The footballing rivalry between Chester and Wrexham is as fierce and tribal as any in the UK which perhaps isn’t surprising considering what divides them. Whilst a flower-strewn park separates the red and blue halves of Merseyside and an ambling river does likewise in Nottingham the buffer between the Racecourse Ground and Deva Stadium is literally a national border. As thousands of wars have brutally illustrated over thousands of years there is little – bar religion – more divisive than that. When class is thrown into the mix too, along with the fact that neither club have ever scaled the loftiest of heights meaning their fanbases have never been softened by armchair supporters, this has created a hardcore, deep-rooted clash of culture and identity that has resulted in some notoriously nasty derby games.
In 2006 the police and local authorities took the unprecedented step of scheduling a rearranged league fixture for Monday at noon on a normal working day and it is not uncommon for officers from 50 miles away to be prevented from taking leave ahead of a derby expected to be attended by a usually manageable 5000.
To use Danny Dyer parlance, this one gets a bit tasty.
Though only eleven miles of bypass separates both places Chester v Wrexham represents far more than a mere difference in club allegiance. It is England v Wales. The ‘goats’ v the ‘jesters’. Chalk and Cheshire cheese.
The class aspect however I personally have never quite understood. Having lived all my life between both – a foot in each camp – I see beauty and squalor in equal measure in both town and city. The people – with the exception of the same quota of knobhead that is found anywhere else – are generally open, friendly and extremely decent. More baffling still, after hurling abuse and spittled hatred at one another, held back by a barricade of riot police on a Saturday, or revelling in each other’s misfortunes, these same folk share the same office space the following Monday morning. Drive the same cars and live the same lives.
Yet the stereotype persists that Chester are the middle-class snobs – all pink Ralph Lauren polo shirts and gelled hair, preferring rowing to the footy – while Wrexham is the traditionally working-class stronghold – chucking back pints of Brains before adhering to terrace folklore and worrying sheep.
Nothing will ever change the bitter hatred; it is passed on from father to son, but crucially nobody would ever want it any other way as it offers a vibrancy and spark to an area otherwise shadowed by the domineering neighbours of Liverpool and Manchester. Whisper it quietly but Chester and Wrexham need each other.
This uncomfortable truth has been thrown into sharp focus over the past decade as first Chester, then their Welsh rivals, were taken over by men of such incompetence and duplicity they began a mutual spiral into crippling debt and near and actual extinction.
The enmity between both clubs remained as visceral as ever but suddenly the enemies were within, in the boardroom and bizarrely in Chester’s case, on the touchline.
In the summer of 1999 the American Terry Smith secured a controlling share of the Cestrians and soon after sacked manager Kevin Ratcliffe and took up the coaching reins himself. The pre-match team-talks consisted of the Lord’s Prayer and he appointed captains for the defence, midfield and attack. Unsurprisingly Chester went into inexorable free-fall eventually losing their proud 69-year league status. After causing insurmountable damage to the club and its reputation this delusional buffoon then compounded his ineptitude by selling up to businessman and boxing promoter Stephen Vaughn.
Vaughn had already taken Barrow into liquidation and would later be disqualified from acting as a director of any company for a period of 11 years, following his involvement in a £500,000 VAT fraud whilst director of Widnes Vikings. However, before the F.A introduced the fit and proper person’s test to regulate who can take over football clubs he was allowed to install himself at the Deva.
Soon after rumours began to circulate about the company he kept, namely Liverpool drug baron Curtis Warren who is currently serving a 13 year jail term for plotting to smuggle £1m worth of cannabis.
While at Barrow the HMRC had investigated claims that Warren had used the club to launder money. Now at Chester there was similar speculation, a fear that only intensified when the club held a minute’s silence for Colin Smith, described as a benefactor to the club. Smith turned out to be a major Liverpool cocaine dealer – although never convicted of any drug offences – killed in a reported gang shooting.
These were depressing times but much worse was to follow. The club collapsed into administration, players refused to turn out over unpaid wages and the police refused to steward their remaining fixtures for similar reasons.
On February 2010 against Ebbsfleet – for what turned out to be Chester City’s final ever match – the CFU (Chester Fans United) organised a boycott. This was no longer the club they loved; that had long been pillaged of its heart and soul and been taken away from them. This was barely a club at all.
On the 26th February the Conference expelled them and weeks later the high court placed the Vaughn family company into liquidation.
Chester City was no more.
Did Wrexham fans take any pleasure from witnessing this Dante-esque nightmare befalling their hated rivals from across the border? Well initially yes, certainly in the Smith days of farce and failure. But before long they too were experiencing unsavoury malfeasance in the halls of their own club and were too preoccupied about safeguarding their own future to care should they even want to.
Their villain came in the form of property developer Alex Hamilton who took over the club from his former business associate Mark Gutterman in 2004 and quickly made his intentions to sell the fabled Racecourse Ground – the oldest international football stadium in the world – quite clear viewing the land as a valuable commodity in an industrial town. The aghast fans began a series of protests and marches prompting Hamilton to describe them as ‘Luddite terrorists who should be locked in cages’.
In the summer of 2004 he gave the club a year’s notice to quit the ground and six months later Wrexham AFC was placed into financial administration and became the first league club to suffer a ten point deduction as part of the F.A’s new rules.
In late 2005 a Birmingham High Court decreed that Alex Hamilton’s company CrucialMove had improperly acquired the freehold of the ground and the club fell into the hands of a local car dealer named Neville Dickens.
Meanwhile fortunes on the pitch matched the shambolic state of the club’s overall affairs and in 2008 the Robins lost their league status for the first time in 87 years.
The expansive area of North Wales and Chester – that had given football in modern times alone such talents as Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Mark Hughes and Gary Speed – no longer had league representation. Much more disconcerting though was the grave danger of both Chester and Wrexham falling off the map completely.
The work of the Wrexham Supporter’s Trust cannot be praised highly enough for their undying efforts to keep their club alive and in March 2011 – a month prior to the club receiving a winding up order from the HMRC for an unpaid tax bill of just under £200,000 and following years of meetings and diligent protests – they, the fans, took full control of Wrexham FC.
For inspiration of how to run a community owned football club they needed only to look across the border to their English counterparts the CFU.
In the immediate aftermath of Chester City’s demise the supporters grouped as one and founded a new club from the husk left by Smith and Vaughn. Starting afresh in the Northern Premier League Div 1 North they have since enjoyed two successive promotions and are now looking forward to mounting a third push into the Conference. It has been an incredible phoenix from the ashes tale yet it is only just beginning.
Wrexham too have experienced a successful year under their new owners – the fans – and are looking ahead to the play-offs in May. The possibility of returning to the league awaits them but should they fail there may yet be another derby in the near future.
But with both clubs now on an even financial keel and bearing in mind the sheer hell endured to reach this point will there be the same level of hatred if such a fixture occurs?
Of course. Both sets of fans wouldn’t have it any other way. But there will also be an undercurrent of respect and empathy present, an empathy shared by only a few across the land.
Years ago – particularly under the high-heeled grind of Thatcher – football supporters were widely demonised in the press and viewed by the wider public as ‘scum’. Now it’s men such as Vaughn and Hamilton – whose only motives are self-greed and malfeasance and consequently destroy historic institutions that are the possession of communities – who are considered thus whilst the fans are rightfully identified as the conscience of the game.
Chester and Wrexham belongs to the fans. Then again, in the only way that truly matters, they always did.
The Cutter spoke to Stephen Jones, a lifelong Chester fan, and Jay Edwards, a lifelong Wrexham supporter, for their take on a quite astonishing ten years and more….
Stephen Jones. Chester FC.
After enduring one incompetent and unsavoury owner after another for a number of years how do you look back on those times now?
It’s been a roller coaster. There have been some memorable occasions over the years; a few promotions; taking 4000 supporters to Blackburn for an FA cup tie; beating Notts Forest in the FA cup; the promotion party at Hereford; Harry McNally to name a few, but these are overshadowed by the bad times.
Leaving Sealand Road was a sad day. I managed to keep a piece of turf from the pitch growing for six months in my bedroom. The Terry Smith years were a painful experience. I’ll never forget being at an away game sitting behind the dugout when Smith was managing the team. We had a man sent off and Smith was up off the bench frantically trying to get the player substituted. How that man was ever allowed to buy a football club is beyond me!
Then came Stephen Vaughan…… the rest is history.
You are unfortunately in a rare and unenviable position of knowing what it’s like to witness your club cease to exist. Is it possible to put into words what that feels like?
The only feeling I can compare it to is like having a member of your family die. I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it now. I went to my first Chester game in 1985. For the next 25 years of my life lots of things changed but the one constant that remained was Chester City FC. No matter what happened I always knew that at 3pm on a Saturday I would be watching the blues. To have this taken away from you is an unbelievable feeling. I was left with an empty feeling inside until “The phoenix rose from the flames”
Can you explain to readers what the current off-the-pitch situation is at Chester and how it came into being?
The current off-the-pitch situation at Chester is very good. Chester FC is a supporter owned club. We were founded in 2010 after Chester City FC was wound up. City Fans United (CFU) was founded the year before replacing the existing supporters trust. The CFU was the driving force behind getting the club back up and running. They worked closely with Chester council, people from other clubs that had reformed, and most importantly the supporters. All members of the CFC own a part of the club. In a matter of months Chester FC (The name voted for by the fans) was born and were entered into the Evo Stick League 1. The board and CFU have worked tirelessly over the past two years building relationships with local businesses and schools. The future is bright, it’s blue and white!
Do you hear mates in the pub bemoaning their team missing out on the Champion’s League and want to strangle them?
It does wind me up; the amount of money at the top end of football is ridiculous. What frustrates me more is hearing the supporters of Premiership clubs moaning about refereeing decisions. They should come down to the Exacta and see the quality of some of the refs we’ve had over the past two seasons!
Mark Lawrenson famously showed very little sympathy for Chester’s plight by stating on Football Focus that it ‘isn’t a footballing city’. After all the club and city have gone through to get to where you are today do you have any words for the thatch-haired sage?
Not that you could print. He should have been invited down for the Northwich game last Monday to see how much it meant to the people of the city – 5,009 in attendance and a fantastic atmosphere, though a little tense until Matty McGinn’s thunderbolt!
What are the short-term hopes for the club now that you’ve attained promotion to the Conference North?
A 3rd consecutive promotion would be fantastic. I just hope the club continues to grow from strength to strength and the Chester FC management, board and CFU continue their excellent work on and off the field.
Although there will always be an intense rivalry between yourselves and Wrexham has the fact that you’ve both experienced such similar fates created a mutual respect between the fanbases?
I suppose there is a little. I wouldn’t want any football supporter to experience what we have been through.
I hope Wrexham bottle the playoffs again – one more season and the derby could be back!
Jay Edwards. Wrexham FC.
After more than a decade of incompetent owners, administration, and the near-constant threat of extinction can you sum up what it’s been like as a Wrexham supporter during that time?
Well it never is easy supporting a lower league club but it seemed even harder supporting Wrexham at those times. It was over ten years of new owners trying to find a way to kill off the supporters and team in order to get there dirty grubby hands on our historic ground. As most, if not all, of our “owners” at those times were in fact property developers and they could make more money by asset stripping and selling the property than running the football club and that’s what we as real fans of Wrexham FC have had to put up with time and time again. Each time the fans have been amazing in fighting off the threat of extinction over and over again but every time a new owner would come in and a new threat would turn up. The administration was hard to take as a fan as we were not the first football league team to go into administration but we were the first team to have the points deduction but the silver lining was the fact it was two local business owners and Wrexham fans who were on the board who put us into administration and in doing so saved the club. Alex Hamilton could not run the club anymore as the administrators would which cost us a relegation but it also meant we kept our club alive.
Was there a moment when you thought the battle was lost? What was the lowest point for you?
There were a few points in which you thought to yourself ‘how are we going to beat this now?’ but the thing about our supporters is we will never stop fighting for our club as it means so much to every single one of us. In most cases, including my own, it was our first love. The main moment which stands out for me was in season 2005 when we were battling owner Alex Hamilton for our ground and our existence. Players were purposely not getting paid on time every month and Hamilton served Wrexham FC an eviction notice and added to the 10 point deduction there was uncertainty about whether we even going to be able to finish the season.
But the fans and the decent people associated with the club fought together and after two court appearances for a legal ownership of our ground and training ground the fight was over – we’d survived another scare. My lowest point has to be our relegation from the football league after 87 years. Once again new owners had come in and sacked our manager Dennis Smith who the fans had the utmost respect for and brought in an outdated manager in Brian Little who spent a heck of a lot of money and pretty much brought in a whole new squad yet still got us relegated. We are only now looking like recovering from all the bad decisions those owners made and under the WST we have the right people making the right decisions for taking our club forward and hopefully make our way back into the football league where we belong.
Can you explain to readers what the current off-the-pitch situation is at Wrexham?
At the moment things are looking very bright for the future of Wrexham football club and that’s all happened because of the Wrexham supporters trust (WST) who have taken over the ownership and the everyday running of the club. Since the WST have taken over our bills have been paid on time as too the player’s wages and we have an average attendance of a thousand more than last year. There is a real feel good factor around the club once again which I believe has helped form a strong dressing room atmosphere. This has taken us to second in the league with 90 points and for the first time in years we look like we are going to make a profit this year with the sales of our star right back Curtis Obeng moving to Swansea City and our young star of the future goalkeeper Danny Ward moving to Liverpool.
Do you hear mates in the pub bemoaning their team missing out on the Champion’s League and want to strangle them?
Oh god yes! I’m friends with a lot of Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United fans and I’ve had to listen to them complain about something or other time and time again. My usual response is try supporting Wrexham then I will listen to your complaints. My main annoyance is “we need more money to compete” when one of these over hyped players earns more in one week than Wrexham can afford to spend in transfer fees!
How important is it for Wrexham to progress through the play-offs back to the Football League this season?
Ideally we would have preferred to have won promotion back to the Football League outright by winning the title but it looks now that the play-offs are our best shot. I think it’s paramount that Wrexham get back into the league as soon as possible and the WST are doing a great job in assisting our manager Andy Morrell to that end. Returning to where we were before the whole administration season sent us on a downward slope – I know how much it would mean to the fans and we deserve that.
Although there will always be an intense rivalry between yourselves and Chester has the fact that you’ve both experienced such similar fates created a mutual respect between the fanbases?
If you asked me this question a few years ago I would say there would never be mutual respect between the two clubs but now I can say personally things have changed. I see a few Chester fans in the local pub and I always ask for their result and have a chat about the latest goings on over a pint and a smoke. In my opinion the relationship between Wrexham and Chester is a tough one to call; there is still plenty of hatred there from both sets of fans but we can’t live without each other as I personally miss the derby matches.
I wish Chester the best in their fight to get back to where they think they should be but when the day comes again when they are our opponents I will be singing every anti Chester song I know and loving it!