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
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
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
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).
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
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
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.
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?