Supporters coming together as one to save and run their football club is both a sad reflection on the modern game and a glorious triumph of the human spirit. Both of these wholly contrasting viewpoints are true, equally so.
And nowhere does this odd contradiction better apply than at Chester FC, formerly Chester City FC, a club that was once considered to be the most unrewarding club to follow in England and Wales.
To expand on this, sometime in the early-Nineties a broadsheet published an article full of elaborate data that was designed to reveal which clubs’ histories had been the most uneventful.
The fewest promotions and relegations. The least amount of silverware won. Even cup upsets were factored in.
Lo and behold, though Rochdale ran them close, it was the Seals that came out top, or should that be bottom? In over a century of existence the proud residents of Sealand Road had, to all extents and purposes, merely existed.
Only then they didn’t exist, not after enduring one atrocious owner after another.
First there was Mark Guterman, who was all flashy cars and no substance. Under the mysterious property dealer – who was later disqualified from running any company for seven years – Chester City fell into administration.
They were ‘rescued’ from death’s door by an eccentric American named Terry Smith who had zero knowledge of a sport he only referred to as ‘soccer’.
Possessing no knowledge of the game didn’t deter Smith from installing himself as the manager just a month after taking over. His training consisted of trying to teach his perplexed players American Football ‘plays’.
Lastly, and most seismically, there was Stephen Vaughan, a boxing promoter who was jailed in 2011 for inflicting GBH on a police officer.
Under Vaughan the club racked up insurmountable debts and with transfer embargos, points deductions, and players refusing to play because they were not getting paid, in February 2010 the inevitable happened after much fighting and flailing.
Chester City FC ceased to be.
Around this sorry juncture the CFU (Chester Fans United) was born, a group of diehard supporters – fans who had too seldomly experienced drama on the pitch, but endured plenty off it - who took the husk left behind by disreputable owners and, with the help from the council and local business, forged a phoenix club, Chester FC.
Installed in the eighth tier of the football league system the ethos behind this fledging institution was simple and inspiring in that every fan had a vote while the board was made up entirely of supporters.
Run sensibly, and with a clear community leaning, everything that had happened to them prior would never be allowed to happen again.
It has not been an easy journey for the CFU, no-one would claim otherwise, but thirty years on, the Seals are in the play-off mix in the National League North. They are thriving.
Sadly, disreputable owners make up the background story of almost every fan-owned football club.
Take Exeter City who fell out of the Football League in 2003 during a period when the Grecians faced financial ruin with debts amounting to £4.5m.
In stepped the Exeter City Supporter’s Trust, 2500 members strong, who bought a controlling share in the club for £20,000 raised between them. The cheque was reputedly handed over by three members during their lunch breaks from their day jobs.
Implementing sound measures, such as limiting 55% of turnover to player wages, eventually returned the club to an even keel and according to the football betting they remain an outside shot to reach the League One Play-Offs at present.
Four years after Exeter became fan-owned, two of its former directors – John Russell and Mike Lewis – each pleaded guilty to fraudulently trading at the club. Russell received a prison sentence, Lewis community service.
Pertinently, this pair had previously tried to take control of Lincoln City. Their bid was blocked by the Imps who were fan owned at the time.
A further heartening example can be found at Newport, a club that was wound up in 1989 following the exploits of their controversial American owner but was reborn by the fans.
The Exiles – so-called because they were refused permission to return to their old ground due to unpaid rent – are now governed by a trust, with each member paying in a monthly fee ranging from £5 to £50.
Indeed, across the country it is estimated there are 40 fan-owned clubs, three in the Football League, and countless more of course worldwide, and given where football is heading, completely defined by riches and attracting all manner of unscrupulous individuals, what’s the betting plenty more will follow.
They are illustrations of the loyalty and upstanding decency that is prevalent in every fan-base. But how depressing that such virtues from the paying public must be relied upon to ensure the game’s survival.
*Credit for the main photo belongs to AP Photo*
FIRST PUBLISHED: 16th March 2023