Supporters came from 36 clubs to extend the hand of friendship to Chester, yet another football club to feel the cold breath of financial crisis. They descended on the Deva Stadium for a “Fans United” day and were rewarded with a decent game more in keeping with English football than any European super league match. Typically, Brighton sneaked an undeserved point in a 1-1 draw with Paul Armstrong’s injury time penalty, cancelling out Mike Conroy’s first half goal.
In the season of Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paolo Di Canio, the camaraderie among almost 4,000 supporters was mightily reassuring to witness. Both clubs’ MPs were there and Satelite broadcasters Sky TV turned up to beam events to the nation. Unfortunately, the game’s paymaster’s commitment to the lower divisions did not extend to installing a satellite dish for the evening, so the sponsors were treated to Vets in Practice. Even that represented an improvement: earlier this season all Chester’s television sets were repossessed.
‘Fans United’ was a Brighton idea eagerly adopted by the Chester City Independent Supporters Association. Two years earlier, there was a real possibility that the club would disappear altogether. Last year, ailing Doncaster were involved as they sped out of the professional game. This time round, there is no danger of either club playing in the Conference in the next season although doubts persist about Chester’s ability to function at all. The link between all three is chronic mismanagement behind the scenes.
Stories of Chester’s financial embarrassment are legion but perhaps none typifies both the dire straits the club found itself in and its capacity to survive than manager Kevin Ratcliffe paying £5,000 out of his own pocket to have the water re-connected so the club could play Everton in a high profile pre-season friendly match.
The club remained in administration at the time and supporters’ spokesman, who was to become club secretary, Michael Fair is scathing about former chairman Mark Gutterman’s contribution: “people are taking control of football clubs who aren’t competent to do it. Football isn’t an ordinary business, it is part of the community. All we have had is someone with no connection with Chester coming in, promising the earth and delivering absolutely nothing.”
At half time a 100 metre scarf – comprising the colours of all 92 league clubs – was paraded around the stadium to the strains of Canned Heat’s Let’s Work Together. With Portsmouth fans planning to lay a coffin outside the gates of Fratton Park today and Kenneth Richardson, Doncaster’s self styled benefactor, in court this month for conspiracy to burn down his own grandstand, these were and continue to be grim times for supporters somewhere. Twas ever thus: Northampton and Bournemouth, have almost withered on the vine in recent years and supporters with an unblinkered view fear the domino effect: when one goes under, a dozen follow.
Christine Russell, Chester’s Labour MP, praised fans for their attempts to preserve the club, “The CCISA have done more to raise the profile of Chester Football Club in a few short months than others have done in the 25 years that I have lived in the city.” Chester’s spirited display certainly merited a win. Their goal, direct from a Brighton corner, was a cracker. Alex Smith, a pacy left back, picked up a clearance in his own half and kept on running, Goalkeper Mark Ormerod parried his initial shot but Conroy, on loan from Blackpool, tapped in. The equaliser was cruel in its timing and hotly disputed, referee Peter Walton punishing Martyn Lancaster’s challenge on Jamie Moralee with a penalty. Paul Armstrong scored his first senior goal with commendable coolness.