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
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
Chester have not received much luck in recent seasons when it comes to the FA Cup and it was no surprise when they were handed a trip to Worksop in this season’s 2nd Qualifying Round. In the nine seasons and 13 FA Cup draws since reforming they have had to travel nine times and only been pulled out of the hat first on four occasions.
Even when drawn at home they have only managed to win one tie and that was two seasons ago when City of Liverpool were convincingly beaten 4-0. On the other occasions, Gateshead won at the Deva Stadium in 2013/14 while matches against FC Halifax in 2012/13 and Altrincham in 2019/20 both finished all-square with Chester losing the away replay. Two other FA Cup matches have been played at home as a result of drawn games at Gainsborough Trinity (2012/13) and Barnsley (2014/15). In the first case Chester came out on top after extra time while Barnsley were comfortable 3-0 winners after the heroic goalless draw at Oakwell.
Regardless of whether the Blues have been drawn at home or away the FA Cup record has been nothing to shout about with only four wins against the aforementioned City of Liverpool and Gainsborough alongside the thrilling away wins at Stockport County and Southend United in 2014/15.
While the reformed Blues may not have had much luck in the FA Cup they had a remarkable run of good fortune against non-league teams after joining the Football League in 1931. Although they were beaten 2-1 at Darwen in the 2nd Round in 1931/32 the draw favoured them in subsequent campaigns and over the next 50 years they were drawn against non-league opponents on 13 occasions with every single one played at Sealand Road. It wasn’t until 1981/82, when they were beaten at Penrith, that they received another away draw at a non-league ground.
When I wrote On The Borderline there was one piece of information that eluded me but I have finally managed to discover the result of the first game played under the Chester name in 1885.
The original Chester were formed in 1885 as an amalgamation of Chester Rovers and King’s School Old Boys. As I explained in the first chapter of the book this was essentially the Chester Rovers team augmented by committee members from the scholars.
The first game mentioned in the local papers took place on September 19th 1885 at Victoria Road, Oswestry where Chester were beaten 10-0 while the inaugural home match, at Faulkner Street in Hoole the following week, resulted in a 3-0 defeat to Northwich Victoria. There was no coverage of any game in the local papers prior to Oswestry but a fixture card referenced in the fascinating 1936 Reminiscences booklet by “Bevys” mentions a game at Earlestown on September 5th. In the first edition of On The Borderline I inadvertently put the date of this game as September 12th and although it was corrected in the text in the 2nd edition it is still incorrect in the statistics section at the back.
The Reminiscences booklet states: “The first fixture on the 5th September 1885, was against Earlstown away, but with what result is not recorded in the local newspapers which serve us so well these days. Whatever happened is lost in obscurity.”
Despite ploughing through the local papers and a trip to Earlestown I was never able to discover the result of the first game although I knew that Chester had been beaten as a letter appeared in the Cheshire Observer on December 26th 1885 from the club secretary A Carden Lockwood. The correspondence, in response to a critical letter the previous week, stated: “In their first match at Earlstown they were beaten by the Liverpool and District cup holders, as everyone who really knows anything about Chester football well knows.”
I have finally unearthed a match report from the Earlestown game in the Liverpool Mercury from Monday September 7th 1885 which reveals that Chester lost the game 2-0. It reads as follows:
EARLESTOWN v CHESTER – The Chester first team journeyed to Earlestown on Saturday and met the holders of the Liverpool and District Challenge Cup, in the presence of a good number of spectators. The cup holders were without the services of Rich, Ellison, and Ogden, while the visitors also failed to turn up with their full strength. Earlestown won by 2 goals to none. Teams: Earlestown – J Appleton, goal: R. Green and J. Green, backs: J Whalley, W Lane, and R Bowker, half-backs: J Duxbury and T Siddeley, right wing; A. W. Dagnall (captain), centre: J. W. Simms and T. Ferguson, left wing. Chester – G. James, goal; Southworth and Higginson, backs; Hack (captain), Moss and Roberts, half-backs; Lockwood and Marsh, right wing; Sanders, centre; Banks and Wright, left wing.
Former Chester player Harry Smith sadly passed away last month at the age of 89. While never establishing himself as a first team regular he managed 78 Football League appearances between 1953 and 1958 as well as more than 100 appearances for the Cheshire County League team. I interviewed Harry for the programme in the early 1990s and he had some wonderful stories of his footballing days which I thought worth reproducing here:
“I first joined Chester as an amateur in 1944 straight after leaving school. I played 2 seasons at Chester before joining Liverpool where I stayed for 3 years until I joined the RAF. Although I remained on Liverpools’ books during this time I didn’t play any football and when I left the RAF I signed for Connahs Quay. Frank Brown, who was then manager at Chester, saw me play and asked if I would be interested in playing for the Reserves. This was in about 1950 and from then on I continued to play for Chester. As a player I played in virtually every position at Chester, if someone got injured they would play me as a utility player. I liked wing half best of all but mostly I played as an inside left.”
“It was only when I lost the chance of an amateur International cap that I signed as a part-time professional in 1955. I didn’t really want to become professional at all because as far as I was concerned the game was there to be enjoyed rather than to make money out of. In fact when I was an amateur I often used to play for local teams like Kelsall in mid-week cup competitions because I enjoyed playing so much. My other job was a milkman and I used to deliver the milk in the morning then do some training and on some occasions used to work on the ground in the afternoon. I used to cut the grass, mark the pitch and do repairs and painting with the groundsman, Tommy Gardner. I always stayed as a part-time professional like Tommy Astbury and Dave McNeil because it was difficult to make a living otherwise.”
“There were no particular matches that stand out for me because every match was a highlight. Being a local lad just playing for the town team was special because you were the envy of all your old schoolmates. Having said that beating Wrexham was always a bit special. Of the goals I scored I remember a controversial goal against Mansfield which was either offside or an infringement. The Mansfield wing half threatened to knock my head off afterwarsds, mind you there used to be a lot of intimidation like that in those days.”
“I left Chester at the end of the 1957/58 season to set up my own milk business and was awarded a Testimonial game in May 1958. Towards the end it had proved difficult being a part-time professional because I would like to know in midweek whether I was going to be in the team on Saturday. However John Harris was not in a position to guarantee me a first team place so I stepped down to the Welsh League. I played for Flint at first and from there went to Pwllheli where I stayed for a further two years. Like many other players I finished my career at Chester Nomads.”
“I remember the Austrian National team coming to train at Chester before an International at Wrexham against Wales. I was amazed at their training techniques. At Chester we used to have a really tough training routine, it was all track based and there was very little work on the ball. When the Austrians came they lined up with a ball each and practised their skills. In comparison we used to work non-stop for an hour then be given one ball between us. The training was so hard that we were exhausted by the time Saturday came around. It was very enlightening to see the Austrians train.”
“It was very rare in those days for a match to be called off and we used to play in all weather and alter our boots to suit the conditions. In the old days studs used to be built up of little segments of leather. If you wanted a long stud you used to add segments, conversely if you wanted a short stud you would remove them. If the weather was icy many players would remove the segments but leave the nails sticking out and file them to a point so that they could get a better grip of the surface. Of course they didn’t have regular boot checks before the start of the game in the 1950s.”
“One winter we travelled up to Accrington Stanley for an away game and it was snowing like mad. When we arrived the snow must have been about six inches deep on the pitch but both managers agreed the game should be played. Accrington had a really open ground and it was bitterly cold, some of the players wore gloves and one or two even had scarves on underneath their shirts. While the game was going on the groundstaff were actually clearing the pitch because the markings were being obliterated by the snow. During the second half one player, Ray Griffiths, got so cold that he just stood in the centre circle while the ball whizzed past him. When we went over to him he could hardly talk and he was taken to the dressing rooms. We were about to throw him in the bath to thaw him out when the doctor came in and told us that the shock would probably kill him. It took over an hour to get the circulation going again.”