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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fan Files: Chester City

Our series of interviews with supporters continues with a look at what's going on at Conference crisis club Chester City.

The Cestrians were relegated from the Football League last season, and began the season with a huge points deduction. We spoke to City fan John Murray to give us the lowdown on events at the Deva.

He first went to see City play 17 years ago, and rates their promotion to League One in 1994 and reclaiming their Football League spot in 2004 as his best moments.

Unsurprisingly, he sees the current crisis engulfing the club as the lowest point during his time following Chester's fortunes.

So then, John, from the outside looking in, it seems like there's been a total horror show experienced at Chester. Can you try and sum up exactly what has happened at the Deva in the past year or so, and what it's been like to be a fan?

I think there's a genuine fatigue and sense of hopelessness at the moment. For as long as I've supported the club, we've never had a chairman who has cared about the club at all and I think the fans are beginning to get a bit sick and tired of having to fight just for the club's existence again and again.

On the field, we had a disastrous campaign last year and the fact that we still went down even though four teams had points deductions says everything.

For reasons best known to the board or managerial team - who assembled the squad is anyone's guess - we put together a young, inexperienced team full of small central midfielders, leaving us woefully exposed at the back and without a recognised striker.

This problem was never addressed, in fact we only signed one player during the season, Eddie Johnson, who left a few months later.

Predictably, the inexperience of the squad was often exposed and we were on the wrong end of several thrashings, most notably at Rochdale and Dagenham both of whom put six past us.

What's the story with your owner Stephen Vaughan then? He seems to be at the core of what's rotten at the club?

He came to us accused of crippling Barrow and has done the same to us. He's an absolute nightmare and the worst kind of chairman possible.

The previous three chairmen, Eric Barnes, Mark Gutterman, and Terry Smith, were all bastards but they were fairly easily hassled out of the club and had the fans united against them.

Vaughan (left) has divided the support to an extent, partly by giving us an admittedly enjoyable first couple of years which seem a long time ago now, but also by maintaining a small but very gobby and aggressive bunch of 'brown-nosers' who act as his spin machine on Devachat, the most popular internet fans' forum for the club.

Also, unlike the previous three, people are afraid of Vaughan. It's no secret that he has strong links with the criminal underworld.

He is mentioned in the biography of notorious gangster Curtis Warren, and in a game a couple of years ago, we were asked to observe a minutes' silence for a Colin Smith, apparently a generous club benefactor.

News broke in the local papers shortly after that Mr Smith was a former right hand man of Warren and one of Liverpool's most well known gangsters. Curiously, the club's funds have also dried up since his demise.

I just can't understand why Vaughan is still here, he's an unfathomable man. I've come to the conclusion that he's just a thug and a bully who always has to be the 'main man', and doesn't care how badly the ship is sinking as long as he's still the captain.

So, are Chester out of the woods when it comes to off-the-field issues then, can everyone get back focussing on matters on the field of play?

Not really. It's very hard to focus on the football side of things when there are serious doubts over whether we'll even last the season.

Recent accounts published by the club make grim reading and suggest that no-one at the club has a clue - one classic example that jumps out is that we are apparently paying more money to produce matchday programmes than we are generating by selling them.

Crowds are dwindling - some fans are boycotting, others are just fed up. It's a very worrying time for the club and it's got to the stage where I'm not even that bothered about results anymore.

How was relegation from the Football League greeted, and how is everyone taking being back in the Conference?

It feels like the start of a slow death. I think most of us knew we weren't going to last long in the League the way we were being run, we had pushed our luck a bit in previous seasons and this time it ran out.

It didn't feel the same as the first time. When we went down in 2000 it all seemed so unfair, this time it almost felt like it served us right.

Chester were relegated from the Football League for a second time last season

Playing in the Conference again is gutting because we worked so hard to get back into the League, but Vaughan's attitude since then has been pathetic and he's totally undone all the good work put together during those years through his own stubbornness, arrogance, and stupidity.

But it's not really the standard of football or the level we're playing at that bother me, it's the off the field events that really upset me.

There are things that happen at this club that you just don't expect to have to deal with when you start following a football club, like hearing about fans being threatened, using the official website for humiliating supporters and, as mentioned, holding minutes' silences for gangsters.

Tell us about your manager, Mick Wadsworth, the job was a bit of a poisoned chalice. He's got a tough task on his hands, so how's he doing?

As well as can be expected really. I like Wadsworth (right), but no manager has been allowed to manage this club since we got back into the League, there's just so much interference from above.

If it's not to do with Vaughan's useless sons occupying the starting eleven, it's his ridiculous declarations in the press about who we're trying to sign.

It's odd that despite going through so many managers, we continue to be linked with the same players.

At the end of the day, he has no budget, no support from the board, home crowds are dropping below 1,000, and he's being asked to asked to claw back a 25-point deduction with a team of kids and Scouse has-beens/never-weres.

Fair play to him for taking the job, but he can't do it and neither could anyone else.

You started on -25 points, that's now down to -14, what do you think your chances are of beating the drop on the pitch? Can you catch up with enough teams to survive?

Absolutely not. We need play-off form just to stay up, and we don't have a squad with anything like enough depth and quality to achieve that, in fact we'd probably be battling against relegation even without the deduction.

We're still 24 points from safety, so in effect we're going into October having only moved a point nearer to 20th place than we were to start off with. A realistic target this season would be not to finish bottom.

I think that's doable as, although the Conference is getting stronger and stronger, there's still some real dross in it.

On another note, I'd also like to say that I think these massive points deductions are completely counter-productive.

They're still happening often enough to suggest that they're not working as deterrents and all they do is punish everyone connected with the club for something that's entirely the fault of one man who doesn't care anyway.

What do you see the future of Chester City FC being?

It has to be a fans-run club in one shape or form.

Positive movements have been made by the supporters' clubs in recent months. For a start, the Independent Supporters' Association and the Supporters' Trust are merging under the name City Fans United.

I think this is a step in the right direction as part of the problem is that we're too divided as a set of supporters and a club the size of Chester doesn't need fragmented supporters' groups.

The club just can't continue with Vaughan at the helm and I think we need him out at any cost.

Times are still tough at Chester's Deva Stadium

So finally, what's the best thing, if anything at the moment, about being a Chester City supporter?

What makes me more proud than anything to be a Chester supporter is that we've always managed to pull through eventually.

There can't be many clubs who've had as much flung at them at us over the last 20 years or so, including losing our ground, spending two years in exile, two relegations out of the league, four awful chairmen, countless winding up orders, nepotism, boycotts, embargos, and almost not being allowed to kick off this season.

We're still just about clinging on though, and that's because the supporters have always cared even when no-one else did. And even now I know that Vaughan won't be here forever but Chester City FC, one way or another, will.

John, thanks for speaking with us.

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