Revenge, it is said, is a dish best served cold and, while the imprisonment of Stephen Vaughan for fifteen months at the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre yesterday was an incident unrelated to his involvement in football, there may be some people in Chester that will regard this sentence as some degree of providence, held over for what he did to their club. Vaughan was imprisoned for punching a police officer after an incident outside his house, following an incident at a pub on the Wirral. The judge, David Fletcher CBE, said of Vaughan’s behaviour that it was, “It was extremely unattractive. It involved a police officer making a perfectly legitimate inquiry.” His son, along with another man, was given a six month community order and 120 hours unpaid work after admitting threatening behaviour.
That this news should emerge on this of all weeks is particularly striking, as it was almost exactly a year to a day since the final act of Vaughan’s failure as the owner of Chester City FC was played out at the High Court in London. On the 10th of March 2010, with no-one even there to try and defend the club’s honour, Chester City, who had already been expelled from the Football Conference, were wound up. It was a moment to pause and reflect on what had happened there over the previous few months, but it was a moment to pause only, because the club’s supporters trust, City Fans United, had considerably more important work to do. They had to get on with the job of rebuilding football in the city of Chester.
First came a battle to secure the lease to the council-owned Deva Stadium. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that there was surely no question that the club would secure this lease, but with a rival bid to see off from Denmark nothing could be taken for granted until Cheshire West & Chester Council had made their final decision on the matter. It took until the start of May for a final decision from the council, and it was the news that all of their supporters had been hoping for. Chester FC – the newly-formed club founded by those who knew that Chester City had to die in order for football to be reborn in the city – would start their first season playing at The Deva Stadium.
The club was initially placed in the North-West Counties League but, after an appeal to the FA, this was amended so that they could start this season in Division One North of the Evostik League. It should be said that, in the dying months of Chester City, nobody was quite certain whether too many bridges had been burned and too much bad blood had been spilt for the club to be able to be reborn. The question of whether Chester FC could rebuild its links with its local community, which had all but been severed under the years of Vaughan’s ownership of the club, was a very real one. The sense of energy that came from the trust board of the new club, however, felt energising, even for those of us on the outside looking in.
The first answer to the question of whether this new club could succeed under the supporters trust model of ownership came with their first home league match in the Evostik League at the start of September. City’s average attendance during their last season in the Football League had dipped below 2,000 and crowds in the Football Conference – with a boycott eventually in place – slumped even further, to around 1,100. What sort of support might they attract in the eighth tier of English football, as far from the Blue Square Premier as, say, Accrington Stanley are from the Premier League? The answer was surprising, even to those that had been sanguine about their prospects. On a Wednesday evening at the start of September, 2,734 people turned out to welcome Chester FC into the Evostik League agains Trafford. They won the match by six goals to nil.
Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength. What initially looked as if it might be a tight race for the Evostik League Division One North championship has turned into a procession – they currently sit twelve points clear at the top of the table and haven’t lost in the league since the 11th of December – and home crowds have held steady at an average of 2,377, a number that seems certain to rise by the end of this season as the title run-in approaches. The supporters even have their first hero in the form of striker Michael Wilde, who has already scored twenty-nine goals this season. The team could, of course, yet fail to win the league this season – nobody at the club will be counting their chickens until the title is mathematically theirs – and, the road back to the Blue Square Premier or even, dare we say it, the Football League will get increasingly difficult as they progress, but there has been little to suggest this season that, either on or off the pitch, Chester FC won’t be capable of reclaiming their previous stature within the time-scales that the club has set itself.
With a five year plan to make the Blue Square Premier, Chester FC are further proof of the fact that while the idea of supporters ownership is by no means a panacea for all that is wrong in British football, it remains a more than workable option that has, in the case of this club, given a whole city something to be proud of. During the tail-end of his time in charge of the club, Stephen Vaughan was more than prone to slating City Fans United and those that chose to follow them. As he embarks upon his spell at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, he may choose to reflect upon the new club’s attendance figures for this season, their place at the top of the league and that the club that died on his watch has been reborn as something happily unrecognisable from the wreck that it became under his ownership. To borrow a phrase from Supporters Direct’s Dave Boyle, made during a speech at FC United of Manchester’s “Beyond The Debt” rally, which was held as Chester City were expiring: “For as long as people within football continue to underestimate football supporters, the supporters will continue to score victories over them”.
Chester FC’s year was documented by a visit from the BBC’s “Football Focus” last weekend. You can see their report here:
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