End of season title deciders in non-league football have a tendency to bring out vastly inflated crowds which hint at the potential of a club were it to be playing at a higher level, and this weekend was no exception with a crowd of 5,009 people turning out at The Exacta Stadium in Chester to see Chester FC draw 1-1 with Northwich Victoria to lift the Premier Division title in the Northern Premier League. Yet this was far from being so much as an ‘ordinary’ end of season title decider, because seldom have two clubs both circling at the top of a division had such differing prognoses for the future.
Yesterday’s match brought Chester their second successive championship since their reformation after the mid-season financial collapse and closure in 2010, and promotion to the Blue Square Bet North for the start of next season marks the arrival of the club in the division that the original Chester City might have found itself had it been allowed to continue to limp along under its previous, thoroughly discredited ownership. That the club needed to be allowed to die and be reborn during the 2009/10 season was a truth that was an uncomfortable one to have to swallow, but the reborn club’s success has vindicated those that boycotted the club during its final weeks in order to force the issue.
More importantly than that, however, is the broader picture of success that the club now paints. Local businesses have been re-engaged with the club and crowds have continued to spiral as the town itself has re-found its affection for its local football club. Such success breeds a virtuous circle, in which increased revenues can be safely re-invested in the team, and Chester will likely start next season amongst the favourites to win promotion again, this time to the Blue Square Bet Premier. The biggest trophy of all, however, has already been scooped: Chester FC exists, and that in itself is more than the detractors of the club’s supporters trust would have thought possible just a couple of years ago.
A handful of miles, eleven points and a single league position separates Chester FC from Northwich Victoria, but in most other respects the gulf between the two clubs could not be any greater. Northwich guaranteed their place in the play-offs with a win at the weekend, but for the long-suffering supporters of this club, such considerations are somewhere near the bottom of any list of priorities at present. The club will play its play-off matches in the knowledge that no matter which division in which it starts next season, it will not be playing its home matches anywhere near Northwich itself next season, having signed a ground-share deal to play its home matches more than forty miles away next season at Stafford Rangers, following eviction from The Victoria Stadium in January.
This means that Northwich supporters face the end of season play-offs with greater trepidation than most. They already know that there will be no “home” matches in any meaningful sense next season, and there is also cause to wonder how the club will be able to remain solvent, when we consider that it was unable to maintain payments on a CVA previously agreed after a previous insolvency episode and was unable to buy The Victoria Stadium from the administrators after the collapse of its previous owners. Promotion would bring greater operating costs, both in terms of travelling distances and the wage expectations of players in a higher division. The question of the club’s survival, therefore, may come down to how many people can be persuaded to travel week in, week out all the way to Stafford for home matches or buy season tickets even if they can’t manage this.
If the flaws of one ownership model and the benefits of another account for a significant proportion of the difference in fortunes between the clubs, then another issue is at the heart of the success of Chester FC and the apparently imminent failure of Northwich Victoria – that of ground ownership. In the case of the collapse of Chester City, the club’s ground was owned by the local council and the lease over it reverted to them after the old club was wound up. The supporters trust had to bid to take over the lease, but were successful in doing so and it was this, alongside the initial mobilisation of the supporters of the club and their unification as one supporters group, that was the decisive moment in this story of death and rebirth.
In the case of Northwich Victoria, however, the ownership of The Victoria Stadium has stayed resolutely in private hands, passing from its original owners Beaconnett to the receivers upon the winding up of that company, and then on to Thor Specialities when Northwich’s owner Jim Rushe failed to take up an option to buy the ground for the club. It feels counter-intuitive to suggest that the rebirth of Chester FC was in no small part due to the fact that The Exacta Stadium is council-owned – after all, we live in a country that has fetishised the concept of home ownership like no other on earth – but there is at least a hint of truth in the fact that council ownership of the stadium may offer a smaller football club (or at least its supporters) a greater chance of a new club succeeding where one has previously failed.
While Northwich Victoria seem destined to begin next season – if, indeed, they start next season at all – facing a world of uncertainty to which there are no easy answers, Chester FC will start next season with their focus intently upon a third successive promotion. The success that the club has had on the pitch has been mirrored by success away from it, with crowds swelling to unprecedented levels, and it is worth stopping to consider what an achievement a crowd of 5,009 is for a match in the Premier Division of the Northern Premier League, where clubs are as far from League Two as League Two clubs are from the Premier League. Northwich Victoria supporters, meanwhile, will wait and hope that something miraculous happens to preserve the name of their club and its history, and perhaps the best way forward for that is for the club to taken from private ownership and put into the hands of the only people that can be trusted with such custodianship – the supporters themselves. Chester FC are proof of what is possible under this sort of ownership, but the question of whether anybody is prepared to listen is another matter altogether.
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