it is a city where people wonder why, if you are that keen on football, you don't just travel on a bit to Liverpool. This is a club struggling to maintain a foothold, then – which isn't to say that the struggle isn't worthy. Overshadowed in their own community, in darker moments that seems like the future of three quarters of the Football League.
And then, like a soap with falling ratings, there are the implausible and confrontational storylines. An American buys the club and, with a background in gridiron, decides he's best qualified to coach the side. A well respected manager restores league status, but resigns days before the start of the season. The respected manager returns, falls out with the club's best-known player, but still reverses a slide back towards the Conference. What next? Perhaps they'll give up football and take to rugby league instead.
Chester made a more than respectable start to last season, unbeaten in their first six league matches (although Wolves beat them 5-1 in the League Cup) until Town visited and discovered the secret of near-success: lull the opposition into a sense of security and then lob the ball in Reddy's general direction. With autumn the defeats became a little more frequent, but on 3 December Chester beat Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, and three days later won at Leyton Orient.
All was set fair – and they lost their next seven league games, getting knocked out of the FA Cup along the way, won at Mansfield, lost another five, drew against Torquay, then lost another three. A return to the Conference seemed very possible. Enter Mark Wright, the man who had impersonated Moses in bringing Chester to the league without himself entering it (although Moses obviously only made it with Maccabi Tel Aviv). Despite a row with Michael Branch, who took no further part in the season, Wright oversaw five consecutive wins. The season ended with two draws, two defeats and a final league position of 15th.
Anticipate with relish
Arrive a bit early and have a wander. Don't get fazed by the streams of people – just gaze. This is a city with history, and the buildings to prove it. Those American tourists are on to something.
Anticipate with dread
In particular, those American tourists have the good sense to avoid the ground, which is beyond pubs, beyond the retail estate, on the drab fringes of the city... any city. If you get lost, listen out for the PA system. It's the very one used by the CIA to deafen General Noriega into submission. If ever you wonder why the Welsh don't like the English, it is because they can hear that PA system on the furthest reaches of the Lleyn Peninsula. Everything the Martians understand about football, they understand from eavesdropping on that PA (they think football is an opportunity to relay birthday messages and last year's hits). Perforate your eardrums on the way through the turnstile. It will save time.
The way forward
The way forward will not be harmonious. Mark Wright will row with the senior players. Chairman Stephen Vaughan will row with Mark Wright. Stephen Vaughan will make loud but implausible bids for strikers who are patently not for sale, then threaten to relocate the team to Widnes (where he owns the rugby league side). Someone, somewhere along the way, will walk.
Out of a first team squad of some 22 players, 14 are new signings, the most prominent being Ricky Ravenhill, on loan for a month from Doncaster while Chester gather together the shekels to make the signing permanent. Still at the club are Michael Branch, and Gregg Blundell, whose first season there was ruined by injury after a promising start. Not one but two players are sons of the chairman.
Like shampooing a lion, it will take time for things to gel and there will be more than a few snarls. However, Chester will win more games than they lose, and finish ninth.
Thanks, as ever with the Chester rough guide, to Mike Worden.