A few weeks ago I published a post displaying pictures of the Sealand Road model created by Derek Astbury. Derek is the son of former player Tommy Astbury, who played 303 league games for the clubs in the 1940s and 1950s. He has now re-created a selection of pictures taken from his late father’s collection, the Chester City Images of Sport book and the Chester Football History Facebook page.
Former Chester City player Andy Higgins has passed away in Australia at the age of 61. A versatile player he featured in both attack and defence in his 19 Football League appearances for the club.
Born in Bolsover Andy represented his native Derbyshire at both under 15 and under 19 level and after leaving school accepted an apprenticeship at Chesterfield. He made just one appearance for the Spireites, against Mansfield Town, in the final game of the 1978/79 season. Following his release by Chesterfield in 1980 he was snapped up by John McGrath, who was then manager at Port Vale, and made 14 league appearances over the following two seasons.
In 1982 Andy dropped into the Northern Premier League and signed for King’s Lynn but after only a handful of appearances he moved on to Hartlepool United. His stay in the north east proved to be brief and by November he had returned to King’s Lynn. Deployed as a striker his goalscoring exploits attracted Rochdale for whom he signed non-contract terms in March 1983. At Spotland he became a regular at centre half until a foot injury, in January 1984, sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign.
In Summer 1984 Andy was reunited with John McGrath who had been appointed manager at Sealand Road at the start of the year. Chester had finished bottom of Division Four in 1983/84 and they again failed to find any consistency at the start of the following campaign. With McGrath struggling to find the right blend from a host of new signings Andy was asked to perform in a variety of roles and after making his debut as a centre forward in the opening game against Scunthorpe he had a run of games at the centre of the defence before returning to the forward line in November. Andy’s only goal came in a 5-1 defeat at Stockport which marked the end of the road for McGrath. His final appearance came as a substitute against Peterborough on New Year’s Day 1985 and after being released by Chester he emigrated to South Africa where he represented Hellenic. Andy later moved to Australia where he passed away following a heart attack.
Dennis Keating, who made a single Football League appearance for the club against Bradford City in the 1962/63 season, sadly passed away earlier this month. A tricky winger he retired from football at an early age to join a religious order and was well known in later years for his work as a priest in the Catholic parishes of St Columba and St Theresa.
Born in Cork, Dennis initially joined Chester as a part-time professional in June 1962 after graduating from Manchester University. While at university he had played for the Varsity team and was a member of the English Athletic Union side that played against Wales. He also represented Saltney Juniors and Bill Lambton signed him as an inside right after he had impressed in trial games played at the Stadium.
After initially playing for the A team Dennis graduated to the reserves in the Cheshire County League in September. After sparkling performances on the left wing for the reserves, in particular against Bangor City where he gave former Chester full back Bill Souter a torrid afternoon, he was given the opportunity to play against Blackburn Rovers in the Lancashire Cup. Forming a youthful left wing partnership with hat-trick hero Alan Pritchard he set up the first goal in a 3-2 victory and both players were promoted to first team action against Bradford City. Once again Dennis impressed with the Cheshire Observer reporting:
“Keating certainly has got plenty of heart, and though he was bumped in occasions, he kept coming back for more, and while he is doing the job like he will be difficult to displace.”
He kept his place for the home FA Cup tie against Tranmere Rovers the following week but with left wing partner Pritchard dropped in favour of the more experienced Bill Myerscough he struggled to make an impression as Chester fell to a 2-0 defeat. Only two weeks later Dennis was transferred to Wellington Town saying that, as a teacher, he thought that non-league football would suit him better. A quiet and studious individual at Sealand Road he was not your typical 1960s footballer and in turning to a life of religion he found his true calling.
Derek Astbury, the son of former Chester player Tommy Astbury, has used lockdown to construct a superb model of the old Sealand Road stadium based on how the ground looked when his father was playing for the club in the 1940s and 1950s. Measuring 6ft by 4ft it took six months to build and it is hoped that it can be shown at the Deva Stadium some time in the future. I would urge anyone to go and see it if the opportunity arises.
Derek explains how he tackled the project:
“I retired just before the first lockdown and during the early months did what most people were doing i.e sort out family photos/ tidy the attic etc. While doing this I came across some old subbuteo equipment and after watching a YouTube programme I discovered there was an internet community of 50-60 year olds revisiting the game.
I decided to buy some players online to paint myself and found that there were some in vintage style kits and the idea was born. I would paint Chester FC from the time that my dad played together with other teams he played against. I thought I could then display them with a programme of the match for example Bolton Wanderers for his testimonial, Hull City (Raich Carter) and Stoke City (Stanley Matthews).
Then I moved on to the Stadium itself which I started to construct on January 21st using 3mm plastic sheet that was destined for the skips where I used to work. I have been building on and off since then on the occasions it has been warm enough in my garage to let my fingers work.
I have had the Images of Sport Book for many years and most of my reference has come from that as well as the Chester Football History Facebook page and my dad’s scrapbooks and photos. I did start to look at photos differently ie not at the subject but at the background details to see what the stands looked like and what adverts were on display. Most of the photographs are taken inside the ground so getting the outside details was quite a struggle. Even people who had been to the ground many times didn’t know what the other side of the Kop looked like.
Some things came as a surprise to me during the build research. One was the office building between the Main Stand and the Barn at the Sealand Road End. Another was the fact that the Popular Side was wider at the Kop end. I only realised this when I saw an aerial shot and had to start again on this stand. I also decided that I had to include the lamppost in front of the plaque on the front wall. Other problems for me were that the photos of the era were in black and white so I had to do some further research on colours (or guess!). The VP Wine advert on the Popular side just looks maroon to me.
It was also important to me that the game of subbuteo still remained playable and the stands were not too big to reach over. This means there are not the correct amount of seats in the stands or steps on the terraces so I couldn’t fill them with the 20,000 spectators that saw the Chelsea FA Cup game. From the positive comments I have received so far I think I have managed to capture the essence of the Sealand Road Stadium.
Spencer Whelan was a constant presence in the Chester team throughout the 1990s accumulating nearly 250 first team appearances in his nine years at the club. An adaptable defender it took time for him to fully establish himself in the starting eleven but he flourished at centre half under Kevin Ratcliffe until a move to Shrewsbury Town in 1998.
Spencer started his career as a trainee with Liverpool before joining Chester during the 1989/90 season. He had the distinction of scoring one of the goals in the last ever match at Sealand Road, a Midland League fixture against Tranmere Rovers that finished 3-3.
Chester’s move to Macclesfield in 1990 saw the Liverpool-born defender make his Football League debut, as a substitute, in a 2-0 home defeat to Bolton Wanderers. Spencer started the following season as first choice right back before losing his place to Roger Preece in January. Over the next two years he featured intermittently without ever claiming a regular first team spot.
Following promotion in 1994 the club was thrown into turmoil with the departure of manager Graham Barrow. Regular central defenders Mark Came and Colin Greenall also left the club giving Spencer the chance to settle at centre-half with new manager Mike Pejic also handing him the additional responsibility as captain. Unfortunately a broken leg at Plymouth in September saw Spencer miss the next six months but when he returned he became a first team regular under Kevin Ratcliffe.
His appearances attracted the attention of other clubs and a big money move to Crystal Palace was turned down but his last couple of years at the Deva Stadium were blighted with knee problems. When Chester slipped into administration, in October 1998, an offer of £35,000 from Shrewsbury was accepted even though Spencer hadn’t played since facing Scarborough in the final game of the 1997/98 season. His penultimate home game, against Colchester, saw him score a remarkable goal from his own half when a long clearance completely evaded the goalkeeper under pressure from Gary Bennett.
Injury continued to plague his career and the likeable defender only played 25 games for the Shrews before he was forced into early retirement. Ironically his final Football League game for Shrewsbury came at the Deva Stadium in a goalless draw in March 2000.
Speaking about his former colleague former Blue Chris Lightfoot recalls that Spencer’s biggest attribute was his phenomenal pace: “Sometimes he looked like he was just cruising but he had the ability to step up through the gears. I remember playing in a friendly against Manchester United when he was up against Andrei Kanchelskis who was known for his speed. Spencer gave him five yards and cruised past him as though he wasn’t there. He was a lovely lad, a one off. I used to travel in with him, Eddie Bishop, Iain Jenkins and David Pugh and we had a proper laugh. I could write a book about some of the daft things he said and did”.