Chester City FC R.I.P.

by William Abbs

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Chester City Football Club were wound up this week, with their 125-year existence ending for the sake of a tax bill. Portsmouth might have gained headlines for becoming the first Premier League club to enter administration but they somehow stagger on with debts of £60m, while the club four divisions below Pompey are now defunct – thanks in part to the Blue Square Premier outfit owing HM Revenue & Customs a, by comparison, paltry £26,125.

Chester had already been ejected from the Football Conference on 26th February following their failure to fulfil a fixture against Forest Green Rovers earlier that month. The players had refused to board the team bus because their wages had not been paid. While the players of Portsmouth might have been paid irregularly this season too, non-League footballers live within financial means far closer to those of the average working man than do their top flight counterparts. The Chester City squad could not, quite literally, afford to accept their wages being late without protesting. Their actions might have precipitated the demise of the club but Chester had, in fact, been in turmoil for many years.

In 1999, six years before the Glazers completed their takeover of Manchester United, Chester City were bought by an American businessman by the name of Terry Smith. During his calamitous two-year period in charge, the club were relegated from the Football League for the first time since their election in 1931 and pushed to the brink of insolvency. Despite having no football experience, and a knowledge of the sport so negligible it strayed into comedy (he thought Bobby Charlton had played international football for Scotland), Smith installed himself as manager during the 1999/2000 season and proceeded to win just four games in four months.

Smith sold the club to Stephen Vaughan, a businessman from Liverpool, in 2001 and, in 2004, under the management of former Anfield favourite Mark Wright, Chester were promoted back to the Football League from the Conference. Wright had become Chester’s fifth permanent manager in two years when he joined the club in 2002 but, with him at the helm, the club appeared to have left their troubles behind them. However, Wright resigned unexpectedly before Chester began their 2004/2005 campaign and, although the club held on to their League status until 2009, once relegation arrived the club had hired two managers for every year they had been in the basement division.

While Portsmouth have passed from one owner to the next this season, each having attempted to resolve the lunacy of the expensive forays into the transfer market and extravagant contract offers to players that have caused the club to enter administration, the ownership of Chester City remained within the Vaughan family up until Wednesday’s hearing. Nonetheless, control of the club had recently been passed back and forth between Vaughan himself and his son, also called Stephen. First ownership of Chester was passed to Vaughan Jr, then sold to a united Vaughan family consortium during a period of voluntary administration in 2009, before, during that November, Vaughan Sr became the first person to fail the Football Association’s “fit and proper person” test and was forced to relinquish control of the club to his son once again.

Just as you would expect, Chester’s fans are already planning to reform the club at a lower level. Football teams do not die, they regenerate. The Unibond League is the most likely destination for the ‘phoenix’ club but, perhaps as a result of Chester having competed in the Welsh Cup in the past, entry to the Welsh Premier League has also been rumoured. Wherever they play their football, the new Chester FC have the chance to expunge the memories of their predecessor’s mismanagement by starting afresh, and yet preserving the old club’s history and colours.

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  • PompeyRat

    Very sad to hear. Wish the fans all the best in rebuilding the club.

  • Sam R

    Good article William. People need to be made aware of the trials and tribulations suffered at lower league levels For all the extensive column inches Pompey’s predicament has been afforded, it is the players, staff and devoted fans at the local level clubs that feel the impact hardest. There can be no blame attached to the players for going on strike.

    As for the regulations and this ‘fit and proper person’ test – everyone from the clubs chief executives to the FA and the government need to seriously examine where everything has gone wrong. Teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool have admittedly benefited from relaxed rules over the years but English football should no longer be allowed to operate in debt. The general election policies – buried under all the health, education and foreign affairs promises – will be imperative for the future of football clubs’ in this country.

    In an era of financial failings and economic recession the time of the ‘boom’ is over. Radical steps must be taken now in the light of Chester’s demise or the characteristically passionate and pioneering English game will finally go ‘bust’.

  • W.A.

    Thanks Sam. There has been a noticeable increase in the interest that fans are taking in the financial running of their clubs this season. This is really positive, because it means they’re looking to the long term. As you say, the boom is over (in fact, most clubs outside the Premier League have been living hand-to-mouth ever since ITV Digital folded). The only source of income that clubs can rely on is the one that they so often ignore – fans who pay to watch the team, season ticket holders, fathers who bring their sons to games (ensuring that the support is passed on down the generations).

    Manchester United’s fans deserve credit for their “green-and-gold” protests this season. It’s to be expected that a club of their size will generate the most press coverage, so when its fans start wearing different colours to show their displeasure at the club’s shaky financial foundations it makes for a very visible demonstration. Other clubs’ fans can be inspired to take similar action.

    Football is nothing without its fans. Chester will, of course, be resurrected at some level – because the fans won’t let the club die. With the general election coming up, we have the chance to make football a political issue by using our votes to bring in a government that will make sure that, in future, clubs must be run transparently, responsibly, and, most importantly, for the good of the fans.

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