Player Profile – Harry Smith

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:

Harry Smith





“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.”

Player Profile – Willis Bentley

I was contacted a few months ago by Nick King who was looking for information on his great-great grandfather Willis Bentley as part of his family history research. Willis briefly played for Chester during the 1891/92 season, the club’s second season in the Combination League, when they were based in Faulkner Street. Between us we managed to piece together some information on his time playing for the club and Nick has put together this interesting biography with input from me in the Chester section.

WILLIS BENTLEY (1860-1916)

Willis Bentley was born in Sheffield in 1860, and played mainly as an amateur back / half back for major teams for ten years between 1882 and 1892.  He also played cricket in the summer months, mainly for his employers’ teams.

Willis lived in the northern industrial and terraced housing area of Sheffield all his life, and local sporting pages indicate that he started playing football as a teenager.  

In the period 1878 to 1882, he played for local teams Walkley FC, founded by his father in the 1850s, and Owlerton FC.  On the 1881 census he was a steel worker.

In 1882, Willis registered as a player for Sheffield Wednesday FC.  He played several games for them commencing January 1883 with an F A Cup match against Nottingham Forest, with a brief pause from November of the same year when he fractured his skull during a regional match between Sheffield and Birmingham at Aston, Warwickshire.  His final game for Wednesday was in 1885, with a letter in a local paper mentioning his health, and his registration formally ended in 1889.  

Willis got married in 1887 and newspaper reports indicate that he played for Owlerton between the years 1886 to 1888.  Around 1889, Willis found work as a (physical exercise) attendant at the Wadsley Asylum and formed a works team.  Soon after, he played a single match as goalkeeper for Sheffield United FC in their founding 1889/90 season. 

Whilst still employed by the Asylum, Willis joined Gainsborough Trinity for their 1890/91 season, in which they won the Lincolnshire Cup and Midland League medals.  Unlike his service with previous teams, this presumably involved considerable travel on trains.

Willis started 1891 playing for Trinity but, for unknown reasons, moved to Chester where he  participated in a trial match at the start of September. The match attracted a lot of local interest and Willis, who played as a forward, was picked out for his performance although the Cheshire Observer reported that he received little help from Newton, one of the other forwards.

He made his Chester debut in the second Combination fixture of the season, a home game against Denton at Faulkner Street which finished 3-3. In the next game against Stoke Swifts a “fearfully disorganised” Chester were heavily beaten 9-1. However Willis seems to have come out of the game with his reputation intact with the report stating that his play had greatly improved and that he promises to develop into a good back. He was again complemented on his performance in the friendly against Halliwell where it was mentioned that the club had finally secured his services.

After playing in both the league game and FA Cup tie at home to Wrexham he missed the league game against Everton Reserves through injury but returned for his final game, against Macclesfield in November. By the end of December Willis had returned to Gainsborough Trinity where he remained for a few more months.

After ‘retirement’ from playing, sometime after 1892, Willis coached junior teams and playing cricket for Neepsend Gas Works.  From the late 1890s on, Willis worked as a gas stoker alongside celebrated Wednesday player Billy Betts, who had been active with the team at the same time as Willis.    

Willis died from pneumonia in 1916.  He had four children, but only one survived infancy.

Further Reading

‘Sheffield Wednesday FC: The Official History 1867-2017’ by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 9781445619538)

“The Origins of Sheffield Wednesday” by Jason Dickinson (ISBN: 1445619709)

‘The Men Who Made Sheffield Wednesday FC’ 2007 by Tony Matthews (ISBN: 9780752441566)

‘Trinity Champions’ by Andrew Stothard. 

‘On the Borderline: Official History of Chester City F.C.’ 1st Edition by Chas Sumner (ISBN: 9781874427520)

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

Player Profile – Tommy Astbury

One of Chester’s most notable players, Tommy Astbury, would have celebrated his 100th birthday on February 9th 2020. The inside-forward or half-back, who died in October 1993, spent 17 years with the club from 1938 to 1955 making 303 Football League appearances. There is no doubt that Buckley-born Tommy would have gone on to greater things had it not been for the outbreak of war and although clubs came in for him after the hostilities he remained loyal to Chester. Despite being only 5ft 6ins he made up for a lack of height with his energetic performances and non-stop running. A great passer of the ball he never ceased to give his all and proved to be a popular player at Sealand Road.

Tommy was initially spotted in 1938 by manager Frank Brown. He was playing for Mold Alex at Helsby BI in a West Cheshire League game and as a result of his performance signed as an amateur for Chester. Quoted in a Chester programme in 1972 Brown said: : “There on Helsby Green, I came across that great gift to the game – a natural player. I watched a boy footballer whose eyes never left the ball, weaving his way with all the tricks of a natural body swerve and throughout remaining cool, calm and collected.”

Chester Chronicle cartoon

After appearing for the reserves in the Cheshire County League Tommy signed professional in 1939 and was on the verge of making the first team when war broke out. He made a promising start in the first home friendly of the war years, against Liverpool, and quickly built up a reputation with his clever displays. In 1942 he played for a Wales X1 against the Western Command and was further rewarded in 1945 when he featured in two wartime internationals, against England. During the war Tommy also guested for Wrexham, Everton and Manchester United. In fact United had wanted to sign him in 1943 and he was a member of their side that was beaten 4-3 by Bolton Wanderers in a two-legged wartime Cup Final in front of an aggregate of 100,000 spectators.

Image Chester Chronicle

In the 1946/47 season Tommy was a member of the Chester team that famously gave Stanley Matthews’ Stoke a good run for their money in the 4th Round of the FA Cup and finished 3rd in Division Three North. The form of Tommy, and fellow forwards Dick Yates and Tommy Burden, attracted interest from Sheffield Wednesday who came in with an offer for all three players but the Yorkshire team couldn’t meet Chester’s valuation. His form during this season lead to suggestions in the local papers that he might be chosen for full international honours and he can probably count himself unlucky not to have been selected. Tommy finished the season with a Welsh Cup winners medal after Chester defeated Merthyr Tydfil and he also appeared as a losing finalist in 1953 and 1954.

Tommy leapfrogs Dave McNeil in training for the FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace in 1948
Image – Chester Chronicle

In 1949 his 11 year service was rewarded with a testimonial against Bolton Wanderers which attracted 5000 fans on a wet April evening with the visitors winning 3-2. In January 1952 Tommy played in the FA Cup replay against Chelsea which attracted Sealand Road’s largest ever crowd and he continued to be a first team regular until 1953 when appearances became more intermittent. He played his final game for the club at Rochdale in February 1955 before hanging up his boots.

Testimonial Programme

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

Olympian 2

Following on from the Grenville Millington article, another former Chester player played a key role in the Great Britain team that reached the Semi-Final of the football competition at the 1948 Olympics in London. Eric Lee played in all of Britain’s fixtures in the competition and by all accounts emerged with a great deal of credit. Legendary former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby, who coached the Olympic team, rated him as potentially one of the best half-backs in the game at the time.

Eric was born in 1922 and signed for Chester after being spotted by manager Frank Brown as a 17 year old playing in local football for Hoole Alex. During the war he served in India and Burma and made his full debut for his home-town club in the first post-war fixture at York City in August 1946. Over the next 11 years Eric played 363 league games for Chester placing him fourth in the list of the club’s Football League appearances. In recognition of his service he was awarded a benefit game against Liverpool in 1952.

Eric Lee

Eric Lee

Throughout his entire time on the books at Sealand Road Eric remained as an amateur as he advanced his career in teaching. Chester themselves offered Eric a professional contract and at least one other unnamed club offered a similar deal but, perhaps with an eye to the future, he turned them both down. Although this decision cost Eric the opportunity of playing at a higher level it did open the door for him to represent his country at an amateur level. During the 1946/47 season he was a regular at left half for Chester where his performances earned an England amateur call-up against Wales.

By the following campaign Eric had started his teacher training at Loughborough College which restricted his appearances for Chester. These limitations did not always go down well at Sealand Road and it appears that there was some discussion and doubts about whether the Chester team should be disrupted to accommodate him.

Despite these doubts and a lack of match practice, a late call up to appear in a representative game against a University eleven in Bristol saw Eric impress the selectors who proceeded to pick him for an FA X1 in an Olympic Trial match at Portsmouth in February 1948. The FA X1 consisted of players from the likes of Yorkshire Amateurs, Bromley and Sutton and Eric captained the team that beat Scottish amateurs Queen’s Park 4-0. The Sporting Chronicle reported that Eric had a good game and he was chosen to play in another trial match at Hampden Park in May.

For the second trial Eric furthered his ambition to get into the Olympic team as he played for the Stripes against the Whites. In the first half he played at left half and switched to centre-half for the second 45 minutes as the Stripes won 4-1.

On June 19th Eric was selected at centre half for the final British Association Olympic trial team to play Holland in Amsterdam. Although the British team were beaten by a last minute goal Eric was reported to have played brilliantly and this was followed by the news that he was one of 23 players to report to coach Matt Busby for special training in readiness for the Olympic Games. This good news was accompanied by the announcement that he had also re-signed for Chester with the prospect of increased availability in the new season.

A final warm-up game was played against France, in Nantes, on July 25th before the Olympic competition opened with a First Round fixture against Holland at Arsenal on July 31st. Playing at centre-half Eric helped Britain to an unexpected victory over the Dutch team and five days later a 1-0 win over the French at Fulham earned the side a place in the semi-finals. The Daily Dispatch reported that Britain’s strength against the French had been in the half-back line and Eric was said to have played better than he did against the Dutch.

In the Semi-Final Yugoslavia deservedly triumphed over Britain by three goals to one but Eric emerged as one of the successes in the game and was described by one radio commentator as “iron-curtain Lee”. Two days later Denmark defeated the British 5-3 in the Third and Fourth place play-off game to deny the players a bronze medal.

After the tournament Eric returned to his teacher training at Loughborough while continuing to establish his reputation at Chester as an ice-cool player, calm under pressure and a master of the sliding tackle.

Eric left Chester in 1957 and emigrated to Canada where he took up a teaching job, initially in Manitoba before moving to Quebec. A Physical Education and geography teacher, Eric took up a position with Saguenay Valley High School in Arvida, Quebec in 1960 where he later became Principal. In 1970 he moved to Ottawa where he lived until his death in June 1999. The two photos below are taken from Saguenay Valley school yearbooks and I’m indebted to Francois Lafortune of Arvida for supplying the photographs and the information on Eric’s life in Canada.

As a postscript the Lee family had a more recent link to the Olympics with Peter, the youngest of Eric’s three sons, having an illustrious career as an ice hockey player. In 2006 Peter was assistant coach to the Switzerland Ice Hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Torino as well as at Vancouver in 2010.

PE Teacher Eric in the 1960s

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Olympian 1

In the lead up to the Olympics there has been a lot of discussion about the Great Britain team and the inclusion of players from Wales, Scotland and Ireland in the British squad. Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy have been mentioned as potential members of the team but Chester’s own Welshman, Queensferry-born Grenville Millington, has already beaten them to it having been part of the British squad that played in Bulgaria in a qualifier for the 1972 Munich Olympics.
 

Olympic badge

At the start of the 1970s Grenville was playing for non-league Rhyl having left Chester in 1970 after a single league appearance. The Lilywhites had a strong team having reached the Third Round of the FA Cup in 1971 and the semi-final of the Welsh Cup the following year, beating Chester on the way. Grenville himself was working at British Steel in Shotton and his performances at Belle Vue saw him earn a total of nine caps for the Welsh amateur team. Amongst these appearances were matches against a powerful England amateur side that drew him to the attention of the Olympic selectors. Grenville himself recalls:
 
“Charles Hughes was manager of the Olympic team and he came to watch Rhyl and also sent a couple of his representatives. As a result I got the call to go with the team to Bulgaria. We trained at Bisham Abbey. It’s a long journey from Rhyl to Chester and then down to Bisham on a Saturday after a game. There was training on a Sunday morning and afternoon before the trip back in the evening for work the following morning. I used to join up with a couple of Skelmersdale players at Chester station but most of the squad were based around London from teams like Hendon and Leatherhead. There were fifteen Englishmen and myself.”
 
With all the furore about non-English players I wondered if there had been similar concerns in 1972:
 
“There was quite a bit of fuss but it was different in those days. When I got there I was the only non-English player and also the youngest but they treated me very well. The manager and all the staff were English and the eight member committee consisted of five Englishmen and one each from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Of course, if there was any voting the other nations would be out-voted so that’s probably why they haven’t been overjoyed to get involved this time because the English always had the monopoly.”
 
For the games the British team played Bulgaria in a two-legged qualifying game. The first leg was played at Wembley with Britain winning by a single goal but Grenville was not involved. However he was selected for the return leg in Sofia and featured for the Olympic team in two friendlies including a match against Motherwell.
 
“I was disappointed not to be in the squad for the home leg and I’m not sure how the Olympic selectors found their way to Rhyl from London to see me for the second game. It was fantastic for me to be involved though. I’d never flown before and it was the first time I had been out of the country. The ground in Sofia was packed because it was their main team and with Great Britain winning the first game it added to the atmosphere. I think they had been expected to win in England.
 

Grenville with his Olympic shirt

I was on the bench with John Swannell of Hendon, who was a very experienced goalkeeper, starting the game. Although we won the first game 1-0 we were beaten in the second leg 5-0. It sounds a bit harsh but the Bulgarian team was made up of players who were in the army. About three weeks later the Bulgarians played the England professional team and it was the same line-up. We were all amateurs but it wasn’t like that in Bulgaria. I was training after work and had to get permission from work to go whereas in other countries they were pros so it was no contest really. The players were shattered at the end of the game because the bulk of the team had been together for nearly three years. It was the end of the dream for them to play in the Olympics.”
 
After Grenville’s brief flirtation with Olympic glory he returned to Rhyl and then went to Brighton and Hove Albion on trial.
 
“I gave up my position at the steelworks to go down to Brighton which was a big move for me because at the time it was a job for life. I was down at Brighton for three months but it didn’t work out so I came back with the intention of joining the police force. However Ken Roberts rang me and asked if I would join Chester and be the understudy to John Taylor until the end of the season.  When he got injured I took over in goal and kept my place so I was offered a contract in the summer.”
 
The rest is history and Grenville went on to play more than 300 games at Sealand Road until 1983.
 
As for the Great Britain Olympic team. The early 1970s marked the dying days of amateur football in this country and the distinction between true amateurs and professionals was removed in 1974. For Britain this meant that the Munich games were the last occasion that the FA entered a football team for the competition. With the London games only weeks away, and Britain entering a team for the first time in 40 years, it’s nice to know that Chester has some connection to the event. I’ll be writing about an even stronger Olympic link in another article.

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