John James (1948 – 2021)

Former striker John “Jesse” James has sadly passed away at the age of 72. John joined Chester in February 1973 and scored 40 goals in 98 Football League matches but will best be remembered for his goalscoring exploits in the 1974/75 League Cup campaign when he put League champions Leeds United to the sword with two goals in an amazing 3-0 victory. The big number 10 followed that up with the only goal in the 5th round replay against another First Division side, Newcastle United, before Chester’s glorious run was ended by Aston Villa at the semi-final stage. For a few short weeks in 1974 his name was on everyones lips as pictures of him raising both arms in triumph in front of a packed Sealand Road and filling his goalscoring boot with beer adorned the back pages of the national newspapers.

John’s sad passing comes only days after that of legendary manager Ken Roberts who signed him from Port Vale for £5,000 and paired him with Derek Draper to form a deadly if unconventional looking forward partnership. The wily Draper proved a perfect foil for the wholehearted striker who seemed to spend much of the game on the ground as he threw himself at every ball ensuring that he never came off the pitch without being covered in mud having given 100%. When upright, he would roam the field with his trademark long blue and white sleeves pulled down past his wrists and shirt cuffs gripped tightly in his fingers looking like he was suffering badly from the cold but appearances were deceptive and he was a handful for every defender. He may not have been blessed with pace and his goals were never spectacular but he knew where to find the back of the net and was deadly in the six yard box. Coupled with an unerring ability to win free kicks and hold the ball up, he was a perfect striker for the time and a key figure in that successful 1974/75 team.

Born in Stone in 1948 John signed professional terms with Port Vale in April 1966. He went on to make 210 league appearances at Vale Park, scoring 39 goals, and was a member of their promotion winning team in 1969/70. In February 1973 he moved to Sealand Road and made an instant impression with a goal on his debut as the Seals produced their best performance of the season in beating struggling Darlington 5-0. He went on to score another five goals that campaign. 

The 1973/74 season proved to be John’s most prolific as he netted 21 times in the league, the first player to score more than 20 league goals since Gary Talbot in 1968/69.. He was in top form when champions Leeds United visited a stadium packed to the rafters and ‘Jamo’ raised the roof when he crashed the ball past David Harvey at the second attempt to open the scoring. He followed this up with a second half penalty to sew up the most famous of all giant-killing acts. In the next round Chester forced a goalless draw at Newcastle and in the replay it was John who was on hand to profit from a knock down by Trevor Storton and force the ball home from barely two yards. Once again he was on target in the second leg of the losing semi-final against Aston Villa but a March injury saw him add only two more goals as Chester won promotion for the first time. 

John James scores the first goal against Leeds United – Nov 1974 (Chester Chronicle)
Toasting the famous victory over Leeds United
John James celebrates scoring the winning goal against Newcastle – December 1975 (Cheshire Observer)

After featuring in the first game in Division Three, at Crystal Palace, John was replaced by Barney Daniels and the following month moved to Tranmere Rovers in an exchange deal with Paul Crossley. He regained his goalscoring form at Prenton Park scoring 19 times in 38 games as Rovers won promotion to Division Three. A spell with Chicago Sting in the NASL was followed by a return to Tranmere before a move into non-league football with Stafford Rangers.

Ken Roberts (1936-2021)

Ken Roberts, who has sadly passed away at the age of 84, will always be remembered as the mastermind behind Chester’s greatest ever triumphs in the 1974/75 season. As manager he not only led the club to its first ever promotion but guided a loyal band of talented Fourth Division players to within a hair’s breadth of a Wembley appearance. That fairytale League Cup run was ended at the Semi-Final stage by a narrow 5-4 aggregate defeat to Aston Villa but it was a remarkable journey that grabbed the nation’s attention and will long be remembered by all that were fortunate to witness it. 

Born in Cefn Mawr in 1936 Ken joined Wrexham straight from school and by September he was in the record books as the youngest ever player to feature in a Football League match when he played for the Reds at Bradford Park Avenue at the tender age of 15 years and 158 days. Although he was released by Wrexham on the eve of his 19th birthday he was snapped up by Aston Villa and made his First Division debut at Blackpool in 1954. Over the next couple of years he made intermittent first team appearances before an injury at Manchester United in 1956 effectively ended his playing career.

Ken in action for Aston Villa at Newcastle, March 1954 – Ken Roberts Collection

After a failed attempt at a playing comeback with Oswestry Town he became first team coach at Wrexham in 1961 where he remained until 1965. However, 12 months later, he was back at the Racecourse Ground as coach and Chief Scout under Jack Rowley who he then followed to Bradford Park Avenue in April 1967.

In February 1968 Ken took over from Peter Hauser at Sealand Road where he forged a strong relationship with chairman Reg Rowlands. Signing the likes of Andy Provan and Billy Dearden, who were both later sold for a healthy profit, the club showed steady signs of improvement and the 1969/70 campaign saw an appearance in the Welsh Cup final and a first appearance in the FA Cup Fourth Round in more than 20 years. That FA Cup run included a 2-1 victory over Second Division Bristol City and the following year Chester narrowly missed out on promotion with a 5th placed finish.

Ken with Sir Alf Ramsey – Ken Roberts Collection

Although there was a slight slump in 1971/72 the sale of assets over the next two years helped release funds and Ken started the rebuild that would result in promotion three years later. With a series of astute signings like Trevor Storton he built a formidable, well-balanced team alongside coach Brian Green. 

Ken’s crowning glory was without doubt the League Cup run of 1974/75. After beating higher placed Walsall, Blackpool and Preston North End the League champions, Leeds United, were dismantled in front of a capacity 19,000 at Sealand Road. A brace from John James and one from Trevor Storton gave Chester a remarkable 3-0 victory in one of the greatest giant-killing acts of all time. In these days, when Premiership clubs habitually field weakened teams, it is hard to comprehend the magnitude of this feat against a team full of internationals that went on to reach the European Cup Final that same year. 

In the next round Ken orchestrated a magnificent goalless draw at Newcastle, a performance of which he always remained justifiably proud, before a goal from ‘Jesse’ James in front of another packed Sealand Road put Chester in the semi-final and that cruel defeat at Villa Park.

Throughout the cup run Ken’s belief and trust in his players was clearly evident and it was this relationship that went a long way to creating such a successful team. A calm presence on the touchline, he wasn’t an expressive manager but teased the best out of his players by building strong personal links and recognising their strengths and weaknesses. Throughout the League Cup run he represented Chester with dignity and as the club advanced in the competition his enjoyment shone through in his interviews. His charm and affability helped build a strong bond amongst the players who continued to address him as ‘boss’ long after they had finished working under him.

Ken stepped down as team manager in 1976 but remained as general manager as Alan Oakes took over playing responsibility. After leaving the club three years later he spent time at Wrexham and managed Cefn Druids before briefly returning to Chester under Kevin Ratcliffe who he also followed to Shrewsbury Town. 

Away from football he spent time running a tennis centre in Wrexham and was a very keen golfer and bowler. A regular fixture at Chester Former Players events he remained a very popular and well-respected figure amongst supporters and players and will be sadly missed.