by Black Sheep, 12th January 2022
The treatment of Chester FC has been almost as comical as it was shameful
Question One: At which football club do the players enter the stadium in England, but kick off in Wales?
Beyond the devoted tribes of non-league football fans, that used to be the sum total of Chester FC’s renown. Okay, apart from launching the career of a certain Ian Rush. And yes, alright, Rush did score when Chester City - as they were known then - knocked Newcastle United out of the FA Cup in 1980.
But apart from Ian Rush, and knocking Newcastle out of the cup, Chester were little more than a pub-quiz delight for landlords, until the turn of this year.
That was when club officials were contacted by North Wales Police and Flintshire Council to be informed they’d breached Covid restrictions by allowing in fans over Christmas, given that their pitch is in Wales, even if the entrance to their stadium isn't.
It was a move that thrust the club into the headlines of national newspapers and onto the bulletins of prime-time news broadcasts throughout the UK and beyond. Even the mighty efforts of Kidderminster Harriers knocking Championship side Reading out of the FA Cup that weekend couldn’t muster as many column inches as their Vanarama National League North rivals.
The issue - yet again - revolves around the ridiculous disparity between rules in Wales and England. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the pub and order a Scotch egg while standing on one leg singing Happy Birthday, a new set of restrictions comes along that are different either side of the Border.
Since Boxing Day, while tens of thousands of fans have continued to descend upon sports stadiums in England, the dictum in Wales had seen the number of people attending matches capped at… er... let me just double-check that… Yep. 50. Including players and officials!
Coming right out with it and banning spectators clearly didn’t pass the Welsh Government's PR test, then. But in effect a ban is what it was.
Cue the clipboard boys and girls from North Wales Police and Flintshire Council sucking on their pencils at the news that a tsunami of, er, 2,000 fans had rocked up at Chester’s Deva Stadium to witness AFC Fylde snatch a last-gasp equaliser against their heroes in an entertaining 2-2 draw on 28th December. To put that in context, that’s not quite three percent of the official attendance at Manchester United v Burnley two days later.
Worse still for the jobsworths, another couple of thou’ turned up five days later, this time for a particularly irksome 1-1 draw with Telford United (Chester had beaten their Shropshire rivals 3-1 away on Boxing Day).
But the question on everyone’s lips since hasn’t been whether Chester's strikers had been partying like a Downing Street work event over New Year. It was more one of a geopolitical slant. Is Chester FC English, or Welsh?
Welsh officials say Welsh. Chester officials say English. But then they both would, wouldn’t they?
The facts are, the club is affiliated to the English Football Association. The land on which their ground sits is owned by Cheshire West and Chester Council. Their matches are policed by Cheshire Constabulary. And they play in the English pyramid of football leagues. As the saying sort of goes, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then the chances are it’s not a dragon.
But no, the Welsh Government insisted rules is rules, and as the pitch and most of its grandstands are in Wales - by millimetres in one corner of the ground - then any more games held with fans inside would result in prosecution, something which would put Chester - a fan-owned club - out of business overnight.
As with the Shropshire-Powys Border-straddling Hand and Diamond pub that hit the headlines as the first lockdown restrictions eased in England (it was forced to remain closed), this was clearly a case that called for common sense.
Sadly, in Wales, common sense has long since succumbed to the Drakeford variant of Covid, a particularly virulent form of the disease which sucks the life out of everyone and everything in its path in a desperate bid to distinguish itself from the Johnson variant. The latter being a bit up and down with its true virulence, but which is happy to apologise for any offence caused.
To add insult to injury for Chester, North Wales Police even suggested they set up a fan zone in their car park on the English side of the Border instead, at which fans could watch the action on a giant screen yards away from where it was actually unfolding. So all okay to congregate shoulder-to-shoulder in an unrestricted setting on one side of the grandstand, but not to take your seats in a more socially distanced setting on the other. North Wales Police 1 Common Sense 0 - 90th minute own goal.
Watching on incredulously - and possibly via a giant screen - has been the Welsh Rugby Union. With the Six Nations due to commence next month, and Drakeford equivocating over when to lift restrictions on attendances at sports grounds, the prospect of 74,000 fans flocking to Cardiff for Wales’ home match against Scotland on 12th February had been firmly in the balance. Until last Friday, that was, when - quelle surprise - Omicron turned out not to be bubonic plague after all and he announced the lifting of restrictions in two weeks' time.
That comes too late for Chester, who've been forced to postpone matches, depriving them of vital income at such a perilous time for small businesses such as the smaller breed of football clubs.
On New Year’s Eve, Drakeford did his best to warn Welsh revellers against crossing the Border to celebrate in large numbers and in nightclubs - nightclubs being shut in Wales and the infamous rule of six having been dusted down for Christmas.
“Think hard about what you are doing,” he stared into the camera, headmasterly. “Make a conscious assessment of the risks.”
But did anyone in the Welsh Government think hard about what they were doing to Chester FC? Did anyone consider the risks, which are vanishingly small compared to, say, Manchester United, who continued to ply their trade in front of sell-out crowds with no ill effect?
Despite holding his nerve over Omicron, Boris Johnson is surely only a glass of wine and a chunk of cheese away now from a red card. Similarly, after his treatment of business throughout the pandemic, Mark Drakeford needs to tread very carefully from here on in.
If the Senedd election was being held this year instead of last, the First Minister could well have been sharing an early bath with the Prime Minister. And that would've been no party either.