At The Exacta Stadium yesterday afternoon, a crowd of 2,689 people saw Chester play out a goalless draw against Brackley Town in the Blue Square Bet North. It was a result that left the club seventeen points clear at the top of the table with a third of the season left to play, albeit with second-placed Guiseley having five games in hand on them. It seems unlikely, however, that events on the pitch were uppermost in the mind of most of those present yesterday, though. This has been difficult week for the club which was founded in 2010 after the collapse of Chester City, with news having emerged of the club being expected to lose between £65,000 and £75,000 this season, and also of a very large amount of money – believed to be in the region of £20,000 – having gone missing from the club’s accounts.
On the pitch, the last three seasons have been very successful for the club with successive promotions taking it from Division One North of the Northern Premier League to the cusp of a place in the Blue Square Bet Premier. The cost of this success, however, has not been insubstantial. Ticket prices have been set at a high level – to the chagrin of many away supporters visiting The Exacta Stadium – and this season, with crowds not quite having met pre-season expectations, financial losses have started to mount. It is worth pointing out the difference between losses and debt at this point. Chester traded comfortably in the clack during their first season and broke even during their second. The news of the last few days, however, seems to confirm that the club will have to cut its cloth in terms of its spending in the future should it wish to stay out of debt.
On the second matter of the arrest of an individual in relation to financial irregularities at the club’s bar, there is little to say other than that a twenty-seven year old from the Hoole area of the city has been arrested and arrested on police bail, and that the truth, whatever that turns out to be, will out in the fullness of time. Supporters of the club will already likely be aware of the identity of the individual involved in this story, and no-one’s best interests will be served by a witch hunt, although anger at a perceived breach of trust would be understandable. At this point, we do not know any specific details apart from what has already been released by the club and the police, and supporters angry at what may or may not have been going on at the club should probably be aware that the best way to get justice in the case of a criminal act having been committed is to not do anything which might prejudice any future trial.
This story is, perhaps, something that the club might only had very limited control over. The broader point over the club’s spending, however, is a more serious concern for a club, the supporters of which might well have said “Never again” after the chaotic last years of Chester City under its former owner Stephen Vaughan. The obvious point to make here is that no club should need to be spending as heavily as Chester apparently have in order to compete in a league such as the Blue Square Bet North, which is a part-time league. Chester acquired a new chairman, Tony Durkin, at the start of December and Durkin seems to have found himself thrust immediately into the eye of a storm. It is not, however, a life-endangering storm. The size of the club’s support at the level at which it currently plays should mean that the club shouldn’t be loss-making.
In a broader sense, it is disappointing to see such news coming from a club that is owned by its supporters. Balancing the finances is a non-league football club is challenging at the best of times, but those running the club should also be aware that, as they are owned by a Supporters Trust, they have, whether they like it or not, a broader responsibility than just to their own club. If the movement which would seek to put control of clubs themselves into the hands of their supporters is to continue to grow, then the clubs that are already owned under such structures have a responsibility to run themselves with financial prudence. If Chester FC is applying the rules of boom and bust football club ownership to the supporters trust model of club ownership, it will only end up damaging the movement. There are plenty of people out there who are ideologically opposed to the principle of the mutual ownership of football clubs. Such people and bodies should not be getting ammunition for their arguments from fan-owned clubs themselves.
If Chester Football Club wishes to be any different to the failure which preceded it, it needs to treat the news of the last few days as a warning to be taken seriously, and as an opportunity to rethink what they want this club to be. Nobody would suggest that the club shouldn’t been seeking to get back to the highest level of football that it can manage, but four years ago the supporters of Chester City made enormous sacrifices and worked very hard to dislodge the former regime from a club which had to be allowed to die in order for football in the city to be reborn through a club in which those supporters were in control of its destiny. The club has stated that it has introduced tighter financial arrangements and has already appointed a new financial controller in order to prevent a repeat of the events of the last few days and weeks. It is to be hoped that lessons will have been learned from this chastening episode that will not be easily forgotten.
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