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.

Photo Feature 2 – Pre-season 1969/70

These photographs were taken at the start of the 1969/70 season as Chester prepared for their 12th season in Division 4. As the longest serving member of the league, alongside Aldershot, there was the usual degree of optimism that this would be Chester’s year as Ken Roberts’ started his second full campaign in charge. Roberts had gradually transformed the side and only four players, Terry Carling, Barry Ashworth, Mike Sutton and Graham Turner remained from when he had been appointed manager in February 1968. It was also the second season of the all sky blue kit which gave a fresh look to the team, evident from the pictures.

Although Roberts had been unable to prevent another application for re-election in 1967/68 there had been an improvement the following year with a 14th placed finish and this continued into the 1969/70 season as Chester ended the campaign in a comfortable 11th position. However it was cup competitions where the team excelled and they reached the 4th Round of the FA Cup for the first time since 1948 after victories over Third Division Halifax Town and Doncaster Rovers followed by Second Division Bristol City. The run was halted when an injury ridden team was beaten 4-2 at Swindon Town. Meanwhile there was another appearance in the Welsh Cup Final where they were beaten by Cardiff City over two games.

The first photograph shows captain Cliff Sear emerging from the tunnel of the old wooden stand followed by Terry Carling, Roy Chapman and Mike Sutton. Sear, a former Wales international and Manchester City full back, had signed the previous season and went on to have a long association with the club that continued until 1987. As well as a reluctant spell as manager at the start of the 1982/83 campaign he had two spells as caretaker manager but will be best remembered for his work with the youth team which included the development of Ian Rush.

Ken Roberts, Terry Bradbury, Albert Harley, Roy Chapman, Keith Webber – Chester Chronicle photograph

In the second photograph Ken Roberts is shown welcoming his four new signings to Sealand Road. Terry Bradbury, a former England schoolboy international, joined from Wrexham while Albert Harley was a local lad who had previously been with Stockport County. The experienced 35 year old Roy Chapman had made his Football League debut with First Division Aston Villa as long ago as 1953 and scored nearly 200 league goals. His Chester career started with a brace in a 3-2 win over Scunthorpe United but by October he had moved on to become player-manager at Stafford Rangers. The fourth player, Keith Webber, also features in the picture below and was bought from Doncaster Rovers.

Keith Webber – Chester Chronicle photograph

The Cardiff born inside forward had started his career with Barry Town before signing for Everton where he made a goalscoring debut in a 3-1 League Cup win over Walsall. A stocky player, he managed only four First Division appearances at Goodison Park before moving to Brighton in 1963, where his exceptional pace proved an asset. A spell with Wrexham was followed by a move to Doncaster in 1966 and after coming to Sealand Road he managed 14 goals in 74 Football League games as well as scoring one of the goals in the 2-1 giant-killing of Bristol City. In 1971 he joined Stockport County and also played non-league football for Morecambe, Northwich Victoria, Oswestry Town and Rhyl. He was later licensee at the Grosvenor Arms in Handbridge but sadly died of a heart attack in September 1983 at the early age of 40.

Back Row – Vince Pritchard (trainer), Mike Sutton, Keith Webber, Derek Draper, Terry Carling, Billy Dearden, Andy Provan, Albert Harley
Middle Row – Miss Elaine Clover, Eric Brodie, Terry Bradbury, Graham Turner, Roy Cheetham, Roy Chapman, Cliff Sear, Barry Ashworth, Stan Gandy (secretary)
Seated – Mr K M Jones, Mr J H Auckland, Mr A E Cheshire, Ken Roberts (manager), Mr M W Horne, Mr R A Rowley, Dr M Swallow
Front – Neil Griffiths, Alan Davies, Alan Caughter, Nigel Edwards

Copyright ©  Chas Sumner http://www.chesterfootballhistory.com All Rights Reserved

Photo Feature 1 – Harry McNally August 1991

Chester started their second season at the Moss Rose in Macclesfield with a home game against Fulham. The Blues gave debuts to veteran goalkeeper Barry Siddall and former Manchester United and Scotland defender Arthur Albiston but the big news was the return of Stuart Rimmer who rejoined the club from Barnsley for a record £94,000. The signing was a major boost for supporters who were growing increasingly despondent about the lack of progress on the new ground and Rimmer received a rapturous reception.

Although the returning hero failed to get on the scoresheet Chester won the game 2-0 with goals from Chris Lightfoot and Gary Bennett.

The Chester Chronicle photograph shows Harry McNally walking off the pitch at the end of the game receiving some advice from a supporter. Out of interest does anyone know the identity of the supporter?

Behind, and to the right of the manager, is the legendary Barry Butler who had been substituted earlier in the game. The utility man played in every position for the club, including replacement goalkeeper, and his conversion to a centre forward in the second half of the season went a long way to saving City from relegation.

Further in the background is the old Moss Rose pub which has now been demolished and to the right is the temporary portakabin that was used as a police control centre.

Copyright ©  Chas Sumner http://www.chesterfootballhistory.com All Rights Reserved

Dynamite Performance

While sorting through some newspaper cuttings recently I came across a team photograph of a Guilden Sutton team in the 1964/65 season. At the time they were playing in Section A of the Chester and District League. Alongside the picture was a small paragraph which grabbed my attention. Although it only indirectly references Chester I thought it made a good story.

Chester Courant – January 26th 1965

The team photo included a friend of mine, Pat Bradley, so I asked him if he remembered this incident and he had very distinct memories. At the time Guilden Sutton played in a field on Oxen Lane which itself is just off Wicker Lane.

Guilden Sutton 1964/65 – Pat Bradley 3rd from left on the back row – Chester Courant image

Pat recalls: “We were just about to start the game when all of a sudden a battered old van came through the gate at the top of the field. Driving the car was Blaster Bates with the farmer sitting besides him.”

Blaster Bates was an explosives and demolition expert from Crewe who became a national “celebrity” in the 1960s and 1970s telling stories about his demolition business. He recorded a number of live albums and was a guest on Parkinson.

“The van pulled up and he came over and said to us: “You can’t start this game I’ve got to blow up an oak tree in the hedge.” The tree was about 30 yards behind one goal and we stood around watching until he said “Get up over the half way line it will carry up to there.” It only took a couple of minutes to set up and then there was a bang and up went the oak tree. Pieces went everywhere and they almost reached us on the halfway line. They were big chunks as well. There were branches all over the place so the referee got us clearing the pitch, Blaster Bates and the farmer said thank you and disappeared and we continued with the game. It all took less than 10 minutes.”

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Welcome to the Chester Football History Blog

Welcome to my first blog. I have finally decided to plunge into the world of blogging by writing some self-indulgent historical and statistical articles on aspects of Chester Football Club that interest me. Hopefully fellow supporters will find these articles of interest as well.

I already write a weekly column in the Leader newspaper every Friday as well as an article in the current programme but I wanted to use this blog to cover other aspects of the history in more detail. Over the years I have come across some interesting stories that I have struggled to find an outlet for and this seems an ideal opportunity for some more informal ramblings and features.

By the very nature of a history blog it will mainly concentrate on the old Chester City that was liquidated in 2010 but there will be coverage of the new Chester FC from a statistical point of view and I also intend to write something on the early clubs in Chester that I touched on in the early chapters of 125 Years On the Borderline.

If you are looking for my thoughts on Neil Young’s team selection or why Hednesford are a bigger threat to Chester’s promotion chances than Northwich then I’m afraid this is not the blog for you. The current team is already widely covered elsewhere on websites, forums, Facebook, blogs, twitter and probably lots of other outlets that I haven’t even heard of. I feel that other people are in a much better position to write about the current goings-on than I am. However if you like a bit of nostalgia, obscure stories, pieces of memorabilia, dull statistics and memories of players who played one game in the 1960s then this may peek your interest. Hope you enjoy my postings.

Copyright © 2012 http://www.chesterfootballhistory.com All Rights Reserved