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HELLO ALBERT, HELLO SPION KOP!
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HELLO ALBERT • ISSUE 22

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Fantasy Football
Duff Signings No.7/Fanzine Football
The Slump of '96
For Whom The Trapdoor Beckons


[Albert Cover 22]EDITORIAL – CHESTER ON THE MENU?

That ‘Chester City’ could be swallowed whole by ‘Manchester City’ has been just a word game. Now it could become a reality.

After years of answering the question “What’s going on at Chester FC”? City fans were just getting used to a bit of stability: Ratcliffe doing a steady job as manager, the team playing reasonably well, handily placed in the top half of the table – when the news broke that Mark Guterman, our chairman was leading a consortium to take over Manchester City.

What is he playing at? we wondered. It wasn’t a surprise that Guterman, Manchester based and with an executive box at Old Trafford, was using Chester as a stepping stone to more ambitious involvement with a bigger club (rather like Peter Johnson moving from Tranmere to Everton), but the timing of this seemed all wrong. Guterman, after all, has been in charge of Chester for just over a year.

Then in an exclusive interview with Neil Turner it came out – because Turner virtually put the words in his mouth – that this was all part of a much bigger strategy to make Chester a feeder club for Manchester City. Guterman claiming to have ‘the best interests of Chester at heart’, was looking to the long term. And so, although it might go quiet in the press for a month or so, the question will come back to haunt us I’m afraid.

Guterman is clearly concerned that the club as set up at the moment is going to lose money continually. If Chester were subsidised by a bigger club (say Man City) which was able to maximise the great commercial potential that exists at the other end of the scale – then Chester’s longer term future would be more secure.

There is an obvious gut reaction against this from the supporters. Being a supporter of a club like Chester is all about loyalty, local pride cocking a snook at the big clubs and so on. Being gloriously independent has a great appeal and so the idea of being a feeder club, Manchester City reserves is a definite blow to pride.

All Chester fans secretly harbour the dream of our team with the injection of cash necessary from a wealthy benefactor, working their way up the Leagues. It is a dream which has some chance of becoming reality whilst everything is the way it is now. Peter Johnson helped to build Tranmere up from the desperate reaches of the Fourth Division to the verge of the Premiership. Whilst the last step into the Premier League looks beyond them now (shame, crocodile tears etc...), Tranmere at least have shown that it is possible.

Wimbledon are the icon of smaller clubs making good which all aspire to. A non-league club twenty years ago they have demonstrated that the sky is the limit – but even they have an insecure future hanging over them. Moving to Dublin has been the wildest suggestion yet for the crazy gang. Whilst it probably does make commercial sense for Wimbledon to make the move, it makes no sense whatsoever for loyal Dons supporters. I doubt whether the club would put on subsidised double decker busses to get the fans there as Chester did to Macclesfield.

At the top of the ladder, the economical profits to be made in football are immense. Manchester United are currently tapping national and international potential support. It is not surprising that the bigger clubs are becoming attractive to investors. For the first time in history there may be considerable money to be made, especially since the link-up with satellite television.

But lower down the league there is a downside to all this. The gulf between the Premier League and the First Division is already great, but the same is happening between other Leagues. A second Premier Division has been mooted by Crystal palace chairman Ron Noades amongst others. It may well come about de facto as First Division clubs who can afford to do so build up their commercial potential. West Brom, for instance, have recently made the plunge into the alternative investment market to raise money by a share issue.

Quite soon it seems there will be a ceiling to the ambitions of smaller clubs. As is the case lower down the pyramid, they simply won’t be able to afford promotion to a higher division. As long as commercialism rules this is the direction football is heading.

ATTENDANCES

Coupled with these commercial trends is the rather worrying one of falling attendances in the lower divisions. Prior to the match against Hereford on October 26, Chester still hadn’t managed to break through the 2000 barrier and had the lowest average attendance in the League. Crowds are down to Macclesfield levels, but this is part of a general downward trend for smaller League clubs. Thirty years ago Chester had crowds which, if they flocked to the Deva now, would be large enough to ensure survival and perhaps even a small profit (see diagram) since then the trend has been downward with the occasional surge in a promotion season or higher number of visiting fans in a higher league. City have always suffered by being in the shadow of the big Liverpool and Manchester clubs. Often people used to combine both – Chester one week, Everton/Liverpool, City/Utd the next. This might explain the volatile nature of Chester’s fluctuating attendances when compared with say Exeter City, a club of similar size but without nearby Premier attractions. Nevertheless, though more steady, the trend with Exeter too is down (see diagram).

Premiership football is so expensive it’s difficult to afford allegiance to more than one club. There are also well documented changes in the leisure activities of society which explains the general decline in attendances (you only have to plough your way through the traffic at the other end of Bumpers Lane to appreciate this).

RADICAL RETHINK

So some change of approach can’t be far away even if the Man City consortium seems to have gone quiet for a while. So, is becoming a feeder club the only option? No, but Chester need to have a broader appeal than just their home football games. Other clubs have already begun to diversify. Bury for instance are hosts to Swinton Rugby League Club as well as football, and, when they hosted Manchester United reserves a couple of years ago because of the state of the Old Trafford pitch – crowds were regularly double Bury’s usual attendance. These extra sources of income are welcome, though the state of the pitch left a lot to be desired.

Training pitches, more sports facilities and an expansion of the social club, given good management could all be a source of increased revenue for the club. The training pitches were promised in the chairman’s five year plan last season. More increased use of facilities could be negotiated with the City Council.

Widening the fan base though is a long-term goal. It is not easy given that most people’s first experience of football is now via the TV screen. On that basis Chester will never get a look in. Only by making the experience of watching football in the lower divisions an attractive antidote to the Premier League hype may fans be lured back in larger numbers. To build up a wide base of support in the community would take a lot of hard work but is could be done – emphasising the virtue of supporting your local club, advertising matches better (Tranmere’s huge adverts in The Chronicle shame us). Extending the facilities – Northampton’s Sixfields Ground includes a restaurant for pre-match meals; emphasising that Chester are much cheaper to watch than the Premier League – all of these are potential selling points.

GIVE THE FANS A SAY

Most important of all, Chester could make the club worth belonging to by giving the fans more of a say in its running.

Football clubs never have been good at involving fans so Chester are not an exception in that respect. Clubs will ‘allow‘ fans to sell lottery tickets, donate money whether it be to buy breeze blocks or extortionately priced leisure wear, but never does this extend to letting then have their say about the club. No wonder at times of crisis, fans resort to demonstrations or childish chanting (‘sack the board etc’).

I guess that directors feel that fans can’t put huge sums of money in so why should they have a say. Many fans put more than they can really afford into following the team – they should have some say. And the more involved supporters feel – then the more they will feel they belong. This rubs off. This kind of pride is infectious – more would want to belong to a club where people are treated as adult humans rather than turnstile fodder.

D-DAY

Sooner or later some big decisions about Chester’s future are going to be made. Will it become a subsidised feeder club made up of Man City has-beens and hopefuls but with a guaranteed future at a modest professional level? Or will it be a part-time outfit in the Dr. Marten’s League on a par with Worcester City and Gloucester City?

The decision will probably be made in a Manchester boardroom by those with spare millions of pounds to invest. But for those who have already invested priceless time and emotional energy over the years – don’t the supporters deserve a say? Isn’t it their club as much as anyone else’s?

Albert

ISSUE 22 Fantasy Football
Duff Signings No.7/Fanzine Football
The Slump of '96
For Whom The Trapdoor Beckons
 
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