The email arrived this morning – a press release issued by City Fans United, the supporters organisation that brought the supporters of the fractured club together, mobilised them, organised them against the cancer that was killing their club and then picked up the pieces from the wreckage of it all and starting making arrangements for the future. It was embargoed at the request of Cheshire West and Chester Council until a minute past midnight, possible to coincide with general election day, possibly for benefit of the local press, but now we can finally reveal the happy ending. Chester Football Club, the nascent club formed by CFU with the overwhelming support of its local community, local business and the supporters of the now deceased Chester City FC, has been given the lease for The Deva Stadium.
The news marks the end of a tale that started this time last year, when the transfer of ownership of Chester City Football Club was quietly passed from Stephen Vaughan into that of his son, Stephen Vaughan Junior, thus setting in motion a chain of events that led to where we ended up today. It was a sequence that no-one could have predicted, considering that Chester City were, this time last year, a Football League club. A flawed and failed attempt to push through a CVA led to the club facing expulsion from the Blue Square Premier before a ball was even kicked, but the FA, the Football Conference and the Football League eventually fudged a compromise that allowed them to start the season, under the ownership of a new company but with the same faces in charge, a week late. Bills went unpaid, managers came and went and the team, fatally holed by the twenty-five point deduction that had been the price that they paid for starting the season in the first place, remained anchored to the bottom of the table.
By the end of last year, Chester’s long suffering supporters had mobilised. City Fans United brought them together under one umbrella, and their desperation for change put them into a situation that would be unthinkable for the supporters of most clubs – they proposed a boycott of the club’s home matches. Meanwhile, Vaughan was disqualified from acting as a company director over his involvement in a carousel fraud (a specific fraud that creams tax money away from stock purchases made by companies). As of December 2009, Vaughan had failed the “Fit & Proper Persons” test, but he continued to act as the owner of the club. It was, however, proving difficult to sell and the militancy of the supporters was starting to seriously affect Chester City’s continuing ability to even trade. One match, against Eastbourne Borough, brought them into the national spotlight when the match was abandoned after a pitch invasion. An enforced winter break further stifled the club’s cashflow and when they returned to the field, there were only a few hundred people that were prepared to turn out to watch.
The crisis came to a head in January. A group of Danish speculators were trying to buy the club, but Chester City were issued with a winding up order by HMRC over an unpaid tax bill of just over £26,000. When the club started to fail to complete its fixtures (one particularly farcical situation saw a Blue Square Premier match at Forest Green Rovers called off just over two hours before kick off after the coach company refused to take the Chester City team to Nailsworth because of unpaid bills), the Vaughans put them up for sale for £1, but claiming to have run up £700,000 in debt in the process. The club failed to send a representative to a discliplinary meeting of the Football Conference, and they were expelled. With no prospect of any further income whatsoever, it came as no great surprise when they failed to send anybody to London for the winding up hearing, and the petition was duly allowed.
The good news for CFU, who had already confirmed their intention to start a new club, was that The Deva Stadium, Chester City’s home since 1994, was owned by Cheshire West and Chester Council. The bad news, however, was that vultures were circling. Welsh Premier League club The New Saints’ owner Mike Harris talked of his hopes of moving his club to Chester and starting a new club there, but the serious insult to CFU and to the supporters of the club came from the Dansh group that had at first tried to buy the club from the Vaughans. If the Danish bid was hoping to win hearts and minds within the city of Chester, it couldn’t have failed more miserably. In the first instance, they launched a major media campaign in Denmark with the aim of raising money to take the old club over, and claimed to have to have the full backing of CFU in doing this (a claim that was later removed from their website, though no apology for stating it was ever printed). They then met with CFU and stated that they would not proceed with a bid for the club if CFU objected, and then went away and did it anyway CFU stated that it did object to this, following this up by making various derogatory remarks about CFU and its membership in the press.
When the club folded, and with CFU membership now standing at over 1,500 people, the Danish consortium managed its biggest insult yet – it launched a counterbid for the lease to The Deva Stadium from an organisation calling itself Fodboldselskabet A/S. Not much was known about the bid until an open letter was sent to the local newspaper, the Chester Chronicle. The letter claimed that the Danish consortium had received death threats “from people who refer to themselves as CFU members”, stated that the group had 320 members (and that, under Danish law, local supporters would not be able to purchase shares in the group), claimed (falsely) that, “we have reached an agreement about buying all ac-tives in the old club and we now as such own all inventories on Deva Stadium – from locker rooms and toilet facilities to furniture, seats, carpets and lights – basically everything apart from the pitch, the walls and the roof”, and that the city of Chester would benefit from an increase in Danish tourism in the city. They also confirmed that they had sought the advice of Gary Metcalfe, a friend and colleague of Stephen Vaughan with links – as Vaughan has – to the Liverpool boxing scene and had been involved in the previous regime at Chester City.
Meanwhile, CFU were quietly getting on with the job of forming Chester Football Club, building links with the local business community and setting in place the foundations upon which the new club would be formed. They earned the support of the three general election candidates and fulsome tributes in the local press. All the way through a testing few months, they have acted with honesty and dignity and it seemed inconceivable that they could be passed over in favour of a group with no public support and whose biggest sweetener for the city seemed to be the somewhat dubious claims that tourism in Chester would be revitalised by tens of thousands of Danish football tourists. Still, however, no-one within CFU dared to state anything more than their own confidence in the strength of their bid, and councils have been known to make the wrong decision before. Thankfully, however, on this occasion they haven’t and the adventure for Chester Football Club supporters, can start here. They don’t know what league they will be playing in next season, but they will have a club, their own club, founded on a promise that this must never happen to them again. 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.
There is a lesson to be learnt here for supporters of other clubs, for local authorities and for the wider game in general. A football club is exactly what it says it is – club. A group of people with a shared goal. Without the supporters, Chester City was a shell, and its death was necessary to allow Chester FC to be formed and to allow the supporters football within the city to take control of their own destinies, to end the farce of being kicked from pillar to post and to run something of which they can be proud and of which the city of Chester can be proud. It won’t be easy, but the route back from whence they came starts here. The story of how this came to pass, and how Chester’s supporters arrived at the realisation that they simply couldn’t go on like this, is for another day. For now, though, it will merely suffice to say this much: they have earned our deepest and most heartfelt congratulations, and we wish them all the best for next season.