Chester City – Back from the dead
“You let your club die”
So sing the Wrexham fans towards their hated rivals in the away end, as kickoff draws near in the first clash between these cross border rivals for several years. The two clubs have more similarities than they would care to admit, but there was no danger that this game would turn into a mutual love in.
Before the game had even begun, a banner was unfurled by the home fans reading “Two dead fans, one dead club”, a reference to two Chester fans who had died earlier in the year. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the 900 or so travelling fans, with a small section of these fans breaking through police lines to throw ripped out seats in the direction of their tormentors. A flare ignited in the Wrexham end, and is hurled in the direction of the away end. Thankfully for the visitors, there was little chance of the culprit being called up to the Olympic javelin team as his effort fell well short and burnt out harmlessly in the segregation area.
A flare burns out between the two sets of supporters
This followed a graffiti attack on the stadium earlier in the week, as a wall of bricks containing messages paid for by Wrexham fans had CFC painted over it. As it turns out, it would not be the last time that Chester fans would leave their mark at the home of their hated rivals. It should be pointed out that these incidents were performed by the minority, with most of the fans in attendance doing their club proud.
Chester City graffiti left at the stadium earlier in the week
In addition to these pre-match festivities, simply walking around the town of Wrexham before the game had shown how intense this rivalry really is. Earlier in the year I attended the Milan derby, and there was genuinely a higher police presence for this game in the Skrill Conference than there had been for the Serie A encounter. Indeed, I had a more difficult time securing a ticket for the Racecourse than I had at the San Siro, with severe restrictions in place to try and limit the chance of any crowd trouble (that went well). Thankfully, a social media appeal a couple of days before the game ensured that I would be there.
If it had been a struggle for me to get to the game, it was nothing compared to the battle faced by both sides to even be around for it to take place. Wrexham had faced years of ownership problems, as chairman Alex Hamilton attempted to evict the club from the stadium so that it could be sold for development. Immediately after Hamilton took over the club, the ground was sold to a company which just so happened to belong to, surprise surprise, Alex Hamilton. What followed was years of debt, points deductions, administration and relegation, as the club sank from League One to the Conference at a fairly rapid pace. Worse still, there were times when it looked as if there would no longer be a Wrexham AFC, and the club was only saved in March 2011, when the Supporters Trust bid was accepted and the club became fan owned.
The story of the Dragons survival is an inspirational one, a rare victory in modern football for passion over profits. The club has flirted with promotion back to the Football League ever since, but has been defeated in the playoffs on every occasion. These defeats in the playoffs allowed Chester to catch up with their arch-rivals, after a fan-owned success story of their own, following a battle against Stephen Vaughan, a man intent on killing the club. The story was similar to that of Wrexham, but the battle they faced was even harder, and the financial problems even greater. As much as Wrexham fans (and undoubtedly others) taunt Chester about letting their club die, their stadium would probably be a WH Smiths right now if not for their boycotts and protests.
The financial situation at Chester City got so bad that a fixture against Gateshead was cancelled by the league, and the players refused to get off the team coach at an away game at Forest Green Rovers, having not been paid for many months. Eventually the matter came to a head in February of 2010, as the club were expelled from the league, and wound up a couple of weeks later. The end of the Chester City story? Not at all. In many ways, it was to be just the beginning.
A phoenix club was formed, and Chester FC began life in the eighth tier of English football, the catchily named Northern Premier League Division One North. Despite playing in a level of football so low that many fans wouldn’t even know it existed, the Chester supporters got behind their team impressively, with volunteers helping to run every department of the club, and fans turning out in numbers at matches – breaking a number of attendance records along the way. So far, this reborn Chester has played three seasons, and won three titles. But it was this last promotion in 2012/13 which was the most meaningful, as, combined with Wrexham’s defeat to Newport at Wembley, it meant this derby would resume hostilities once more.
Chester may have only known success in the last three years, but this had not been the case in the early stages of their first Conference campaign. Five games played, five losses, only two goals scored and 12 conceded. Wrexham had hardly got off to a flying start either, but were certainly strong favourites for this game, But, if Chester did indeed die as a club three years ago, nobody thought to tell them, as they produced a magnificent performance both on the pitch and in the stands, in a result which will surely enter club folklore. Just under a thousand were there, but when the story of this game is told to grandchildren in sixty years time, every Chester fan in the world will surely claim they were there.
The Chester fans as they take on the team they were told they’d never play again
From the very first whistle, Chester had more fight, passion and desire to win the game. At this level, and especially in a fixture of this nature, sometimes hard work is all it takes. Wrexham kicked off and immediately booted the ball out for a throw in, in a passage of play which was to sum up their day. Wrexham fans have done a superb job at running the club so far, and 11 of them plucked at random from the stands could probably have put in a better performance than the side managed here.
Some atrocious defending from Wrexham almost saw them punished within the opening two minutes, and they failed to learn this lesson as Chester took the lead in the fifth minute. The Dragons defenders completely failed to pick up their men, allowing defender Linwood (a former Wrexham player) to head the ball into the net, despite a touch from the goalkeeper. The players celebrated as one behind the goal, showing a unity and team spirit which can make such a difference in derby fixtures. Down at the other end of the stadium, madness was unfolding in the Chester end. I firmly believe that there is no better sight in football than an away end going bonkers, and this Chester end was up there with anything I’ve seen in British football. In addition to sore heads the day after, quite a few in blue and white will have woken up with bruised shins and various other injuries, as several noticeably took a tumble to the ground as celebrations got a little out of hand.
I expected this goal to give Wrexham the kick-start they needed to start performing and to go on and win the game, but it simply was not to be. Chester named two identical twins in their starting XI, but they played as though the entire team was a band of brothers. After 15 minutes, it was 2 – 0. Nathan Turner supplied brother Lewis with the ball, and he made no mistake as he swept it into the net with ease, again almost unchallenged in the penalty area. If the away fans had gone mental before, it looked as if the NHS would have to move in and start sectioning people this time.
It was all too much for a handful of Wrexham fans, as a handful broke on to the pitch and headed in the direction of the away end before getting arrested. I’ve always thought that lone pitch invaders at local derbies who run towards the opposition supporters should just be left to it, without giving them the ‘glory’ and 15 seconds of fame that being dragged away in handcuffs brings. Wrexham fans continued to back their team, but the majority of the noise was understandably coming from the away section, with “2 – 0 to the part-timers” perhaps my favourite of their songbook. This was a reference to the fact that Wrexham are a professional club, while Chester have maintained their semi-pro status despite their string of promotions.
As time ticked on and on, Wrexham only seemed to get worse, with simply completing a pass proving to be an almost impossible task. Chester did not look as dangerous as they had done, but they didn’t need to. The hard work had been done, and they were now in a position where they could afford to sit back and defend their lead, something they did with much enthusiasm, the players throwing themselves into tackles as if their lives depended on it. If this had been a Premier League game, the visitors would probably have been down to nine men by half time. Thankfully a quick glance around the stadium showed that nobody was filming the match on an iPad with a camera round their neck, meaning it couldn’t be a Premier League match.
It felt as though Wrexham had expected to just turn up and win, while the Chester fans were expecting another defeat. As it became clear this was not the case, the Chester end increased in noise and belief, while frustration from the home fans grew. The Dragons were booed off at half time by a sizable portion of the crowd, and they could not have complained about it when taking into account the lack of effort shown.
Fast forward to the 80th minute, and not much had changed. Chester remained well on top, and despite Wrexham making all three of their substitutions, it was having little impact on the game. They had produced one moment of excellence, where a red shirted player went on a great run, taking the ball past a number of defenders, worked his way into the box, drew his foot back to smash the ball past the keeper and into the net…only to miss it completely and fall over. The Wrexham fans could probably have gone home early at this stage, like the Chester player Ashley Williams who was sent off in the 83rd minute for punching Joe Clarke in the face. Well I suppose if you can’t score a goal in a derby, assaulting the opposition is the other way you can make yourself a hero.
Wrexham had seven minutes of normal time plus a considerable amount added on for injuries and various stoppages to try to make use of the man advantage, but it was a lost cause. The final whistle blew, and boos from the home support rang out as blue flares erupted in the away section. The Chester players clearly have the club very close to their hearts, as they celebrated with the traveling faithful for some time after the final whistle.
A Wrexham fan looks on forlornly…
While Chester celebrate
As I walked away from the ground I heard two Wrexham fans discussing the match. “That was the worst I have ever seen us play in fifty years” said one. The cutting response -“As good as that?”.
This was unquestionably Chester’s day, and their fans could be heard across the town singing their songs of victory long after the final whistle. Instead of watching their club die, the Chester supporters had just experienced a day that they would never forget for the rest of their lives. This was a victory not only for the club, but fan power everywhere.