Since the liquidation of Chester City Football Club at the start of 2010, the fortunes of the game in the city which had its club effectively taken from it by its last owner has been on a largely upward trajectory. When the club’s supporters trust took ownership of the lease for The Deva Stadium, the council-owned stadium that was the key to getting the football club back to the level at which it was playing when it was taken away from it, the new club, Chester FC, was granted a decent opportunity to claw its way through the non-league game, and promotions through the Northern Premier League and the Football Conference North have been rapid. It took Chester FC just three years to get back to the level at which Chester City FC was when it was expelled from the Football Conference.
After so much success on the pitch, however, this season has so far been difficult for the club, which hasn’t managed to win a single point yet in the Football Conference and has scored just twice in its five matches so far and is only being kept off the bottom of the table by Aldershot Town, who started the season ten points below zero and are already making sizable inroads into closing that gap. A case could be made for saying that the team hasn’t had the easiest of starts that it might have had. Of the five teams that they have played so far this season, Barnet were only narrowly relegated from the Football League at the end of last season, Kidderminster Harriers finished last season as the division’s runners-up with ninety-three points, and Forest Green Rovers are monied and underwhelmed last season, with many expecting the club to improve upon last season’s tenth place finish this time around.
With such a such a vertiginous rise through the divisions over the last three seasons – from their reformation until the start of this season, Chester lost just twelve league matches, only just over twice what they have managed before the end of August has arrived this time around – it perhaps unsurprising that this poor start to the season should have come as something of a shock to its supporters, and it is perhaps inevitable that some will now be asking the question of whether outside investment should brought into the club in order to, well, be thrown around like confetti in the direction of players. It’s hardly as if anybody wishing to put money into Chester FC is somehow banned from doing so (all manner of sponsorship options are available to potential sponsors, as they are at any other club), but the club’s ownership structure means that anybody who did so would not get any level of control over the club for their troubles.
Chester FC, however, is one of football’s great cautionary tales of recent years. Throughout the years of the likes of Terry Smith and Stephen Vaughan, the club was bled quite literally dry by individuals who didn’t seem to give a tu’penny damn about it. The reformation of the club by its supporters trust was a “never again” moment, and memories in the city surely cannot be so short as to have forgotten that dismal 2009/10 season and the abject state of the club at that time. Whilst the going at the club hasn’t been completely smooth over the last three seasons – last season’s admission of over-spending was a troubling development, although at least, we might counter-argue, the club was transparent about it and put controls in place in order to ensure a greater degree of security in the future – no supporter could surely ask for any more than three consecutive promotions, each time as champions of the division.
With promotions, however, the challenge for any following season becomes stiffer and stiffer, and Chester now find themselves in a division in which the majority of clubs have full-time professional players. Plenty of clubs that have been promoted into the Football Conference National in recent years have found keeping their heads above water to be difficult, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that this season is likely to be at best a transitional one for the club as it tries to get used to its new surroundings. However, in comparison with virtually any point in the last twenty years of the life of Chester City, the club remains successful. Crowds have slipped a little this season – to be expected, considering the teams less than overwhelming start to the season on the pitch – but picking up some points will start to attract the floating voters back, and the club is fortunate to find itself in a position in which what happens on the pitch is the biggest concern for its supporters. It’s a position that many would have given their eye teeth for just four years ago.
This weekend, the team makes the short journey over the Welsh border to play Wrexham in the first league meeting between the two clubs since Chester City went to the wall. Wrexham, of course, found themselves in a similar – yet subtly different – position to Chester a couple of years ago and are also now under the ownership of their supporters trust, and it is in this that we see a fundamental truth about the nature of football supporting that is oft-overlooked in an era during which the loudest and most partisan voices are heard the most clearly. Red and white versus blue and white. Wales versus England. Years of enmity between two football clubs just a handful of miles apart. But – and we don’t necessarily expect anybody from either side of this divide to take too kindly to me saying this – these are two clubs who have found that they have more in common in recent years than anybody might have imagined. And at least on Saturday lunchtime, these are two clubs whose supporters can concern themselves primarily with events on the pitch rather than in the boardroom.
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