Right up until the morning of the game itself, I questioned whether I should go to Chester for a groundhop. Christmas had taken its toll on me at work. Extra hours, extra people and extra stress made the prospect of being amongst hoards of last-minute shoppers in Cheshire unappealing. Plus, I didn’t know if I’d have enough time to write a post afterwards. Everything felt like added pressure.
Awaking on the morning of the game though, some sunshine poked through my curtains and I felt more optimistic about travelling. I figured the amount of people surrounding me on the train, or in Chester’s city centre, would be a temporary problem. The match would be my end game. I knew that once I reached the ground, I could get my stress release and if it took a bit longer to write a post afterwards, then so be it.
The girlfriend’s decision to join me for the groundhop increased my excitement levels as well. And so, three days before Christmas, we headed to Chester for their National League North clash with local rivals AFC Telford United.
Crossing the border
One of the biggest draws of visiting Chester’s ground was its interesting location and – as far as I know – unique claim to fame. The stadium is literally on the border between England and Wales, giving players a chance to cross the ball to another country and score. About 70% of the pitch is in Wales but the club’s offices are located in the main stand on the English side, so their address is in England too.
Upon arrival, I was surprised to see a lack of acknowledgment from the club about their situation. A ‘Welcome To Wales’ sign, a line showing the border or even just a plaque would have been enough. But there was nothing. And considering the club have a troubled financial history, making a bigger deal of things would surely boost their profile and fortunes.
Perhaps being known as a Welsh club rather than an English one puts them off, which could lose them some pride in their fierce rivalry with Welsh neighbours Wrexham too. But even as a Dragons fan myself, I have to say, it is pretty cool to say your stadium is in two different countries.
Being a Wrexham fan from Telford, there was no chance of me being amongst the home supporters for the match and, heading to the ground, we already had a taste of what we’d be experiencing in the away end.
A pack of Telford kids were in front of us causing havoc by tipping over and banging on recycle bins. Later, their reign of terror continued in the stands. Adam Dawson – a former Buck who left for Chester only a month ago – received strong abuse before Amari Morgan-Smith’s header gave Telford the lead against the run of play and the away fans lit a smoke bomb in celebration.
It turned out to be the peak of their carnage though. A quick-fire equaliser from in-form striker Akwasi Asante made it five goals in three games for the Dutchman. Then an early second half goal for his strike partner Anthony Dudley turned the game around for the home side. A red card for Bucks captain Shane Sutton with 20 minutes left compounded Telford’s miserable day as they suffered their third straight league defeat. In frustration, one more smoke bomb went off outside the ground at full-time, with Telford’s wild youths shouting ‘kick it’ before running off into the clouds.
Honestly speaking, as much as I’ve taunted Telford’s young fans for their behaviour, I can’t fault the support they, and the other Bucks contingent, gave their side. The Telford team played pretty badly but the songs never ceased even when they were down to 10 men. Other characters amongst us such as the large chap who kept squeezing past us every 10 minutes and the drunk geezer with neck tattoos who got up and asked for a fight with one of his own fans, made an average game quite entertaining.
Just before Sutton received a red card for taking out last man Dudley, there was controversy when a Telford goal was disallowed. The Bucks’ top scorer, Daniel Udoh, tucked away a spill from Grant Shenton but the referee deemed the keeper had been fouled. It was a soft call. And after celebrating hard with the Telford faithful, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t given.
The away fans and players had felt aggrieved for much of the game for not getting many decisions. Udoh felt like he hadn’t been given enough free-kicks, for instance. But in truth, Udoh didn’t look strong enough when the Chester defence closed him down. Meanwhile, many of the Telford players simply ran the ball into many of the home side’s feet when in possession.
However, I think they should have been awarded that disallowed goal. And with every player still on the field at 2-2, plus Asante going off injured in the second half, the Bucks may have gone on to snatch an unlikely win.
One thing I wasn’t expecting from my visit to Chester were the range of smells wafting around the city. The walk to the ground opened our senses to the impending odours as the scent of human faeces drifted over from the nearby sewage works to the top of the city walls. Then at the stadium, we were treated to another whiff of household waste from the recycling centre across the road.
I don’t know if the Welsh farmland behind the away end affected my judgment but the ground resembled a barn in both sight and smell. The stench of manure hung in the air as we took a walk around and, unfortunately, it still lingered upon entry. Things intensified further when the smoke bomb unleashed a fragrance of gun powder on top of the existing scent of cattle dung, and at half-time, the aroma of pies and crisps were added to the mix.
It made the Swansway Chester Stadium the most pungent ground I’ve ever visited, hands down, and it made me very woozy on the walk back to the station as well.
Having been sceptical about a trip to one of Britain’s biggest shopping hubs on the last weekend before Christmas, I’m very glad I made the journey. The intense environment I was expecting to be in came from smells rather than people. But the jovial atmosphere in the away end made up for that.
It’s a shame the Telford fans’ efforts couldn’t be rewarded with at least a point but their team really didn’t play great. Their winless run means they’ve dropped out the National League North play-offs, while Chester are four points off top spot. However, it’s so tight at the top half of the table that another big away day with the Telford mob may be on the horizon for me in the New Year.