Firstly, the good news. The phoenix Chester Football Club are now functioning in every way that they should be. This week has seen them given a place in the non-league pyramid and the club now has something to aim for next season and a set of fixtures to look forward to over the summer. After all of the hard work that has gone into the growth of something of beauty from the rubble left behind by the Vaughan family, seeing a first competitive game, goal and victory will be a visible and well-deserved fruit from months of team-spirited labour. If everyone who has expressed an interest in attending their first game at the Deva actually turns up, then the spectre of thousands of paying customers being locked out will be a welcome rarity on the England-Wales border.
However, this is tempered slightly by the fact that the club have only been able to secure a place in the North-West Counties League, which is at level five of the pyramid and would mean five successive promotions would be required to regain Chester’s Football League status. On this part of the story, little seems to make sense. To say as the FA Leagues Committee did, that: “There were no vacancies within Step 3 or 4 to be allocated to Chester FC” completely ignores the fact that the league structure from Conference level down was actually a team light following Chester City’s demise. Indeed, a ‘lucky loser’ situation could have been engineered further up the pyramid and a club which could regularly boast four figure crowds could have been accommodated in the Evostik League, which would surely make more sense than pitting them against sides who, with respect, play in front of the proverbial man and his dog. Remember this was not a brand new club, like FC United of Manchester, but the reincarnation of one which had 125 years of history, the vast majority of which had been in the Football League. That AFC Telford and Lancaster City were allowed to resume at a higher level in similar circumstances surely adds further weight to the argument that more could have been done to help a club who had already made significant progress?
The response of Chester’s CEO, Steve Ashton, encapsulated the overall mood of minor deflation but they are not the types to wallow in self-pity having fought through much worse adversity in very recent months. “We are naturally disappointed with this decision, as we had hoped to be placed in a higher league. Regardless of this, the board remain focused and resolute in their objectives of building a successful football club for our City,” stated Ashton. No doubt they are as committed as they have always been, and maybe there are one or two advantages to this situation. The most obvious one is that the lower the level at which they operate, the easier it may be to assemble a team that could dominate and get the upward momentum behind the club to push them on. Most of Chester’s opponents next season will see their visit as a welcome payday, and they will have ten times the fanbase of the next-best-supported side. With that in mind, Chester should be able to attract a calibre of personnel to the club which is probably more suited to a higher level, even within the frugal wage structure which the club’s new board will have in place to avoid a repeat of Vaughan era indulgence. Moreover, it will be a less pressurised environment for a new club, and should enable decision-makers to learn on the job where they need to. Better to make a mistake now than at a higher point in the pyramid where the exposure and damage would be far greater.
Either way, Chester FC are this writer’s tip to win the North-West Counties Premier Division next season. Even those who do not expect them to walk away with it will surely want them to.