Chester FC v Salisbury City
The Deva Stadium / Conference Premier / 26th April 2014
“I always struggled to get it out,” said Gibbo to the pretty female train conductor. I stated to him that I felt that what he was saying was very unnecessary, only for me to realise that he was talking about his young person’s railcard trapped in his wallet. Oops. The conductor had a little snigger anyway. This was the the first of two trains we would be catching en route to Chester today with a train change required in everyone’s favourite train station, Crewe, before heading to Chester. The journey would be prove to be an amusing one with the chap over the tannoy thinking he was a bit of a comedian:
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I’m Steve and I’ll be in charge of the onboard refreshments stall for today’s journey. We have a wide variety of sandwiches and other snacks. Why not catch up on the latest celebrity gossip with the latest edition of Hello magazine? Why not find out how Prince George has been getting on in Australia and New Zealand? There’ll also be a plethora of hugs, kisses and bad jokes.”
Although easily the scariest moment of our train journey was to be the woman who boarded the Crewe to Chester train and appeared to be going into labour! Surely relying on the British rail network to get your pregnant partner to hospital is a risky ploy? At least he gave her a pillow to hold on to.
Fortunately, we arrived in Chester without witnessing a train birth and we were ready to hit the town. I’d been excited to go to Chester having visited the city only once before as a child. My memories were of a beautiful, traditional city with winding sidestreets and mock-Tudor buildings. I was pleased to find that the city centre was exactly how I remembered it and I hadn’t just romanticised it in my head over the years. We made our way through the streets and Gibbo began directing us towards the River Dee, until we arrived in at The Falcon pub. We were easily the youngest in the place, not that I was bothered about that as the place was selling Taddy Lager, which I knew from my visits to the Oyster Bar in Manchester is always cheap; here, it was even cheaper than it is in Manchester with a round costing me £4.16 – £2.08 a pint!
After our cheap beer in the Falcon, we made our way down the hill towards the River Dee itself and headed into the Bear and Billet, which, Wikipedia notes, has been described as “the finest 17th-century timber-framed town house in Chester”. It was very pleasant and very busy on this Saturday afternoon. More conveniently they also had the football scores on the screen with the 3pm games just kicking off. Part of the reason why I had decided to go to Chester today was because of all the Conference Premier games kicking off at 5.30pm, giving me plenty of time to get there after working in the morning. Plus, there was added drama attached to Chester’s fixture against Salisbury today, as the Cestrians could potentially be relegated.
We were aware that Chester’s ground was a bit of a trek from the city centre, but with it being a nice day we thought we’d walk it and hopefully drop into a pub or two en route. What we didn’t realise was quite how far a walk we had ahead of us and there were no real pubs on the way there either. Having worked our way around Chester racecourse, we made our down Sealand Road, where Chester’s old ground used to be located, and eventually onto an industrial estate. After Gibbo had purchased himself some sausage rolls from the nearby Aldi, we could see the floodlights of the Deva Stadium at the end of the estate. We thought we were almost there now, but the walk down the road to the ground seemed to be neverending.
Finally, we arrived outside the Deva Stadium and we were strangely greeted by a plastic rhinoceros. Many had warned me beforehand that the Deva Stadium is a rather bland affair and from the outside it does look a bit dull – not to mention the fact that it is located on an industrial estate. We decided that we wanted to stand on the standing terrace behind the goals, so we made our way around the ground’s main stand, past the Blues Bar, which seemed to be heaving today with a fairly big crowd expected for today’s relegation decider, and towards the queue snaking away from the turnstiles of the Harry McNally Terrace. After a couple of minutes of queuing and after making my wallet £14 lighter, we were into the Deva Stadium (we’ll not refer to it as its official, sponsorship-fuelled name of The Swanaway Chester Stadium).
As we walked through into the stand, there was virtually nothing in regards to a concourse apart from a small room on entering, so we headed up into the stand. As expected the stand was brimming with fans, so we headed to the right corner of the terrace to find a place to stand away from the masses in the middle.
The Deva Stadium has been the home of football in Chester since 1992, following the club’s move from their former ground Sealand Road. The stadium, which has a capacity of just over 6,000, was the first new stadium built that fully complied with the Taylor Report, which was commissioned after the Hillsborough disaster. More interestingly for myself, the moment we walked through the turnstiles meant I had actually returned to my home nation; The Deva Stadium is famous for actually being just over the Welsh border, although the car park adjacent to the ground is in England – a nice bit of pub quiz trivia for you.
Technically, the ground has housed 2 clubs over its 22 years with the original Chester City FC playing there between 1992 and 2010, before sadly being dissolved after running up huge debts. From the ashes of Chester City emerged Chester FC, a club owned by the fans as the motto of ‘Our City. Our Community. Our Club’ placed in several places around the ground repeatedly reminded us. I’m a sucker for a fan-owned club, such as FC United or even my hometown club Merthyr Town, so I was delighted to see Chester win three successive championships and earn three successive promotions starting in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League First Division North, right up to the Conference Premier. Sadly, today their Conference status hung in the balance. Me and Gibbo had arrived at the stadium not 100% sure of what Chester had to do to stay up, but after a bit of work we sussed out that Chester needed to equal or better Hereford’s result against Aldershot to remain in the league; time to get those mini-radios out.
To get myself ready for such a crunch game, I headed around to the food stall tucked away in the corner of the stand and left with a steak pie, a big pack of Walkers and a hot chocolate for £4.50 as part of their meal deal. Not bad at all really, but shame that there was no beer.
The teams came out onto the pitch and I had the impression from the fans around us that they were confident of things going in their favour today. Speaking of the teams, there were some big names on show today with Rooney starting for Chester and Sheringham for Salisbury. No, this wasn’t an act of kindness from two England greats, but instead the brother of Wayne, John Rooney, and the son of Teddy, Charlie Sheringham. However, I was more excited to see former Swansea City flop Kevin Amankwaah playing at right back for the away team. He was really, really bad for the Swans having been signed by Kenny Jackett for £250k from Yeovil in 2006.
A few weeks ago I had seen former Morecambe legend Danny Carlton have a shocker of a performance for Hyde FC, so I was surprised to see him looking re-energised up front for the Cestrians today. It would be Carlton who would open the scoring when he latched onto a Jason Jarrett shot and turned it into the bottom corner. The poor Salisbury keeper, Will Puddy, lay beaten on the floor and was once again the victim of a whole host of abuse from the Chester fans behind the goal.
Chester had started the game as the better team with the team clearly fired up by the bumper crowd at the Deva Stadium today. However, the goal had led to Chester dropping the integrity of their play and Salisbury began to find themselves getting more into the game until they looked to be on top.
The day was beginning to turn worse for the home team as news spread around the stands about Hereford going a goal up at Aldershot, not that it mattered for now with Chester leading. However, they would soon lose that lead courtesy of a Charlie Sheringham header from a corner to make it 1-1. As it stood, Chester were going down.
Half-time: Chester 1 – 2 Salisbury City.
With no bar to visit at half-time (we couldn’t be bothered working our way around to the Blues Bar behind the other stand), we decided to head outside with the smokers to get away from the hustle and bustle of the terrace. Plus, Gibbo was still in pursuit of a programme having been assured that there would be someone roaming the terrace selling them at some point during the game. No such distributor ever appeared.
Still programme-less, myself and Gibbo returned to our perch at the far corner of the terrace ready for the second half, only to notice that there had been a strange spectator viewing the game above us all along: a fairly creep-looking plastic owl.
Despite the home crowd trying to roar on the home team, Chester looked nervous in the opening stages of the second half. It was beginning to look like they would need something special to get themselves back in the game and that something special would come in the 58th minute. A neat passing move down the left side of the pitch saw the ball end up at the feet of Jarrett, who rolled the ball back to Rooney, who sent an exquisite curling shot into the far corner from 25 yards out. Brother Wayne would have even been proud of that one. The goal even led to some Chester fans jumping the gun a little bit by starting a mini-pitch invasion with 32 minutes still left on the clock.
The tension in the stadium began to increase as Salisbury began to dominate with bearded and ponytail-ed midfielder Stuart Sinclair running the game from the centre of midfield – for me, he was easily the best player on the pitch during the 90 minutes. Whilst I was admiring the good play of Sinclair, who was eventually joined on the pitch by his brother Rob Sinclair, Gibbo was getting more excited by Craig Hobson coming off the bench for Chester, a player who once played for his beloved Atherton Collieries.
There was excitement around the stands as it emerged that Aldershot had scored to make it 1-1 against Hereford, meaning that a goal for Hereford against Aldershot and a goal for Salisbury was now required to condemn Chester to relegation. All was looking rosy for the home team in the April sunshine.
After a couple of half chances for both teams, Chester looked to run down the clock and hold onto their status as a Conference Premier team. However, things soured in the 86th minute as a great cross into the box from Amankwaah was met by Elliot Frear, who headed the ball across the box for Jamie White to score an easy goal. 2-2 and we now entered ‘squeaky bum time’.
2 minutes after Salisbury’s equaliser, the Conference relegation zone turned against Chester as word spread around the ground that Hereford had scored an 88th minute goal to put them in the lead at Aldershot and to leave Chester in the final relegation spot. The stadium went absolutely silent and no-one really knew what to do. The game in front of us had appeared to have died down and there was little evidence that there were to be anymore goals. It seemed like the Chester fans were now relying on a late goal from Aldershot to tie things up at the Recreation Ground. There was a glimmer of hope as a shout went up from the stand to our left, which many thought (or maybe hoped) was the sign of an Aldershot, but it proved to be a false alarm. The final whistle was to be the sound that finally condemned Chester.
Full-time: Chester 2 – 2 Salisbury City. Chester are relegated back to the Conference North.
The place had fallen deadly silent and just to confirm things properly, ‘the Voice’, as his box dubbed him, came over the PA system to confirm the relegation in a broken voice. “I’m so, so, so sorry,” he repeatedly stated clearly fighting back tears. It was really odd and upsetting to be in the middle of all the sadness as neutrals.
Soon many fans were leaping over the barriers and onto the pitch to console the player, until it got to the stage that there was a full-blown pitch invasion. I say pitch invasion, this wasn’t the outpouring emotion you see from a frenzied celebration, but more of a solemn stroll onto the field by the Chester fans. Spotting the opportunity to get some photos, me and Gibbo followed everyone onto the pitch, but we made sure we looked sad as to fit in with the masses already on the turf.
It was at this point I came to admire the club more than I had earlier. There was no outpouring of anger or rage at the club’s relegation, but instead the fans rallied around the players and even applauded them and manager Steve Burr as they reappeared at the top of the stand. The club definitely lived up to its community club billing here.
We exited the ground through the main stand and went to make our way back to town, but not before Gibbo paid a visit to the club shop, where he finally retrieved a matchday programme from the lady in there, who went into the club offices especially to get him one.
We were hoping to get a taxi back to town after the arduous walk earlier in the day, but on seeing the traffic slowly snaking its way out of the ground, we figured it would probably just be easier to walk again. Eventually we ended up back in the town centre, where me and Gibbo stood out like sore thumbs with everyone dressed up in their gladrags ready to hit the town; I’d sort of forgotten that with the late kick-off that it was now past 8pm and the locals were starting their night outs.
With a bit of time before our train back to Manchester we found ourselves enjoying one last (expensive) pint alongside the canal at the Harkers Arms. Once again, we stood out a bit as everyone was dressed smartly and enjoying gin and tonics, whilst we sat in our less appropriate football fan attire drinking pints of Carling. It was all very pleasant though.
Just before 9pm, we were heading back to Manchester and we had time to reflect on today’s visit. It’s safe to say, that you won’t find many nicer cities in the country than Chester and it is definitely worth a visit if you haven’t been there before. Sadly, the football ground is isolated from the city and is tucked away on a mundane industrial estate (although it is in Wales, which I will always see as a positive thing). It’s not the most interesting of grounds, but I do have a lot of admiration for the club and the fans and I hope they can bounce back from their relegation. Overall, a good day out, but one slightly soured by the relegation, although it did make the game exciting viewing for us visiting neutrals.
If you want to read Gibbo’s account of our day, you can check out his blog about it here.
Highlights: nice city, good game of football with plenty of excitement (mainly because of the high stakes), John Rooney’s goal, pitch ‘invasion’ at the end and the reaction of the Chester fans.
Low Points: ground hell of a trek from the city, fairly dull ground, Chester’s relegation.