It Couldn’t Have Been Closer: How Chester’s Season Went To The Wire
The end of the domestic football season can perhaps be best summarised as a full sensory overload. It’s an intoxicating mixture of the stifling warmth of the spring, mixed with stomach-wrenching nervousness and the occasional feeling, or realisation, that something, or rather something else, is happening elsewhere. It’s a time of year when we are suddenly required to have a graduate level of mental arithmetic, nerves of titanium and, if all goes well, the drinking capacity of a dromedary. This season, though, it seems unlikely that any league will end up quite as tight as Division One North of the Evostik Northern Premier League did by Friday lunchtime.
While London – as well as many other places – was being bedecked in Union Jacks in preparation for the royal shindig, certain pockets of the north of England were preparing for something very different altogether. On paper, the race for the title was already more or less complete. Chester FC had seen their double-digit lead whittled away to just three points by Skelmersdale United and, while Chester supporters may have grabbed for the comfort blanket of a goal difference superior to Skelmersdale’s to the tune of eight, even this was complicated by the vagaries of non-league football. While Chester travelled to Garforth Town needing a point to secure the title, Skelmersdale were at home against second from bottom – and already relegated – Ossett Albion, who had already conceded one hundred and twenty-seven goals this season, while Skelmersdale themselves had, going into yesterday’s match, scored one hundred and ten goals. Should Chester slip up, a seven goal victory for Skelmersdale couldn’t be completely discounted and this would take the title to Lancashire rather than Cheshire.
Skelmersdale rushed into an early two goal lead against Ossett, and this may have raised the temperature still further at Garforth, where away supporters made up around ninety per cent of a crowd of – and it is worth giving this number a brief double-take, when we consider that this match is being played in the regional eighth division of English football, as far from the Blue Square Premier as League Two is from the Premier League – 2,428 but, while Danny Toronczak pulled a goal back for Ossett, whatever happened at the Skelmersdale & Ormskirk College Stadium would be irrelevant unless Chester lost and, whilst Skelmersdale added a third goal right on half-time, at Garforth, a goal from Michael Powell gave Chester the lead and surely all but tied the title up for them.
Such have been the twists and turns of Chester FC’s first season, though, that it was never likely to be that simple, and within twenty minutes of the restart, the leaders had frittered away their lead, conceding two goals in eight minutes to fall behind at Garforth. Meanwhile, the start of the second half had been very fruitful for Skelmersdale, with a further four goals in thirty minutes extending their lead to 7-1, and leaving them just one goal short of the title. It seems to have this point that Skelmersdale’s concentration broke and, within a minute, Toronczak scored again to pull the score back to 7-2.
This, finally, was a bridge too far for Skelmersdale. They poured players forward in pursuit of the two goals that they would need – unless, of course, Garforth could extend their lead against Chester – but, by this time, most of the action was taking place well away from the match. One of the most easily identifiable sights at matches of days gone by was the individual with a transistor radio, relaying (often incorrect) scores from matches being played elsewhere. This has, in recent years, been replaced by people tapping away furiously at the screens of their smartphones, but a propensity towards misinformation remains a trait that is a definite link with the past, and at both grounds (as well, it must be said, on Twitter, from where those of us for whom a trip to the north was a bridge too far on a Bank Holiday were watching from) varying scores, indicating various amounts of work to do for both Chester and Skelmersdale, raced around like wildfire. In the end, however, the scores stayed at 7-2 and 2-1 and Chester, by two goals on goal difference, were the champions.
“The lower leagues of non-league football may come as a bit of a shock to them, but the thrill and the adventure will come from the journey of getting back to where they belong”, we wrote almost exactly a year ago, when the new Chester FC was awarded the lease for The Deva Stadium by their local council, and it is perhaps appropriate to look back now over that twelve month period and test the water insofar as how far the club has come in concerned. Had the zombified Chester City managed, somehow, to limp on to the end of last season, there is every chance that it would have been expelled from the Football Conference altogether and into the Premier Division of the Evostik League in any case. As such, it could be argued that Chester FC is already where Chester City would have been had the old club somehow survived last season and the summer.
Yet even this is to miss the point of the most signficant achievement of the first twelve months of Chester FC. City Fans United, the supporters trust that picked up the custodianship of football in the city after the years of mismanagement that left it on its knees, now has almost 2,800 members and this season’s average home attendances have eclipsed what anybody would have believed possible during the last couple of years of the old club’s existence. That Chester Football Club exists should be no great surprise, considering the will that was evident for a clean break a year ago. That it should be thriving, however, with a league championship under its belt after one season, is a testament to the will and foresight of those amongst the club’s support who saw that enough was enough and that a new furrow had to be ploughed if football in the city was to be saved. That Chester’s supporters should have spent Friday afternoon pawing at their mobile phones, consumed only with events on the pitch rather than anything else, is proof of their success. Meanwhile, the journey, wherever it may take them, resumes in August.
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