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.
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.
Former full-back Bernard Fleming has sadly passed away at the age of 84. One of Bill Lambton’s signings in summer 1962 he was an ever present in his first campaign at Sealand Road and made a total of 64 Football League appearances for Chester.
Born in South Bank, Bernard was spotted by Grimsby Town playing for Bomber Command at RAF Binbrook while doing his National Service. After a successful trial he turned professional with the Mariners in April 1957 and made his debut at Cardiff City in September of the same year. Although he only made 22 appearances for the Lincolnshire side he went on to have a long association with the club during the 1970s and 1980s serving as both youth team manager and club secretary.
On the playing side Bernard spent the 1961/62 with Workington but moved to Chester in May 1962 after failing to settle in Cumberland. It was disciplinarian manager Lambton who brought Bernard to Sealand Road as he completely rebuilt a side that had finished bottom of Division Four in each of the previous two seasons. Lambton had been trainer and caretaker manager when Bernard was at Grimsby and his former charge was seen a key component in a notoriously leaky defence that had conceded 200 goals in those previous two campaigns. While Lambton failed to last the season, and Chester again had to apply for re-election, there was a big improvement defensively where Bernard, alongside the returning John Molyneux and centre-half John Butler stemmed the tide of goals conceded.
Bernard remained first choice at the start of the 1963/64 season under Peter Hauser but an ankle ligament injury in September saw him struggle to regain his place in the team. Although he returned to the starting eleven, as a right half in December, the return of George Evans after injury saw him finish the campaign in the Cheshire County League side. He was made available for transfer in the summer and moved to Winsford United while also working as a clerk at the Co-op.
Returning to Lincolnshire he continued his association with Grimsby Town and also served as a scout with Southampton, Peterborough United and Darlington.
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.