We’ve all heard of the term ‘American Dream’. A person succeeding despite the odds with grit, hard work and determination to get where they want to be. Wrestling fans of a certain age might remember the late Dusty Rhodes taking on the persona; dancing down to the ring in a yellow polka dot attire. Chester City Football Club had Terry Smith who promised the American dream until it quickly unravelled into a nightmare with the Cheshire side eventually losing their Football League status for the first time in 69 years.
Smith was seen as a saviour after Chester’s disastrous spell under the stewardship of Mark Guterman. Under the property developer, who was installed as chairman in 1994, the Seals faced several winding-up orders and threats of player strikes over non-payment of wages and by 1998 he put the club in administration.
The fans rallied round and kept City going until Smith rode into town in July 1999. A son of a wealthy North Carolina motor dealership owner, he was previously an American football player with the New England Patriots before a knee injury cut his career short. He moved to England in the late 1980s to take up a role as player-coach with the Manchester Spartans and led them through a successful period. Smith had tried to purchase the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team before turning his attention to Chester City FC because he liked to take his children to the city’s zoo.
Fans raised £100,000 towards the takeover and were to be given a 30-per-cent stake in the club but behind the scenes, things were quickly turning sour. Players began to leak to the press that all was not well. Striker John Murphy left for Blackpool and went on to have a successful spell at Bloomfield Road while player of the year Ross Davidson was allowed to leave to join Barnet. Club captain Andy Crosby was put on the transfer list and later went on record at his displeasure claiming the club was “falling apart”.
Chief executive Bill Wingrove left just after a month of Smith’s takeover and went on to win £10,000 after suing for unfair dismissal. He was quickly followed out of the door by manager Kevin Ratcliffe just four matches into the 1999/2000 season. Ratcliffe, the former Everton and Wales defender who captained the Toffees during the success under Howard Kendall in the 1980s, had been manager of Chester since 1995 and was a popular manager with supporters after leading the Cheshire club to the play-offs in 1997 as well as keeping the club in the Football League despite serious financial problems. He had even paid £5,000 out of his own pocket when North West Water threatened to cut off the club’s water supply over an unpaid bill.
Radcliffe cited interference from the new owner as of the reason for his departure and is said to have invoked a clause in his contract that allowed him to walk away and have his contract paid up in full should a new owner come in. Smith claimed he had no knowledge of the contract and accused Ratcliffe of conspiring with former chairman Mark Guterman but the court backed the former Wales international at the tribunal and he was awarded £200,000.
Rather than appoint a new manager, Smith thought he could do it himself, claiming: “All coaching is 90 per cent the same, regardless of the sport” but Chester would only claim 16 points out of a possible 75 between September and January, conceded 52 goals and would only score 16 times with the American at the helm.
Smith had unorthodox methods when it came to coaching which included having the team training with an ‘imaginary’ football and having a captain for the defence, midfield and forward positions. Players were given dossiers to read before matches, asked to recite the Lord’s Prayer before heading out to the pitch and players were given trials – and even signed – without any background checks.
“Terry was off his rocker,” former midfielder Paul Carden said in a recent interview with the Non-League Football Paper. “Absolutely crackers, and you just didn’t know what would happen from one day to the next. One day, you might be studying a 100-page dossier, the next training without a ball. Terry would say ‘You pass to him, play it there’ and we’d be looking at him like ‘What? There’s no ball’.
“He’d sign anyone. Absolutely anyone. Someone would turn up and say ‘Oh, such-and-such has sent me down and told me to ask for Terry Smith. He’d have people ringing up saying ‘Oh, I was at Man United’. But the player would be like 26 and hadn’t played for Man United since he was 12!
“Lads would drop famous names in, saying they were coached by this person and that. And Terry would fall for it every time.”
It did not take long for the relationship with the fans to deteriorate, too. The Independent Supporters Association (ISA), who had helped raise money to help with the takeover of Chester which led to three of the members being appointed to the board, passed a vote of no confidence on Smith as the club’s manager. Smith retaliated by withdrawing the ISA’s share offer which led to the supporters’ group having to write nearly 600 cheques back to fans and out of pocket to the tune of £6,000 in irretrievable legal fees.
On the pitch, Chester had won just three times in the first half of the season and following three defeats over the Christmas period which saw City concede 10 goals in three matches – which included wallopings at the hands of fellow strugglers Carlisle United and Leyton Orient – Smith decided to bring in former Northampton Town manager Ian Atkins and gave him the title of director of football while he kept the title of first-team manager.
Atkins at the time had recently left Northampton after a relatively successful spell at the Sixfields despite relegation back to the fourth tier before his departure. He had led the Cobblers to the Second Division (now League One) via the play-offs in 1997 and almost got a second straight promotion to Division One but were beaten in the play-off final by Grimsby Town.
Atkins overhauled the Chester squad in just three weeks with players being moved on in favoured of seasoned pros in the likes of Carden, Gary Hobson, Carl Heggs, Andy Porter, Stuart Hicks and Ally Pickering and slowly results began to change. Atkins had given City a fighting chance of staying in the Football League despite the club looking destined for the drop.
Things began to change after the 7-1 defeat to Brighton. Chester would lose only one of their next seven matches which included three wins and five clean sheets. The 5-0 victory at home to Mansfield Town gave the long-suffering supporters something to smile about and gave them hope that they may just pull off a great escape. In the meantime, Smith had allowed Granada television to film a documentary called ‘Last in the League’ in a further attempt to stroke his ego.
It went down to the wire but the turnaround under Atkins meant that City were in the driving seat going into the final game of the season against Peterborough United knowing a win would preserve their Football League status.
Atkins had learned in the days before that he would be without striker Angus Eve due to international duty and on the day of the game he would be also missing midfielder Matty Doughty who was sitting in a police cell after being arrested on a night out. There was a sense of dread that it might not be their day and true to form, Peterborough won the game compounded with Carlisle getting the result they needed which meant the Cheshire side were relegated to the Conference.
The Chester owner wanted to keep Atkins but he decided to leave for Carlisle so he turned to a former club favourite Graham Barrow in an attempt to appease the supporters. Barrow did a credible job in difficult circumstances and led the club to an eighth-place finish in the Conference and a run to the FA Cup third round despite a difficult start.
But Smith just couldn’t stay away and continued to interfere in first-team matters. Barrow’s assistant, Paul Beesley, was suspended for apparently standing in the wrong position at a set-piece and banned Barrow from speaking to the press without permission. Supporters paraded a coffin through the town centre on the last home game of the season and even club stewards joined in the protest.
Barrow was sacked at the end of the season and Gordan Hill, the club’s youth team coach and a friend of Smith, was given the job ahead of the 2001/02 season. By now a permanent vigil was taking place outside the Deva Stadium and a friendly with Everton was cancelled after concerns over supporters safety after the council revoked the safety certificate. Smith responded by blaming the Merseyside outfit if the club went bust.
The club had been up for sale since October 2000 and Smith disappeared without a trace a year later leaving everything behind including an empty house and unpaid bills. Carden spoke of it being like ‘whacky races’ on payday with the players rushing to the bank as quickly as possible to cash the cheques before they bounced.
Chester was sold to Stephen Vaughan in October 2001 – a man who deserves a chapter of his own – while Smith returned to the United States to coach American football. Chester would return to the Football League under former England defender Mark Wright in 2004 but the club went from one mishap to the next with a constant change of manager before being relegated back to non-league football five years later.
Chester City went out of existence in 2010 with the club in debt and a mountain of unpaid bills but a phoenix club, Chester FC, was created by the fans and they continue to play at the Deva Stadium to this day. Within three years, they were back in the National League after successive promotions, each time going up as champions of their respective divisions. Despite being relegated to step two of non-league football, the new Chester Football Club continues to thrive.