Chester FC: Another Ride On The Rollercoaster
Well, at least it can be said that, no matter what happens next, it won’t be Stephen Vaughan Sr again. The man whose actions brought Chester City Football Club to its knees and eventually to its closure accepted an eleven year ban after a disqualification undertaking after VAT fraud was found relating to his time in charge of Widnes Vikings rugby league club. Vaughan has come to be renowned in some circles as being one of the high water marks in the history of terrible football club owners, but this isn’t to say that running a non-league football club isn’t a fiendishly difficult business, and especially so should the club concerned harbour ambitions of reclaiming former glories, no matter what form they might take.
Chester City FC was wound up in the High Court in February 2010, a club sent to its ultimate death by the mismanagement of a coterie of individuals with little apparent interest in the well-being of the club itself. The successor club, Chester FC, took control of the lease for The Deva Stadium and has been successful in getting back to the level at which Chester City was playing when it closed. It has, however, also proved in the course of less than eight years just how difficult it can be, even with people with the best of intentions in control of it, to run a football club at this level of the game.
This season had already proved to be a difficult one for Chester FC. With two-thirds of the National League season played, the club sits two places off the foot of the league table, with only one win to its name since beating Solihull Moors at the start of December. Four points below the dotted line that will mark the difference between relegation and survival come the end of the season, the team would face an almighty job in order to maintain its place at this level of the game even if it weren’t for the distraction provided by confirmation from the directors that the club is in serious financial difficulty and that it needs to find £50,000 in order to remain solvent beyond next month.
It’s not the first time that the new club has found itself in a financial pickle, either. In February 2013 we reported that, even as the team cruised clear at the top of the Conference North – they would end that season winning the title by sixteen points from second placed Guiseley – a hole had been punched in the club’s accounts to the tune of £65,000, with £20,000 having “gone missing” altogether. A twenty-seven year old was arrested in connection with the missing money, but it was confirmed in July of that year that no charges were to be pressed in relation to the missing money, while the club itself introduced “tighter financial arrangements” and appointed itself a new financial controller.
The problem for many Chester supporters doesn’t seem to have been that they were unaware that anything was going wrong within the club. The league position speaks for itself, and rumours had been circulating for a while that the club’s books were not in the healthiest position. What was surprising seems to have been the extent of the problems and the extent to which they had not been communicated to the wider fan-base. In the immediate aftermath of the meeting, it was confirmed that chairman Jonny Hughes, vice-chair Neil Bellis and director Anne Salmon had all resigned their positions within the club (a further board member, David O’Toole, joined them on the way out last night while four new members, Jeff Banks, Simon Ollerenshaw, Mark Howell and Calvin Hughes, were co-opted onto the board after a CFU meeting held last night), with Hughes releasing a public statement which read as follows:
Firstly, let me express my gratitude and respect to all the concerned CFU members who gathered at the Swansway Chester Stadium last Thursday night at our Formal CFU Meeting. It was never going to be easy to give such news to you all and I have to admit that for quite a while I felt under tremendous pressure and some of my replies probably reflected that.
I understand, however, that for all the pressure I felt, you were all hearing this news for the first time and were understandably hurt, angry and upset: For that I am truly sorry and I apologise for my part as a member of your board that didn’t let you know sooner and I also accept that I let you down.
Since then I have been reflecting heavily on how we can all move forward together as one team to ensure there will always be a Chester FC. For that to happen I strongly believe we all need to come together, like we did at the Guild Hall, galvanised by purpose and passion and with nothing but fire in our hearts as we continue to realise our dreams of a sustainable fan owned football club playing at the highest level possible in the city of Chester.
For that to happen, I also believe there needs to be changes. So, with the best interests of the club at heart, I have taken the decision to resign my position of Chair of City Fans United and as a member of your board of directors with immediate effect.
That in no way means I am giving up the fight for our club however… no chance. I intend to continue to be the fully-committed and active fan and volunteer I always have been and to continue to offer my skill-sets, verve and energy in support of the club so I can do my part to help put things right.
I have been humbled by the messages of support that I have received in the last 24 hours, but for all of that I recognise that as a board we got some important things wrong: Again, I am truly sorry. I love this club. I love the people. I love our volunteers: There is and only ever will be one Chester FC, so my support for the team on the pitch and the team off it will always be unwavering.
Together we will get through this and prosper under the banner of fan ownership and City Fans United. Together, we are Chester FC.
Stirring words indeed, but words alone will not be enough to keep Chester afloat. Fortunately, though, the club has some things on its side. The membership of City Fans United, the Trust that owns the club, sat at just over 1,000 last Thursday and has reportedly swelled since then. There is also the advantage of knowing that this isn’t an identical situation to the recent goings-on at Hartlepool United, where there was some degree of disquiet over collection buckets being brought out to “save” the club because the owners had decided to pull funding on it. Those making donations to the club should be able to carry a reasonable degree of certainty that any money thrown into a collection bucket should get to where it needs to go.
The question of how the club came to find itself in the position in which it has isn’t necessarily an easy one to answer at present, but one version of events would be to say that Chester started the season with a budget and a reserve that was dependent upon crowds of a certain level and a certain level of income. With league form negatively impacting upon home attendances, day to day running costs started to eat into the club’s financial reserves. Those reserves have now dried up, but the club’s outgoings continue regardless.
There is, however, the small matter of this incarnation of the club’s entire history to be taken into account, here. When Chester were reformed in 2010, they embarked on an extraordinary rise, winning three successive promotions – each as champions of their division – and scored over three hundred league goals in the process. Reaching the National League, however, seemed to be a case of Chester finding their – for now – level. The club’s four seasons in the fifth tier of the English game have seen it finish in twenty-first, twelfth, seventeenth and nineteenth place in the table. After three straight title wins with goals flying in left, right and centre, it is perhaps understandable that a degree of apathy should have set in at The Deva Stadium once the regular wins started to dry up a little. At this level of the game, match-day income can be critical to a club’s ability to compete, and what sound like relatively small numbers to supporters completely invested in the Premier League – a few hundred people here, a few thousand pounds there – can make the difference between stability and the sort of financial problems that we now see at Chester.
Mistakes, however, have clearly been made. If it was recognised earlier in the season that the club’s budget was too ambitious, this should have been communicated to supporters from the outset rather than when the issue started to feel like a crisis. If the budget agreed for this season was too high, then questions need to be asked concerning how this could happen against a backdrop of relative stagnation on the pitch and declining attendances. Future budgets, it rather feels, will need to be more conservative than previous ones, even if this means reverting to part-time status upon relegation or recalibrating expectations of what the club can achieve. Was there a degree of complacency on the part of supporters? Was the board not subjected to the level of scrutiny that it should have been? Well, these questions form a whole other debate, but the point is that if the club is to survive and prosper, these lessons must be learnt.
Some Chester supporters have voiced concerns over the fan-owned model, and whether the club should surrender its ownership structure in favour of money from outside sources. Well, this would be a decision for Chester supporters to make should there be sufficient support for it and someone lined up who can make an offer that is acceptable. It’s worth pointing out, however, that these debates don’t tend to take place when private owners make a hash of thing at clubs. There is no significant debate over whether owners (whether foreign or otherwise) with bags of beans should be banned when their decisions go badly wrong, as has happened in recent years at too many clubs to mention here. There is no question that surviving in non-league football with the budgetary constraints that come with being a supporter-owned club is a significant challenge, but with high levels of engagement and cautious financial planning, it can be achieved.
Ambition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the pursuit of success is necessary to the very existence of any football club. Stagnation and apathy are definitely not friends of a successful football club. On the other, however, the pursuit of success on the pitch should never come at the cost of the financial stability of a club. The lessons that everyone at Chester are learning at the moment are tough ones, which require a degree of introspection, but the fact of the matter is that, if the lessons of the last few months are absorbed and this brush with difficulty reminds a few people in the area of how much the club means to them, then the short, sharp shock of the last seven days might turn out to be very good for the club’s health indeed, even if it might not feel that way at present. Chester FC will survive. The question now facing supporters is: what form will the club take once all of this dust has settled? Because this cycle of diminishing boom and growing bust cannot continue indefinitely.