I am the historian and statistican for Chester Football Club and have written a number of books on the subject. The most recent of these is 125 Years On The Borderline - The Complete History of Chester City Football Club 1885-2010
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
If asked to name Chester’s first foreign player I imagine that many supporters would look back to the 1999/2000 season when Terry Smith brought in a host of players born outside the British Isles. The introduction of the likes of Martin Nash, Angus Eve, Junior Agogo, Joe Carver and Goran Milosavijevic met with varying degrees of success but they added an international flavour to the team that was relegated to the Conference
Prior to that there were brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from a variety of short-term signings such as Dutchman Jorg Smeets in the 1998/99 season, Canadian Geoff Aunger in 1994 and Australian centre-forward Ross Greer who was signed by Harry McNally in November 1989 and made two appearances memorable only for an own goal in a 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury Town.
Going back even further supporters will have fond memories of South African Peter Hauser who was player-manager of the free-scoring Chester team in the 1964/65 season while the early 1950s saw a handful of appearances from Nelson Stiffle who was born in India.
However, the earliest foreign born player to make his mark at Sealand Road was Mahmoud Mokhtar an Egyptian student who scored 11 goals in just under 20 appearances for the Cheshire County League side between March and September 1924.
Mokhtar arrived in this country in September 1922 at the age of 23 to complete his training as an engineer at Bristol University and was initially linked with Bristol Rovers. At 5ft 9 inches and 12 stone he was described as having a splendid build for a forward. In Egypt he had played for the National Sporting club of Cairo and travelled to this country with a letter of recommendation from the secretary of the Anglo-Egyptian FA. The letter described how he had represented the Egyptian team at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp as an outside right and was considered second to none in that position in Egypt while he had also proved his competency in any forward position.
The glowing reference seems to have employed a certain amount of artistic licence. Although Mokhtar was a member of the squad he did not appear in either of Egypt’s games, a 2-1 defeat against Italy and a a 4-2 victory over Yugoslavia in a consolation match. Nevertheless some guide to the quality of the side can be gauged by the fact that two other members of the side played in the UK with Tewfik Abdullah representing Derby County, Cowdenbeath and Hartlepool and captain Hussein Hegazi featuring for Dulwich Hamlet and Fulham.
The Bristol Rovers Definitve History, published in 2003, seems to have confused him with a similar named player Mahmoud Mokhtar (also known as El-Tetsh), who became one of Egypt’s most renowned players appearing in the 1928 and 1936 Olympics, and having a stadium in Cairo named in his honour.
In this case Mahmoud Saqr Mokhtar arrived in the country as an outside right and was given a trial with Bristol Rovers against Reading but his career at Eastville seems to have ended as soon as it began. By February 1923 he was playing in an Inter-University match for Bristol against Nottingham. Not only did he score in a 6-0 victory but, along with his right wing partner Robin, was involved in the majority of the goals. In March he again featured for Bristol University, this time against Aberystwyth, and appears to have been the stand out player scoring once in a 4-1 win as the Western Daily Press described how he “beat man after man in the opposing defence with some bewildering footwork”. Clearly an extremely skilful player he again represented the university a couple of weeks later in a friendly against Wells City where “his puzzling movements proved very troublesome to the home half backs.”
In the summer of 1923 Mokhtar switched to Liverpool University and signed for Tranmere Rovers. He made his debut for them in a Cheshire County League game against Northwich Victoria and while the Liverpool Echo described him as being a trifle slow in speed he was said to have “put such passes along as have not been seen at Prenton for a long time”.
By December 1923 he was back playing university football, this time for Liverpool, and netted a spectacular five goals in a 6-3 win over Manchester University. Mokhtar also represented amateur team Northern Nomads in the first half of the season and was a member of the side eliminated from the Amateur Cup by Attercliffe United.
The following March he moved to Sealand Road and made an impressive debut in a Cheshire County League game against Ellesmere Port Cement in front of 2000 spectators. Showing some tricky touches he not only improved the forward line but scored a debut goal after 35 minutes as Chester chalked up their first win in five. Further goals followed in the next two games against Altrincham and Stockport County Reserves and Mokhtar again received positive reviews with the Cheshire Observer stating that he “gave spectators many exhibitions of how soccer should be played”.
On Good Friday nearly 5000 spectators saw another brilliant display from Mokhtar who scored both goals in a 2-0 win over Runcorn and was described as the outstanding man on the field. Playing at centre forward his goals were described as two of the best seen at the ground in a long time with the local papers again commenting that first time shooting was his forte and he came close to scoring on several other occasions.
Mokhtar started the 1924/25 campaign with a brace against Altrincham followed by another strike against Macclesfield. After playing in the first five league games of the season he featured for the final time in Chester’s black and white on September 20th in an FA Cup defeat at Witton Albion.
It is likely that his university studies got in the way of his football because by December he was back playing for a joint Liverpool and Manchester University side against an FA X1 and also represented Liverpool in the Inter-Varsity cup match against Birmingham in March 1925.
There was one final return to Sealand Road for Mokhtar when he played for Northern Nomads in a Cheshire Senior Cup game in January 1925. Although he was on the losing side his return was well received and the Cheshire Observer noted how pleased Chester supporters were to see their old favourite. By the end of the season he was with Holyhead in the Welsh National League scoring two goals for the Anglesey team in a 6-2 win over Chirk.
This seems to be the last mention of Mokhtar playing in this country and it may be that after three years at university he returned to Egypt in summer 1925. Although his time playing for Chester was brief, match reports suggest that he was a very skilful player who was popular with the fans and he he clearly made a big impact at Sealand Road.
Following the sad passing of Mike Sutton on Boxing Day I thought I would reproduce an article I wrote for the Chester programme in the 1990s based on a telephone interview where we discussed his career. It appeared in the programme for the game against his former club, Carlisle United, on September 25th 1993 although for some reason only the first two paragraphs were reproduced so it didn’t make a great deal of sense. This is the full article.
Mike Sutton spent 3 years with Chester at the end of the 1960s during which time he created a remarkable record by appearing in every single League game. Mike was a predominantly right-footed player who appeared in a number of different roles for the club from central defender through to striker.
Mike began his career as a forward with Norwich City where he played for 5 seasons alongside another ex-Chester player, Ron Davies. At the end of the 1966/67 season he had a contractual dispute with the club and Peter Hauser signed him for Chester on a free transfer. Mike made his debut against Notts County in the number 6 shirt and although he played in every game that season he failed to get on the score sheet. He made up for this the following season with 5 goals in the first 12 League games with the first of these coming in a 5-1 victory over Colchester. It was this same season that saw Chester play an epic 4 game League cup tie with Tranmere and Mike remembers scoring the equalizer in the 3rd game at Prenton Park.
The 1969/70 was Mike’s last at Sealand Road and it was during this season that he recalls playing in the side that beat Bristol City 2-1 in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup. Mike has many happy memories of his time with Chester and like many players he particularly remembers the derby matches with Wrexham as games with a special atmosphere.
At the end of the 1969/70 season Mike recollects that Chester experienced financial difficulties and the whole team was put on the transfer list. Three players left the club with Andy Provan joining Wrexham, Billy Dearden joining Sheffield United and Mike going to Carlisle. Mike believes that Carlisle payed about £10,000 for him and he made his League debut for them in the first game of the 1970/71 season at Middlesbrough, a game in which he scored in a 2-1 defeat. His stay in Cumbria lasted 2 seasons before he retired from league football at the early age of 27 with a re-occurrence of a medial ligament injury he suffered at Norwich.
In 1972 he went to Loughborough College for 4 years to study PE and Biology before returning to Norwich as a teacher. Mike is now in his eighteenth year at that same school where he is head of PE and also teaches human biology. On the footballing front Mike played for Great Yarmouth for 8 seasons on his return to Norfolk. In 1983 just missed out on playing at Wembley as Great Yarmouth were beaten by VS Rugby in the Semi-Final of the FA Vase.
Mike still lives in Norwich with his wife Josephine and as well as his teaching job he also does some part time coaching with Norwich City schoolboys. Mike’s son Chris is carrying on the family footballing tradition with over 60 appearances for Norwich as well as appearing for England Under 21s and Mike is justifiably proud of his sons progress.
When Chester were formed in 1885 they played their home matches in Hoole on the Faulkner Street ground that had been used by their predecessors Chester Rovers. As residential housing swallowed up the area the club were forced to relocate in 1898 to land that had been used for the Royal Agricultural Show.. This proved to be only a short term measure and with Hoole continuing to develop the club were forced to temporarily disband in 1899 after attempts to find a new ground were unsuccessful.
In 1901 the club relaunched in Whipcord Lane playing in the Combination League on land owned by the Earl of Crewe. Unfortunately the drawbacks of the ground quickly became apparent and the small size of the pitch proved problematical. Despite beating Birkenhead in the 1901/02 FA Cup Chester were disqualified from the competition because of the pitch dimensions and they didn’t re-enter until 1905 when they were given permission to host Northern Nomads. There were similar issues in the Welsh Cup and the club were forced to switch their 1902 3rd Round tie to Wrexham.
The ground also had the misfortune of being located next to Finchetts’s Gutter so suffered badly from flooding. Many match reports highlighted the dreadful state of the playing surface with games played ankle deep in mud on a pitch that resembled a quagmire for most of the season.
It was clear that the Whipcord Lane ground was unsuitable for a club looking to progress although some improvements were made in 1905 when a new covered stand was erected by the dressing rooms and the reserve side was also covered.
On the playing front the club were having some success, finishing runners-up in the Combination in 1904, 1905 and 1906 and crowds of 4,000 for local games against the likes of Whitchurch, Broughton and Wrexham were not uncommon. Nevertheless gate receipts fell slightly during the 1905/06 season although the club still made a profit of £61 0s 4d.
News that a new ground, a short distance away in Sealand Road, had been secured first emerged in May 1906 and a formal announcement took place at the AGM in July. Enormous credit for the move should go to the hard work of chairman Edward Hallmark, secretary William Fletcher and treasurer William Coventry, stalwarts of the club, who had all been involved in finding a new ground when Chester left Hoole. It was their foresight and wish to further improve the club’s fortunes that precipitated the move to Sealand Road and paved the way for the club’s success over the rest of the decade. This was achieved under difficult circumstances. Reports of the AGM suggest that there was a pessimism amongst supporters who felt that Chester should be winning every game and this is perhaps reflected in the fact that the only people present at the meeting were the three aforementioned committee members, two members of the press and two supporters.
The enclosure was secured thanks to the assistance of Alfred Mond, the newly elected Liberal MP for Chester. The future Lord Melchett, who had only been elected to parliament in January, would have been well aware of the drawbacks of the Whipcord Lane ground. He was a follower of the club and had recently attended the Chester Senior Cup Final between Saltney Carriage Works and Handbridge St Mary’s at the ground in March .
Mond’s election to parliament proved highly beneficial to the football club as previous discussions on improving and enlarging the Whipcord Lane ground had proved unsuccessful. However Mond had a considerable advantage in his negotiations as Robert Offley Ashburton Milnes, the Earl of Crewe, and owner of the Whipcord Lane field and proposed ground in Sealand Road, was a Liberal peer in the House of Lords. With the Liberal’s having secured the Chester seat for the first time since 1885 the timing was perfect for the club.
The lease on the new ground was secured by Mond for an initial period of 10 years and although the club were in a reasonably healthy position they required funds to finance the development so it was proposed that a limited company be formed with the aim of securing £1000 from shares priced at £1 each. A prospectus was issued at the start of September and when the share list closed at the end of the month 580 shares had been taken up. By the time of the next AGM, in July 1907, 945 had been allocated with Alfred Mond the majority shareholder having acquired 150.
The new Sealand Road field had previously been rented and farmed by Henry Dodd of Blacon House Farm who was reported to be very upset that Lord Crewe had agreed to give Chester use of the land at Sealand Road. While Dodd may have been aggrieved about losing the land he was listed as a director in the September prospectus.
At first the possibility of developing the ground as a fully equipped athletic stadium was mooted. Even as late as mid-November, with a proposed opening date before Christmas, chairman Hallmark attended the annual social event for Chester Cycling Club and stated that the new Sealand Road ground would also host a cycle track. Given that the original specification proposed a gap of four yards between the touchline and path this may have been the intention but by now the plans had been scaled back and this can only ever have been a future wish.
When the chairman had presented plans for the ground in July, drawn up by Messrs Douglass and Minshull, the objective was to provide accommodation for 5,000 at a cost of between £500 and £700. These plans allowed for a 2,500 stand on the 4d side, a reserved stand in the middle for 500 with an entrance fee of 1s and two other stands on either end each holding 1,000. Under the covered stand it was proposed to have dressing rooms, shower baths for the players and two offices for the committee.
The ground was initially reported to be 120 yards long and 70 yards wide but whether this was the planned dimension of the playing surface or the ground itself is open to interpretation. The pitch in Chester’s Football League days measured 114 yards by 74 yards which would better explain why the Whipcord Lane pitch was deemed too short and it may be that the original dimensions were altered. Sealand Road was reported to be 20 yards longer and 17 yards wider than Whipcord Lane which would have put the old playing surface comfortably below the Football Association’s minimum length requirement of 100 yards.
In the event the true cost of building the new ground soon became apparent and by September the elaborate plans had been modified and it was announced that the new stands would be of much more modest proportions with stand accommodation for 1000 although the ground was still expected to hold around 5000. In October the construction was put out to tender with three responses and the directors elected to go with the lowest option of £725 from William Vernon and Sons. Construction finally started in November and the 4-0 victory over Birkenhead on the 10th was judged to be the last at Whipcord Lane.
By the end of November workmen were hard at work on the new enclosure which was still expected to be completed in time for the Christmas games. The Liverpool Echo reported that many interested visitors had been down to Sealand Road to check on progress and they were pleased that the new hoardings had stood up to the severe gales that had recently swept the area. Meanwhile rumours that Liverpool or Aston Villa would perform the opening ceremony were deemed inaccurate.
The ground was formally opened with little fuss on December 15th 1906 when Chester hosted Bangor in a Combination fixture. Mr C J Hughes, secretary of the County Association unlocked the gates in front of a number of the club’s supporters although the ground was unfinished and it appears as though only a partially completed main stand was in place. Despite this the ground was described as one of the best in the county and worthy of any organisation.
The Bangor game itself proved to be a very one-sided affair but played in a very friendly spirit. Chester won comfortably 4-0 and the honour of scoring the first goal went to debutant outside left Jenkins, a recent signing from Northern Nomads, who netted with a long range shot. Further goals were added by Williams, Walker and Wallace Jones. It was reported that the players calculations seemed to be upset by the dimensions of the new pitch which resulted in many mistakes occurring.
After the game a dinner was held at the Williamson’s Dining Rooms in Brook Street attended by around 50 people including the players from both Chester and Bangor. One person who could not attend was Alfred Mond, who had fallen ill, but the work done by the chairman Edward Hallmark was recognised in the after-dinner speeches.
The speeches also referenced the prices for the new reserved stand. The initial plan had been to charge a 1/- and although this was later reduced to 9d it was still deemed to be too much. As a result the secretary William Fletcher announced that the prices would be reduced to a much more reasonable 6d while he also reiterated the intention to erect a stand on the 4d side.
On Christmas Day Chester played their 2nd game at Sealand Road where the move was fully vindicated when 5000 spectators were present to watch the team thrash Druids 7-0. Unfortunately the other Christmas fixture, against Tranmere Rovers where another large crowd was expected, had to be postponed because of heavy snow. Nevertheless the new enclosure proved to be a fortress and it wasn’t until the following October that Chester suffered their first league defeat at the ground.
The team photograph below was taken before kick-off at the first game. There seems to be some netting visible so I’m guessing that it was taken in front of the goal, probably the Sealand Road End, but I don’t know what the building would be in the background.
Back Standing: B Eardley (trainer), Mr C J Hughes, Mr J O Jepson, J Russell, Mr B E Johnson, W Keeley, Mr J Dodd, J Jones, Mr E Case, Mr W Fletcher (secretary)
Middle seated: Mr E T Hallmark, R Jones, F Grainger, W Galley, Mr O Reeves
Front: H Williams, A Lees, W Walker, W Jones, Jenkins