There are several clubs which will turn up more than once on this list, and one of those is Chester City FC. The story of this particular clubs last twenty years is one that could fill a book on its own, but its demise can largely be traced to the activities of three men. One, Stephen Vaughan, is unlikely to openly become involved in the running of a football club after being banned under the FAs Fit & Proper Persons rules, from being involved in the directorship of any business at the end of 2009. Another is Mark Guterman, another man that warrants a chapter of his own in this particular series. The third is a man from the United States of America whose two years in charge of the club left it without a place in the Football League for the first time since 1931 – Terry Smith.
Moving into The Deva Stadium in 1992 after two years playing their home matches in Macclesfield should have been the start of a new beginning for Chester City. It was, but perhaps not in the way that supporters of the club might have hoped for. Owner Mark Guterman had planned for Chester City to establish themselves as a feeder club to Manchester City in 1996, and idea that was quickly put to bed when he was petitioned for bankruptcy and it became apparent that the Manchester City board didn’t want anything to do with it. He later got himself into hot water with a publicity stunt that backfired. Season ticket holders of clubs outside the Third Division were allowed into the Deva Stadium free of charge, a plan which was supposed to lure in hordes of local Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton supporters, but went sour when it became apparent that large sections of what would have been the paying crowd were turning up without paying to get in, using the season tickets of friends. By 1998, Chester City were – not for the last time – in administration and Guterman was looking for an exit route.
That way out came in the form of Terry Smith. By the standards of English football in the late 1990s, Smith was an oddity. He’d had a promising career as an American football player in the early 1980s, but his time as a defensive back with the New England Patriots ended when he injured his knee in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles and he moved to England, becoming involved in the Manchester Spartans American football team before pitching up at Chester City in 1999, with the club in serious financial trouble. As ever in these situations, he said the right things, making noises about wanting the club in the second tier of the English game in three years time, about his childrens love of Chester Zoo and the city being “steeped in history”, and, significantly, he wasn’t the increasingly distrusted Guterman. It didn’t, however, take very long for the wheels to start falling off the wagon.
Kevin Ratcliffe, the former Everton defender, had been the manager of Chester City since 1995 and was a reasonably popular manager, having taken the club to the Division Three play-offs in 1997 and keeping the clubs Football League status secure as they battled against their serious financial difficulties, even, it was reported, paying bills for the club from his own money during this difficult time for the club. He lasted four matches into the new season before a falling out with Smith brought about his departure from The Deva Stadium, with Ratcliffe citing interference from the new owner as being the reason. Rather than employing a replacement, though, Smith appointed himself as the new manager of the club. Plenty of “blue sky thinking” was quick to follow. Smith prepared tactical dossiers which all the players had to read before each game, read aloud the Lord’s Prayer to players during the pre-match team talk and appointed separate captains for the teams defence, midfield and attack. Predictably enough, the teams fortunes plummeted and Smith himself lasted just four months in the managers position. Ian Atkins, formerly of Northampton Town (amongst others), was brought in to salvage something from the wreckage. Ratcliffe, meanwhile, would successfully sue for £200,000 compensation for unfair dismissal.
Meanwhile, relations with supporters and the playing staff were deteriorating at a similarly precipitous rate. Initially receptive to it, the supporters had raised over £100,000 towards Smith’s takeover and were set to own over thirty per cent of the club and have three representatives on the board. One, however, the chief executive of the club, left within a month and later won over £10,000 after suing for unfair dismissal, while Smiths claims that the club was debt-free was treated with scorn after it was revealed that the club had not filed any accounts with Companies House for three years. The Independent Supporters Association, with whom Smith was supposed to be working, had held a vote of no confidence in Smith as manager which triggered his departure as manager, and just a few days later Smith announced the withdrawal of an ISA Supporters Share Offer. The ISA had to write over 550 cheques to supporters, having spent over £6,000 in unrecoverable legal fees in the process, whilst The Executive Members Club, which accounted for over half of the clubs commercial income at the time, condemned Smith’s actions and called for a boycott of season ticket sales until the appointment of a “professional and competent manager.”
The players, meanwhile, hadn’t taken long to start complaining to the local press about Smiths unorthodox managerial methods. One trialist player complained of being stranded in a car park when his services were not required, whilst striker Luke Beckett, a favourite amongst the supporters, was dropped after a reported dispute with Smith, captain Andy Crosby, when he was put on the transfer list, said he felt the club was “falling apart”, the club lost centre forward John Murphy and the previous seasons player of the year Ross Davidson. Yet Atkins, even though he was acting under the name of being “Director of Football”, almost managed to keep the club in the Football League. Eventually, however, Chester City were relegated from the Football League on goal difference below Carlisle United at the end of the season.
Atkins left the club upon relegation from the Football League and was replaced by a former manager and a popular figure with supporters, Graham Barrow. Barrow, of course, had to endure very difficult working circumstances himself. Smith suspended Barrow’s assistant Paul Beesley from playing for failing to stand in the correct position at a set piece and banned Barrow from speaking to the press without his permission, for example. In October 2000, Smith put the club up for sale, citing health and family reasons for his desire to sell up, but on the pitch at least Barrow finally seemed to be turning the team around, taking it to a reasonably creditable eighth placed finish in the Football Conference and to the Third Round of the FA Cup. At the end of the season, amid an atmosphere of mounting protest – the end of the clubs final home league match against Rushden had begun with supporters parading a coffin through the town centre and ended with club stewards symbolically removing their fluorescent jackets, piling them into a heap on the pitch and unfurling a banner with “Smith Out” written on it – Barrow too was sacked, and replaced with the former Millwall and Manchester United player Gordon Hill, who was an old acquaintance of Smiths and had spent the precious season coaching the youth team to its worst ever season.
By the start of the 2001/02 season, there was a permanent vigil outside The Deva Stadium, a small number of supporters who planned to stay outside the ground until Smith left the club. Meanwhile, a final opportunity to bring some serious money into the club came in the form of a pre-season friendly against Everton. Uneasy at the scale of protests at The Deva Stadium over the course of the previous season, the police insisted that the match be made all-ticket and trading standards officers from Cheshire County Council demanded evidence that the club was able to provide enough stewards for a match that was expected to be a sell-out. When this evidence was not forthcoming, the safety certificate was revoked. Chester fans, meanwhile, were also busy and contacted Everton urging them not to come, and perhaps unsurprisingly the Premier League club eventually pulled out of the game citing understandable worries about crowd safety as the reason. Smiths reaction was send a fax to Everton telling them they their club would be responsible if Chester went to the wall.
The new season began with Smith hamstrung by safety concerns. He was forced to employ his own stewards at three times the cost that match day security should have been, while the local police insisted on a higher than normal presence for the first home match of the season against Woking and then billed the club for the pleasure of it all. With just a few days left before the start of the season Smith disappeared, leaving his house empty, players and staff unpaid, and leaving the clubs secretary Mike Fair only able to say, “I’m totally in the dark and quite frankly I’m almost punch-drunk with it all.” The Woking match went ahead, albeit with areas of The Deva Stadium now closed, but Smiths time at the club was coming to an end. On the pitch, Chester City won just won of their first twelve matches of the season. Away from it, Smith had sold up to Stephen Vaughan by the start of October 2001, with Vaughan later claiming in an interview that, “We basically smoke-screened Terry Smith by putting an offer in for Wayne Brown on behalf of Droylesden Football Club, which I was a director of because a business associate partner David Pace is the owner. Once we got around the table with Terry Smith we told him we weren’t there for Brown, we were there for the club.” Smith returned to the United States of America to coach American football in North Carolina, his ego trip in Chester over for good.
There were signs of things to come within weeks of Vaughans arrival at The Deva Stadium, when his Chester City team met Vaughans Barrow team in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. Since Vaughan still owned shares in Barrow, the FA threatened to expel both clubs from the competition, but Vaughan sold his shares in Barrow for a nominal sum to one Bobby Brown, a painter and decorator, for £1 a couple of days before the match and bought them back after the match (which Barrow won 1-0), before selling them to the directors of the new company for £29,500, but his links to the club weren’t fully severed until the court found against him over ownership of the ground. The FA was widely criticised at the time for allowing such a flagrant breach of its own rules, but Chester City supporters, who might not have understood the full ramifications of having this individual running their club at the time, were at the time only happy to have Smith out of their club.
Three years later, Chester City would be back in administration, but it would take seven and a half years and the liquidation of the club itself for Vaughan to get his eventual comeuppance. Terry Smith, though, was little more than a thin-skinned control freak who seemed to genuinely believe that he could apply the rules of coaching American football to a completely different sport. His failure, coupled with the appalling way in which he seemed to to treat almost everybody that he came across during only two years at Chester City, meant that there were few that mourned his departure from the club. It is, however, saying something to say that Terry Smith probably wasn’t event the worst owner that Chester City had in the last twenty years of its existence, and there’ll be more on that subject later in this series.
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