THE THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN MARK
On 26th November 1998 with Chester
City in administration, Mark Guterman announced he
was resigning as chairman. Did anyone else notice the
irony of this date? It was exactly a year to the day
since Chester’s hastily re-arranged match with Swansea.
The Vetch Field had been declared unsafe the previous
Saturday and no-one could quite believe it when Chester
offered to swap fixtures and bring the home match forward.
Forty eight hours notice was given for this. Presumably
police clearance was given but they seem to need at
least ten days for FA Cup replays these days. The short
notice meant that around a thousand were lost from
the expected attendance had the match been played on
a Saturday in March as originally intended.The only
reasonable explanation to come out of the club at this
time was that they had a cash flow problem. It was
the first warning of the crisis to come.
In The Story of the Blues Mark Howell,
Chairman of the ISA outlines the background to City’s
crisis. Following on I would add some comments of my
own on mark’s namesake, the departed chairman of the
Football Club and then some thoughts on the ISA itself.
The Big Idea
What was Guterman’s motive for taking over Chester City? No-one could
understand it at the time. He was given the benefit of the doubt by fans
when he arrived but he proved enigmatic and pretty uncommunicative. Was
he buying Chester City as a plaything? He was known to have a box at
Old Trafford and was therefore interested in football (If that isn’t
a contradiction in terms). Was he buying City as an investment? Hard
to see, although he was rumoured to be a property developer and might
be looking to expand the Deva. Was he an altruist? Call me a cynic but
hardly and he didn’t speak in these terms. Unlike Jack Walker or Jack
Hayward or even Max Griggs with Rushden and Diamonds who want to see
their home town team get to the top, Mr Guterman seemed to have no such
ambition (Or clout).
When Mr Guterman did speak – it was
of five year plans and building up the youth policy
with a view to becoming a selling club. The youth set
up, to Mr Guterman’s credit, is going well but Chester
did not sell any players to help balance the books
until deadline day 1998 by which time the club appeared
to already be in a financial pickle.
The Big Idea leaked out when it was
discovered that Mr Guterman planned to head a consortium
who would bid to take over ailing giant Manchester
City, with Chester providing fodder as a feeder club.
Now here was the potential to generate millions of
pounds. At the time and perhaps still today with football
enjoying a commercial boom it would be possible for
a number of business people to put forward such an
audacious plan and take financial institutions along
with them. But the fans and more importantly, the board
of Manchester City were having nothing to do with it.
The Big Idea was strangled at birth.
In a League of their own In a parody
of the Life of Brian where the rebel leaders try to
incite their followers by saying What have the Romans
ever done for us? We perhaps ought to be grateful that
Mr Guterman at least spoke up on behalf of the lower
League clubs when threatened with plans for League
restructuring. He and John Reames (Lincoln City) seemed
to make the running in this. Guterman was outspoken
against Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks (He called
him a bully) and Karren Brady (Birmingham City) who
he accused of lacking finesse. But it was Leyton Orient
chairman who pipped Guterman in the election to be
Third Division representative amongst the League chairmen.
A second opportunity provided by the platform of Chester
City passed Mark Guterman by.
Small is beautiful
As Mark Howell has chronicled in this edition, despite a rescue package
being announced by Mr Guterman after the sale of three players last
March, it was not long before the club appeared to be in financial
difficulties again. This time fans were understandably less tolerant
of excuses. By the end of the season the beleaguered chairman was writing
a very defensive and self-justifying article in the match programme.
He claimed that no-one had come forward to put money in to the club
and that he was solely responsible for keeping the club afloat. In
one fell swoop Guterman managed to put just about everyone’s back up.
No-one in the Chester business world was likely to respond to his whinging.
A better approach, as the ISA have shown is to woo local business and
commerce and make use of the many contacts that a fan-base affords.
The fans themselves resented the fact that they too had put their money
into the club over the years and yet no mention of this was made by
Guterman. He seems as prickly as a herd of hedgehogs to criticism and
just made himself more and more isolated by his pronouncements.
We were by last summer, used to impressive
words from Mr Guterman but less impressed by failure
to pay bills and so on. It was also widely believed
he was using the football club to support his other
mysterious business interests and his own lifestyle.
A distinct lack of detail on the club accounts did
nothing to deny such rumour. It was perhaps in attention
to detail – not working with supporters; not taking
time to follow up business and commercial contacts
in the city that undermined Guterman’s grand schemes.
And like most Football chairman he was an inveterate
gambler with the future of the football club – like
Mr Micawber always hoping thatsomething would turn
up – an away tie at Old Trafford perhaps or the lucrative
sale of a player or two. He himself stated in the article
in last season’s Scarborough programme that “It is
worth noting that although we have one of the smallest
average attendances in the league, we also have one
of the highest wage bills It is worth noting that this
is no way to run a business. The time is soon coming,
I believe, when clubs will have to cut the cloth to
suit the money they get in”. Only Mr Guterman himself
can take responsibility for agreeing the level of wages
and contracts which he was evidently unable to meet.
Unfortunately we are still living with his legacy.
And although he might have resigned as chairman of
the football club let us soberly remind ourselves that
Mr Guterman is still, at the time of writing, the owner.
The most recent Hello Albert, admittedly as long ago as last season,
asked, “Is there anyone out there?” Borne out of the frustration of
always being the victims while chairmen fiddled away, the article was
a plea to the fans to get organised.
Since then such a lot has happened
it is scarcely credible. Chester fans have organised
and how! Several people responded to the article and
half a dozen or so of us met on the day after England’s
win against Colombia to think about launching an ISA.
We planned an initial meeting and were thirty or even
fifty people interested enough to come along. Due to
impeccable timing as far as the crisis at the club
(Beyond our control) was concerned and a publicity
campaign which culminated in a red card demonstration
at the Everton friendly, the attendance on that night
at the Cross Keys was over two hundred. The exploits
of the ISA have been well documented in the last eight
months or so:
• the leaflet campaigns raising the
profile of the club and helping to increase attendances
• the meetings and newsletters helping to keep the fans informed of developments
at the club
• the bucket collections raising much needed fighting fund finance for players
and staff expenses
• the lobby of the Football League and parliament
• the socials – helping to galvanise support and raise more money
• the Fans United day which helped promote the club and the plight of others
The ISA has been well led by Mark
Howell (No he hasn’t paid me to write this). He is
an absolute natural. His rapport with the fans and
his tremendous energy mean that the organisation has
got off to a flying start. We have been well served
by all the members of the committee - Mike Fair in
particular as press officer has been brilliant, with
a sure grasp of the issues and sound communication
skills he has ensured the ISA has hardly been out of
the spotlight. Thanks should also be conveyed to Sandra
Povey, Chas Sumner, David Evans, Bernie Curd, John
Featherston, Sarah Evans, Steve Spencer, Glynn Poole,
Mickey Clifford, Vi Jennaway and now newly elected
members of the committee Ed Jones, Les Smith and Martin
Williams. The list could go on to include a cast of
Chester fans have proved that they
can organise effectively and campaign impressively.
Now we must ensure that any prospective buyer of the
club is committed to working with us the fans to ensure
the best interests of Chester City FC. We cannot afford
to become dependent on another “Mr Big”. Football clubs
must be run differently in the future. Bath City, Northampton
and Bournemouth have all shown that clubs can be run
successfully by fans having a major say. There is no
reason why Chester can’t go down the same path.
It has been the worst of times and
the best of times to be a City supporter over the last
year or so. The financial crisis and uncertainty have
been awful but the achievements of the fans through
the ISA have been a cause of great celebration and
no little pride. Let’s keep it going and keep on working