Troubling news reaches me from the depths of League Two, where Chester City, whose supporters have, in recent years, been amongst the most put-upon in English football, may yet have a new crisis to cope with. Chester are one of those lower division clubs that seem to be perpetually in a state of crisis. Best known previously as the club that discovered Ian Rush (and sold him to Liverpool for a tidy little profit), they left their original home Sealand Road in 1990, with a new ground far from ready. Ground-sharing twelve miles away in Macclesfield, their crowds dropped below the 1,000 marker and, although they moved back to the city in 1992, they spent much of the 1990s in a state of financial crisis under the spectacular (mis)management of Mark Guterman and Terry Smith, and in 2000 were relegated from the Football League.
Against this sort of background, the sale of the club to the Liverpool-based businessman Steven Vaughan must have felt like a breath of fresh air. In 2004, Chester were promoted back into the Football League, but things are starting to turn sour again at The Deva Stadium, and there are concerns that this might be a case of, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”, with the recent announcement by the man in charge that he is considering changing the club’s name to “Chester Halton”, “Chester Flint” or “Chester Ellesmere Port”. Quite asides from understandable desire to not change their name regardless of any peripheral circumstances, it is the name “Chester Halton” that is causing supporters the most unease. Halton is a suburb of Widnes, a town without a senior football club ten or so miles north of Chester. Widnes may not have a senior football team, but it does have a popular rugby league club, and that club is owned by… Steven Vaughan. The suspicion amongst supporters is that Vaughan is manufacturing a rift between the club and Chester City Council, who own The Deva Stadium and charge the club a peppercorn annual rent to pay there. If a sufficiently fractious relationship develops, theoretically the club could be moved fifteen miles away to the 11,000 capacity Halton Stadium.
Chester wouldn’t, if this happened, be the first club to relocate to Widnes. In 2000, Unibond League side Runcorn, once stalwarts of the Nationwide Conference, sold their Canal Street and moved to Widnes, changing their name to Runcorn FC Halton in the process. To say that the move was not a success would be an understatement – by 2005, they were in a sufficiently bad way to be able to pay the rent at Halton and moved to the somewhat less salubrious surroundings of Prescot. At the end of last season, the club ceased playing altogether and a new, supporter-run club, Runcorn Linnets, has started over at the bottom of the regional leagues.
Vaughan himself has stated publicly that a name change would be no precursor to the club leaving the city of Chester, but is he to be trusted? On the evidence of this extraordinary story, perhaps not. In November 2001, Chester were drawn away again Unibond League (and former Football League) club Barrow in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round. There was one small problem – Vaughan owned both clubs. According to legend, he signed Barrow over to the painter and decorator that was fixing up his office, and signed it back the day after the match. It may also be worth pointing out his links with the Liverpool-based gangster Curtis Warren, who claimed, at one point, to be the owner of Barrow.
For the time being, of course, it’s all conjecture, but the spectre of a second Franchise FC looms large. Considering the MK Dons fiasco, the FA have got previous now for allowing this sort of thing to happen and, if they’ll allow a club to relocate sixty miles for “financial” reasons, it doesn’t seem difficult to envisage them doing too much apart from some cosmetic hand-wringing before applying the rubber stamp to it all. There is a consolation in all of this, though: Chester City supporters have been through the mill several times before. They saw off Mark Guterman, and they saw off Terry Smith. If the worst case scenario was to occur, whoever was behind it would have one hell of a fight on his or her hands.