One of the most distinctive features of the old Sealand Road ground was the impressive set of floodlight which bowed down over the Stadium. The lights were state of the art when they were constructed in 1960 and the fact that they were ever erected at all was almost entirely down to the efforts of the Chester FC Supporters Association.
Although there had been experiments with floodlights going back to the 19th century it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began to be widely installed at grounds. In the 1930s Arsenal had placed permanent lights at Highbury but the Football League only allowed there use in friendlies and unofficial games. It wasn’t until 1956, when Portsmouth hosted Newcastle United at Fratton Park, that the first Football League match was played under lights.
Chester’s first experience of floodlit football occurred when the youngsters played a Youth Cup 2nd Round tie at Preston North End in November 1954 with the Deepdale side winning 4-1. The following October the seniors played their first game under lights, winning a thrilling Lancashire Cup encounter at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground by three goals to two.
The Chester board of directors, under chairman Sam Argyle, recognised that times were changing and at the AGM in August 1956 the subject of floodlights was raised. The club realised they would be invaluable for training and allow later kick off times for cup ties and attractive friendlies against foreign opposition. However, Argyle explained that a sub-committee established to look at the cost of floodlights felt that a sum of at least £9,000 was currently beyond the club’s financial capabilities.
Under the circumstances this announcement was hardly a surprise given recent financial tribulations. In March 1955 the board had called a crisis meeting at the Town Hall amidst a real fear that the club would be forced out of the Football League. The club was in the red to the tune of around £7,500, a situation not helped by falling attendances caused by a bottom place finish in the Third Division North in 1953/54, a position set to be repeated in 1954/55. An attempt to raise £3,000 through a share issue had received a very muted response as local businesses showed little enthusiasm. At the Town Hall meeting a call was made to urgently raise £5,000 through a 100,000 shillings fund. This received a positive initial response but by the end of the season only £1,750 had been reached.
Despite the doom and gloom there was one very positive consequence of the 1955 meeting and that was the formation of the Chester FC Supporters Association. The group was a merger of the Supporters Club and Supporters Committee and charged a 2s 6d subscription. By the end of the 1954/55 season membership had already reached 2,500 and the group would have a considerable impact over the subsequent years. When the dynamic Association celebrated their fourth anniversary in 1959 it was reported that they had raised a phenomenal £21,072 for the club which included the original shilling fund as well as money from a hugely successful weekly football pool.
The Supporters Association had a strong bond with the board of directors so although Sam Argyle had announced that floodlights were financially out of reach in August 1956 the board must have felt some cause for future optimism through the strength of this new group and their fund raising activities. In addition attendances had shown an improvement during the 1955/56 campaign and the club had made a small profit to reduce the overall overdraft to just under £5,000. The summer had also seen the appointment of ex Chelsea centre-half John Harris as player manager and the return of popular Welsh international winger Billy Foulkes so there were reasons for positivity on the field of play.
One idea being considered was to ask 60 supporters to contribute £150 each repayable over 5 years with 5% interest and although this failed to get off the ground the first steps towards illuminating the ground took place in October 1956.
With half the squad either amateur or part time the club were experiencing difficulty giving them the necessary ball practice so the club planned to install a modified form of floodlighting to aid those who could only train in the evening. The idea was to illuminate one end of the ground by putting lights on the grandstand and on the shelter on the popular side. If the light wasn’t sufficient there was an intention to increase the number. This was intended as the start of a scheme to illuminate the whole ground and the cost of “hundreds” was aided by a donation of £750 from the Supporters Association.
The official switch on took place in November with one of the directors stating that they were “almost good enough to play a match” but it was clear that more substantial floodlighting was needed if Chester wanted to keep up with the rest of the Football League.
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