From the sofa to…Chester FC

The National League – Tuesday 9th August 2016
CHESTER FC vs Dagenham & Redbridge – The Lookers Vauxhall Stadium

Watching Chester is like going to McDonald’s. Good in theory, but bad for your health in the long run. OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. One thing’s for sure, it’s certainly not been boring following the Blues in recent times.  There have been some low points (shoddy owners running Chester City into the ground) but on the other hand, the re-birth of Chester FC has brought plenty of highs – not least the three successive promotions during the phoenix club’s first three years in existence. Re-living Matty McGinn’s thunderbolt from 2012 which clinched promotion to the Conference in front of a sell-out crowd of 5,000 is a personal favourite.

I make a point to support my local team a handful of times each season. Sometimes more. Whenever Manchester United aren’t playing, Chester’s are the first results I always look out for/keep track of. The club have been keeping their head above water in the National League – well just about for the past three seasons.

Yes, half of the ground is in England and the other half is in Wales. It’s also true that the rivalry of the cross-border derby with Wrexham has been spoken about in the same breath as Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina. That’s absurd, although the less said about the current bubble arrangement in place for these derby games the better. Being rounded up onto ‘organised coaches’ isn’t for me, so I continue to boycott the fixture in the hope of common sense being restored.

Chester’s ground has had several name changes in recent times to appease various sponsors. The majority – including myself still refer to it as the Deva. The name it was given upon opening in 1992.  Uncharacteristically, I’d taken in two pre-season games in the weeks leading up to this season – a stalemate against Wigan Athletic and a 3-0 drubbing by Burton Albion. I’ve got to admit that I detest friendlies. They’re bereft of any real atmosphere and only used as a training exercise to sharpen fitness and get as many people on the pitch as possible. The warm-up games had left as bad a taste in the mouth as the ‘Cheshire Pie,’ – both dry and salty. Go with the peppered steak option. Much better. I digress.

It had been a frustrating summer in terms of assembling a squad. A change in manager led to a delay in contract talks with numerous players. That was the catalyst which allowed 20 goal striker Ross Hannah and ex-Stoke City defender Ben Heneghan to depart for pastures new. Hannah was a throwback to famous goalgetters such as Stuart Rimmer, Daryl Clare and Michael Wilde. Unfortunately, prolific strikers in a Chester shirt don’t come around too often these days. Heneghan meanwhile had earned cult hero status after a last minute goal sunk Wrexham a few years back. Many jubilant fans happily told Heneghan he “would never have to buy another pint in Chester.”

In stark contrast, playmaker John Rooney (brother of Wayne) provided the ultimate kick in the teeth when he crossed the Anglo-Welsh divide to sign a one year contract with the fierce city rivals. Credit where it’s due, John was a dead ball specialist, but often went missing in games. My instant reaction at his departure was disappointment, although having had time to think, freeing up a chunk of his salary for two/three better all round players seemed more prudent.

The pre-match optimism (or lack of) was evident as I came across familiar faces and the usual suspects during the walk to the ground. “We’ll do well to get a draw,” said one programme seller. “Here we go again,” groaned one of the stewards on the gate. Even Dad deserted me in favour of watching something called the Olympics. I refused to buy into the scepticism.

Chester isn’t a happy hunting ground for Dagenham.  The freshly relegated Londoners fancied their chances in this fixture 14 years earlier and went away with a 5-2 hiding. I believe teams dropping down from League Two are prone to a culture shock, especially so early into a new season and when new personnel are trying to bed in. I was quietly confident of a home win.

You won’t struggle for a seat at Chester. Three of its four sides are all seated, but I tend to favour the Harry McNally terrace (named after the ex-manager) behind the goal. Mixing with Chester’s version of Blazin’ Squad singing songs and beating a drum, while standing next to the middle-aged diehards. It’s where the only real atmosphere is generated, plus you can’t beat a good crash barrier to lean on. Perfect to balance the pie and programme.

Just before kick-off, both sets of fans and players remembered Chester fans who had passed on from the end of last season with an impeccable minute’s applause. Everyone showed the proper respect and class. It was heartwarming stuff.

I promised to keep a Birmingham based friend/fan up to date with score updates. Those in the vicinity had a similar idea of sorts. No sooner had we kicked off and attention turned to Wrexham’s game. The news filtered through about Rooney scoring, but the groans were just as quickly drowned out by euphoric cheers. Chester scored! Twice. Oh and they were both worldies too.

Elliott Durrell – the man pegged to ironically fill the void left by Rooney fizzed in a stunning half volley from 25 yards. The diminutive playmaker had picked the perfect time to endear himself to his new fans and he duly lapped up the plaudits. Just when the excitement had died down, teammate Tom Shaw set himself up from a similar distance and curled an effort past the despairing Elliot Justham in the Dagenham goal. It was sheer bedlam. A splodge of pie went flying out of my mouth and splattered across my programme, which had been in pristine condition up until that point.

Chester added some much needed height to their rearguard in the close season. The gargantuan Ryan Astles didn’t put a foot wrong, and on-loan goalkeeper Liam Roberts was alert on the couple of occasions the shell-shocked Daggers created a potential scoring opportunity.

It was now a case of Rooney who, as far as the Harry Mac were concerned. Chester grew in confidence and sealed the victory just short of the hour mark. Forward James Alabi had enjoyed a fruitful loan spell at the Deva last season. Now a permanent member of the squad, the ex-Rochdale man powered home a header from a corner. It could have been more, but for Justham keeping the hosts at bay.

The full time whistle brought about one final cheer with gusto. I had certainly enjoyed my McDonald’s tonight. Lovin’ it you could say. Having traipsed back dejectedly down Bumpers Lane on the walk home so many times, it made a nice change to do quite the opposite. Even Dad admitted the error if his ways in choosing gymnastics over a game.

It’s a shame that the performance was a one-off. In true Jekyll and Hyde fashion, the Blues went and lost their next match 3-1 at home to newly promoted Maidstone United. The magic under the floodlights simply hadn’t transcended to Saturday afternoon. Work commitments had kept me away, but the appetite to return will lure me back soon enough.

Best chant: “Can we play you every week?” The Chester fans. They weren’t joking either.
Match ticket: £15 to stand, as opposed to £18 sitting down. A tad expensive for this level.
Match programme: £2.50. A worthy purchase and fun read. Previous match reports are brought to life with speech bubbles, while IFK Gothenburg get a brief write-up purely for playing in Chester’s colours. The club’s thriving academy gets a two-page spread after a successful trophy winning season, while current and former local reporters have their say on who’s Chester’s best striker.
Cost of food: £4.50 for a meal deal of pie, drink and chocolate.
Food rating: 4/5. Holland’s supply a fine peppered steak pie. Full of flavour, meat and gravy. Piping hot too.

Final Score:
Chester FC 3 (Durrell 12, Shaw 24, Alabi 59)
Dagenham & Redbridge 0
Attendance: 1,841Chester FC