The Deva Stadium had been on my list of grounds to visit for quite some time. I had been tempted to go a few seasons ago when Bury last played there when the original club was in League Two, but I gave it a miss. A decision I later rued when the club went into financial meltdown before ceasing to exist. A phoenix club took their place and found themselves shoved into the Evo-Stik Division One North. A few years passed and I was still keen to go. Along came a pre-season friendly between Chester and Bolton which I had pencilled in as soon as it was announced. Again, I gave it a miss.
Then along came the stage in my life when I was deciding which University to go to. After much deliberation I had put my five options down as Chester, York St John, Cumbria, Liverpool Hope and Sheffield Hallam. Of course, an important stage of selecting where you want to study for the next three years is also seeing who your local football team would be. Right up until the stage of application Chester was my favourite; I had my heart set on it. A lovely city, a well run course, not too far from home and more importantly it had a nice little football club.
As the weeks passed by I received invitation for interview at all of my choices, except from Chester. I soon became bored of waiting for them to respond and swiftly rejected them before they replied. It turned out that they had offered me an interview, but by the time that had come through I had already accepted a conditional offer from York. That meant that Chester would not be my local team; it would in fact be York City.
So I was all set for working at The Britannia on Saturday for Stoke’s match against Tottenham when I saw that Matt was off to Chester. I got a sudden urge to suddenly tick the ground off. I had been waiting for a while and had lost all hope that somebody would actually come along with me. A quick look at the table ahead of the match settled my decision as it looked to be a part of a relegation battle which would go down to the last kick of the season.
I caught the 11:45 train from Atherton to Manchester. As usual, the bloke at the ticket office asked me which match I was off to this weekend and I made my way on to the peasant wagon. It cost around £11 return on the train; this was after the National Rail app told me I couldn’t buy a return ticket to the far away land of Chester. All was going well until we got into Walkden and a group of anti-fracking protestors came and sat next to me.
They were off into Manchester joining an anti-fracking demonstration with ‘future’ MP for Eccles and Salford, Bez from Happy Mondays. The maraca shaking Mancunian thought it would be a fantastic idea to launch his political campaign by joining a demonstration in the centre of the city. Football fans from around the country congregated around them, resulting in a scene which will stay with me forever. I never thought I would see three members of the teletubbies completely hammered chanting about shale gas, whilst a group of Luton fans danced around them.
You’ll have noticed that one member of the Teletubbies was missing. No need to be concerned. Tinky Winky was stood at the metrolink station trying to purchase tickets for the group up to Bury. Turns out they were Portsmouth fans who were on their way to Gigg Lane to see a thrilling 4-4 draw, whilst the Luton fans were off to Hyde where they could only score once to break to 100 point barrier.
I thought the fun and games were over, but I was wrong. Matt and I caught the 12:55 train to Crewe. It’s final destination was London, so everybody was in it for the long haul. The bloke in charge of the refreshements area on the train came over the tannoy system as we were leaving Stockport and went about advertising his stock for the afternoon.
“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.” Ideally I’d have stayed on that service all afternoon listening to his announcements, but it was some time to change at Crewe where we had a quick pitstop in the Crewe Hero.
Whilst waiting for the train a girl asked us if she needed to catch a bus into Chester city centre when we reached there. We told her that she’d be fine before she then informed us that she was going for a trip to Nando’s. Apparently there is no Nando’s in Crewe, which forces hundreds of poor teenage girls every week travel to Chester to have a meal. Personally, I think this is an outrage and shall be starting off an e-petition to get this issue rectified. #CreweNeedsANandos
It was only one stop on the train from Crewe to Chester, and it’s a good job too! A poor woman was about to give birth outside the toilets as we pulled into our destination. She was sprawled across two seats, hands on the wall with a pillow clutched to her stomach. You’re not telling me they don’t have any hospitals nearer Crewe?
Upon exit from Chester train station we didn’t really know where to head, so we followed the crowd and found our way into the city centre. It was a little bit of a walk, but we eventually found our way to one of the main streets where we went for a pint in The Falcon pub. I of course was the youngest person in the pub as I usually am on these days out. A pint of Tadcaster each once again provided the cheapest round of a journey, and it tasted a lot nicer than the pint of Taddy I had on the river front in York a few weeks previously.
From there we pressed on to The Bear and Billet which was a short walk down the road heading towards the River Dee. This was the pub which I had earmarked as my local had I accepted a place at Chester University. It wasn’t to be, but it was nice to see what I will be missing out on. Here we had a pint of Carling each whilst watching the rest of the Leeds Rhinos v St Helens challenge cup match before heading off in search of The Deva Stadium.
I knew The Deva Stadium was slightly out of the city centre, but the walk which ensued was ridiculous. We strolled past Chester Racecourse past the city walls and on to Sealand Road, the site of the clubs original home. The Deva Stadium is situated just over the road from their old ground, nestled towards the back of a vast industrial estate which straddles the Welsh border.
Sealand Road was home to Chester FC from 1906 to 1990 and was one of the first grounds in the country to have a tannoy system installed. In 1989, the ground was refused a safety certificate for its away standing areas, a problem which saw the capacity of the ground significantly decrease. In 1990, the club was taken over and immediate plans were shelved to redevelop the ground as a supermarket.
Just months later the club left their home of 84 years and groundshared at Moss Rose; home of Macclesfield Town. However, as Chester were ground sharing on the other side of Cheshire Sealand Road remained standing for a further three years until it was demolished in 1993.
By this stage the Deva Stadium had now been built and the club had moved back to the city. It was the first stadium in the country to comply with the Taylor Report which had been commissioned after the Bradford Fire and Hillsborough Disaster. Chester City spent 18 years at the Deva Stadium before in 2010 they were expelled from the Conference having been relegated from League Two the season previously.
In February 2010, Chester failed to fulfill a fixture away at Forest Green Rovers after players had refused to board the coach after not being paid. This ultimately started the process to the club being expelled from the top tier of non-league football, with their record for the season being expunged in March 2010.
Just 15 days after Chester City were wound up it was announced that a new club named Chester FC would be formed and would play at the Deva Stadium in the following season. The FA originally placed the phoenix club in the NWCFL Division 1, alongside the likes of Atherton Collieries and Daisy Hill. In my opinion, this was the fairest and most sensible decision, but it was soon appealed and the club was placed into the Evo-Stik Division One North.
Chester FC’s first match was a 1-1 draw away at Warrington Town, before they convincingly beat Trafford 6-0 at home in their next fixture. The season saw Chester finish top of the league in their inaugural campaign. Another fantastic season was to follow as The Cestrians finished top of the Evo-Stik Premier division to make it two promotions in two seasons.
Incredibly a third successive promotion was to follow as they won the Conference North at the first time of asking. They became the first ever club in English football history to win three successive promotions, leaving them in the Conference for the 2013/2014 season.
The fan owned club had seen nothing but success since forming, but a torrid campaign left them in a relegation battle heading into the final weekend of action. They welcomed Salisbury City to The Deva, knowing that victory would secure their Conference status another season. The bottom of the table was tight, with one of Chester, Aldershot or Hereford knowing that they would go down. The fixtures had thrown up a corker as Aldershot and Hereford went head-to-head in a relegation six pointer.
Matt and I, admittedly were a bit oblivious to the possible permutations of the afternoon. Basically, if Chester won, they survived. A draw at The Deva would also be enough if Aldershot and Hereford drew. If Chester drew, and Aldershot won then Chester would be safe. If Chester drew and Hereford won, then Chester would be down. BASICALLY, if Hereford won, then Chester would also need to win. In the end, I gave up and just thought I’d see how the afternoon panned out.
We arrived at the ground with half an hour until kick off. There were substantial queues at all the turnstiles and no real directive on whether you needed a ticket or if it was pay on the gate. We thought we’d play it safe and ask at the ticket office. A window was partially open, allowing just enough room for a conversation to take place before I exchanged money for a student ticket. Matt on the other hand was told that he had to pay on the gate. The whole process seemed a lot more strenuous that it needed to be.
The next task was to find a match day programme. Again, this proved difficult as a volunteer advised me to pick one up inside the ground. The search was pointless as none were on sale in the ground.
The queue was quite sizeable going into the ground as we basked in the sunshine. The noises from inside the ground were spilling out as a camera man strapped himself into his perch on the roof of the stand. We had decided to stand in the terracing behind the goal; this was in the North Stand. The other three stands all consisted of seating, with the South Stand designated for visiting supporters; although no segregation was in place for this match.
Former Chester players include the likes of Ian Rush, Roberto Martinez and Bolton reject himself Jonathan Walters. There were some huge names of show for both teams for this clash with Sheringham up front for Salisbury and Rooney up front for Chester. Of course, relations of the two, but it makes for decent reading. More importantly though, former Atherton Collieries striker Craig Hobson was on the bench for the home side.
There was a good turn out for this final match of the season, with Chester recording their second biggest attendance of the season (3,588). You would think that if Chester were playing one of the bigger sides in the division then it would have been a sell out.
Chester were in their traditional colours of blue and white, whilst Salisbury were in their all white kit. I argued that it was a partial kit clash, but Matt ensured me that it was acceptable. I hope we weren’t going to have another contentious argument before the afternoon was out.
The Cestrians made two changes with Michael Kay and Matty Brown coming back from suspension to replace Andy Griffin and George Horan. It was a shame that Griffin wasn’t playing. I was looking forward to see the Stoke and Newcastle legend plying his trade in the Conference. He once scored the winning goal for the Magpies in a Champions League match against Juventus.
Salisbury had the first chance of the match when Jamie White fired towards goal in the opening stages. Aaron Chapman pulled off a fine save before Elliott Frear then shot just wide for the whites.
John Rooney – brother of Wayne – shot wide from 30 yards which encouraged his team to play more attacking football.
The home side were getting on top and they soon took the lead through Danny Carlton. The former Morecambe and Bury striker guided Jason Jarrett’s effort past Will Puddy to send the home faithful wild. Puddy was probably put off by the vast amount of abuse that he was receiving from the spectators who were in front of us. Even the plastic owl which was stuck to the stand was nodding his head in disapproval at the Jeremy Kyle types that had been allowed through the turnstiles.
Meanwhile, news was passing through the ground that Hereford had taken the lead at Aldershot. The Chester fans weren’t too phased. They were winning and were safe. That changed on 36 minutes though when Charlie Sheringham headed home from a corner. That now meant that Chester were down.
On 58 minutes, Rooney scored a fantastic goal to put his side back in front. He ran forward and played the ball into Jarrett who laid the ball back to the former New York Red Bulls striker. Rooney hit the ball first time into the far corner. The lid was ripped off the Deva as a mini pitch invasion ensued. Chester were now safe. All they needed to do was hold on.
News came through on 76 minutes that Aldershot had equalised, meaning that a two goal swing was now needed to send The Cestrians down. The mood was a joyous one on Welsh-English border, until Salisbury equalised with four minutes remaining.
Matty Brown hacked the ball forward, but it was picked up by Salisbury defender Kevin Amankwaah. Elliott Frear crossed the ball across the face of goal where it was met by Jamie White. It was squeaky bum time as they say on Match of The Day. Chester either had to score again, or hope that the Hereford score remained the same. Just as the match was restarting, news filtered through that Hereford had scored in the 88th minute to take the lead at Aldershot. It had been a damaging sixty seconds for Chester, with a couple of the players not really knowing what was going on as was evident when they began to time waste.
The atmosphere was an odd one. One minute it was quiet, then the next somebody cheered which then made the whole ground wonder if luck was on their side. It wasn’t to be. The final whistle went, and we in the crowd knew that Chester had been relegated. The players didn’t know this however, and it was left to the tannoy announcer to break the news.
It was only when I looked at my phone that I realised how incredibly close it had ended. All three teams ended on 51 points, with Chester falling short by two goals on goal difference. It’s horrible being relegated; even worse when it’s on goal difference. Chester joined Dartford, Tamworth and everybodies favourites Hyde in the bottom four and will play the likes of Stockport County, Stalybridge Celtic and Chorley next season.
Fans strolled on to the pitch to console players, whilst Matt and I ran on like giddy school children wanting to take photographs of the stands. We probably looked like Wrexham fans who had come down for a laugh. The players went back inside, as the fans congregated on the pitch. A short speech was said before we left the ground, with the next destination the city centre.
Before we left, I had one last stab at finding a matchday programme. I went into the club shop which was offering a whole host of bargains. After seeing a Chester jumper for £50 I chuckled to myself and went to the till asking for a programme. She seemed a bit reluctant to help at first, but soon walked off to the club offices where she returned with a couple. My day had been saved!
The traffic by this stage was chaotic around the ground, so any hope of getting a taxi back to near the train station seemed pointless. We opted to walk back to The Harkers Arms which we had seen earlier in the day. Sitting on the bank of the River Dee it was a nice establishment. It was expensive, and was full of people who wouldn’t associate themselves with football fans, but who cares? We had a lovely sit down next to the river before we caught our train back to Crewe.
We got back to Manchester at 22:15, before I then walked back to Victoria to catch the last train back to Atherton. I really was not drunk enough for that experience. I concluded on my way back that I really don’t like 17:30 kick offs. Not only do they confuse your body clock but also limit drinking time after the match.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip to Chester. I wasn’t expecting to see a relegation, and was a bit disappointed when it happened as it soured the atmosphere. I’m in no rush to return to the place, but would recommend it for a day out in one of the nicest cities in the country.
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 42.3 miles
- ADMISSION: £10 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2.50
- PIE: Still on this diet…