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”.
Over the years there have been a number of players whose first team career at Chester has failed to extend beyond a brief 90 minutes of league action. Players like Peter Donnelly, Phil Williams and Gary Tallon may not have made the impact of Stuart Rimmer and Grenville Millington but they remain part of the fabric of the club and have their own stories to tell. This is the strange tale of one of those lesser known Blues whose football career took an unlikely turn after leaving Sealand Road.
Goalkeeper Dick Howard played a single Football League game for Chester in the 1965/66 season. It proved to be an ignominious occasion as he conceded four goals against Bradford Park Avenue and was given a free transfer at the end of the campaign. There can’t be many supporters who recall the name and those who do remember the Wirral youngster will perhaps be surprised to hear what happened next.
Born in Bromborough in 1943 Dick came to Chester’s attention while playing for Chester College where he was studying on a three year teacher training course. Known as Richard or Richie in his Chester days he signed for the club in summer 1965, as cover for Dennis Reeves, and was seen as a good prospect. After playing for 45 minutes in a friendly at Colwyn Bay he featured in the Probables v Possibles Public Trial where he impressed Cheshire Observer football reporter Ralph Houdley who wrote: “A six footer and strong with it, Howard bought off a number of spectacular saves. A completely relaxed looking sort of character his reflexes were sharp and he earned deserved approbation for the decisive way in which he dealt with determined scoring efforts from Talbot, Metcalf, Durie and Morris” With Reeves firmly established as first choice Dick started the campaign in the reserves at Hyde where Chester drew 1-1.
At that time the Cheshire County League was being dominated by the increasingly strong north west non-league sides like Macclesfield Town, Altrincham, Wigan Athletic and Runcorn. Chester had failed to finish in the top half of the table since the 1958/59 season and the first team only just scraped past Wigan in the FA Cup. Unsurprisingly interest in the the Cheshire County League side had tailed off and attendances were regularly below 1000. As an example there were barely 100 spectators in the ground for the fixture against Winsford United so it was a difficult situation for a young goalkeeper. Dick appeared in 35 reserve game that season in a side that conceded 116 goals and he himself was between the sticks when New Brighton, Altrincham and Stafford scored five, Runcorn and Oswestry hit six and Wigan hammered in seven. His very last game saw Altrincham inflict a humiliating 8-1 massacre to clinch the title.
Dick seems to have had a mixed campaign at the back of what would have been a busy defence. When Chester beat Ellesmere Port the match report stated: “Towns failure to find the net resulted mainly from the excellent display by goalkeepeer Richard Howard who made several spectacular leaps across his goal.” Similarly, against Crewe in the Cheshire Senior Cup, he “played a great game in the Chester goal making a number of spectacular saves” and against Stalybridge Celtic he “had a splendid game, his handling of high crosses was first class.“
On the down side, against Witton Albion, it was reported that “he will persist on standing well off his line exposing himself to the lob. Several times he was fortunate to see such efforts just drop over the bar.” In the league fixture against Wrexham Reserves, he was at fault for one of the goals when he threw the ball to the inside left who scored and against Rochdale, in the Lancashire Cup, he dropped a 30 yard lofted shot over his own line.
In April 1966 Dick was given his only first team opportunity when Dennis Reeves was dropped for the Good Friday fixture against Bradford Park Avenue at the Stadium. Sadly it didn’t go well for the youngster as Chester slumped to a 4-2 defeat. Ralph Houdley, reporting in the Cheshire Observer, stated: “Making his league debut, Richie Howard did not inspire confidence and, with all the good will in the world, I cannot exonerate him for some share of the responsibility for the first two Bradford goals at least.” The following day Reeves was reinstated for the 1-1 draw at Doncaster Rovers and on Easter Monday the first choice keeper kept a clean sheet in a flawless display as Chester won the return game at Bradford by a single goal. Meanwhile Dick was back in the Cheshire County League and on the end of a 5-2 home defeat to Stafford Rangers.
Under the circumstances the fact that he was given a free transfer would have come as no surprise and having been released you would have perhaps expected him to follow the trail of many former Chester players of the 1950s and 60s by moving into the Welsh leagues. However this is where the story takes an interesting twist.
Having successfully completed his teacher training and earned a diploma in Physical Education Dick emigrated to Canada to take up a teaching role and reinvigorate his playing career. A keen student of the game he ended up playing for the Hamilton Primos before moving down to Rochester to play for the Lancers where he remained until 1971 apart from a short stint with Detroit Cougars.
Returning to Toronto he played for the Metros where his displays caught the attention of the national team and he won five international caps for his adopted country including games against USA and Mexico in the 1974 World Cup qualifiers.
In the 1970s Dick also became a PE teacher and director of athletics in Toronto and when he retired from playing, later in the decade, he utilised his coaching skills by becoming a coach for the Canadian national youth teams. Further advancement followed and in 1981 he became an assistant coach for the senior Canadian national team that just missed out on qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. From 1986 to 1992 he was technical director of the Canadian Soccer Association and also became a long-serving FIFA coaching instructor in North America.as well as a member of the FIFA technical committee.
At the same time as he was making a name for himself as a coach Dick also made the move into broadcasting where he became a Canadian Gary Lineker, First of all he created a show called “Road to Wembley” which received accolades for bringing football into the forefront in Canada. As a result of this he was given the opportunity to cover the 1978 World Cup in Argentina for BBC Canada and ended up regularly covering the premier international competition on television until 2014.
Quite a career for a player who conceded nearly 100 goals for Chester Reserves in his one season in the Cheshire County League.