Derek Astbury, the son of former Chester player Tommy Astbury, has used lockdown to construct a superb model of the old Sealand Road stadium based on how the ground looked when his father was playing for the club in the 1940s and 1950s. Measuring 6ft by 4ft it took six months to build and it is hoped that it can be shown at the Deva Stadium some time in the future. I would urge anyone to go and see it if the opportunity arises.
Derek explains how he tackled the project:
“I retired just before the first lockdown and during the early months did what most people were doing i.e sort out family photos/ tidy the attic etc. While doing this I came across some old subbuteo equipment and after watching a YouTube programme I discovered there was an internet community of 50-60 year olds revisiting the game.
I decided to buy some players online to paint myself and found that there were some in vintage style kits and the idea was born. I would paint Chester FC from the time that my dad played together with other teams he played against. I thought I could then display them with a programme of the match for example Bolton Wanderers for his testimonial, Hull City (Raich Carter) and Stoke City (Stanley Matthews).
Then I moved on to the Stadium itself which I started to construct on January 21st using 3mm plastic sheet that was destined for the skips where I used to work. I have been building on and off since then on the occasions it has been warm enough in my garage to let my fingers work.
I have had the Images of Sport Book for many years and most of my reference has come from that as well as the Chester Football History Facebook page and my dad’s scrapbooks and photos. I did start to look at photos differently ie not at the subject but at the background details to see what the stands looked like and what adverts were on display. Most of the photographs are taken inside the ground so getting the outside details was quite a struggle. Even people who had been to the ground many times didn’t know what the other side of the Kop looked like.
Some things came as a surprise to me during the build research. One was the office building between the Main Stand and the Barn at the Sealand Road End. Another was the fact that the Popular Side was wider at the Kop end. I only realised this when I saw an aerial shot and had to start again on this stand. I also decided that I had to include the lamppost in front of the plaque on the front wall. Other problems for me were that the photos of the era were in black and white so I had to do some further research on colours (or guess!). The VP Wine advert on the Popular side just looks maroon to me.
It was also important to me that the game of subbuteo still remained playable and the stands were not too big to reach over. This means there are not the correct amount of seats in the stands or steps on the terraces so I couldn’t fill them with the 20,000 spectators that saw the Chelsea FA Cup game. From the positive comments I have received so far I think I have managed to capture the essence of the Sealand Road Stadium.
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.”
The 1st Round of the 1950/51 FA Cup paired Chester with fellow Third Division North side, Bradford PA. There was little to choose between the teams in the league with the visitors in 8th position and Chester two points behind in 12th place. However Frank Brown’s side were considered favourites having beaten Avenue 2-0 three weeks earlier at Sealand Road in what had been the first ever competitive meeting between the clubs.
The Yorkshiremen had been relegated from Division Two the previous season and this was their first campaign at this level since 1927/28. They had the reputation as a big spending club and the Cheshire Observer noted that over £60,000 had been spent in aggregate transfer fees on those players who had represented the club so far during the season. Perhaps the most notable name in the Bradford team was Jack Haines who had signed from West Bromwich Albion the previous season for £12,000. A pre-war Liverpool player he had won an England cap against Switzerland only two years earlier and had also played for Swansea Town and Leicester City. Despite this pedigree he had been in and out off the Bradford team and had recently asked to be placed on the transfer list.
A more familiar face to Chester supporters was left back Stan James who had made a number of guest appearances at Sealand Road during the war when he was stationed at Blacon Camp. He won a runners-up medal for Chester in the Third Division North Cup Final against Rotherham United in 1946 and the club had hoped to sign him from Bradford but the fee had proved prohibitive.
Bradford had been convincingly beaten in the league encounter at Sealand Road, thanks to first half goals from Tommy Astbury and Geoff Coffin and Avenue manager Fred Emery had recognised that his team had played badly and were capable of far better things. Meanwhile, Frank Brown was quoted in the Cheshire Observer as saying: “We are anticipating a hard game and must not under-estimate Bradford’s cup fighting ability…..We have ground advantage and our own supporters to cheer us on.”
Unfortunately Chester had failed to build on their commanding performance league win against Bradford. It had been followed by a 3-1 defeat at top of the table Tranmere and then a dismal home showing against Barrow resulting in a 2-1 setback. Frank Brown had boldly experimented by playing three centre forwards against Barrow. Ralph Morement, Tommy Tilston and Geoff Coffin had all donned the number 9 shirt during the campaign but the experiment failed to pay off as Chester wasted a host of chances to give the visitors their first away win of the season.
The big news in the week leading up to the game was the transfer of goalkeeper Ted Elliott to Halifax Town. The former Wolves man, had picked up an early season injury and lost his place to Harry Threadgold who had seized the opportunity with both hands and put in some brilliant performances. As a result Elliott had asked to be put on the transfer list and the deal was completed two days before the cup tie. Tattenhall-born Threadgold was not the only local player to be making the news as Cestrians Tilston and Coffin both signed professional terms prior to the Barrow game after being part-time at Sealand Road since 1944 and 1946 respectively.
There was no special training for the players before the cup tie which had a 2:15 kick-off.
2 – The Match
After the failure against Barrow, Frank Brown took a pragmatic approach for the cup tie by reverting to the same side that had defeated Bradford in the league game three weeks earlier. Jimmy Hankinson and leading scorer Albert Burgess were both recalled while Geoff Coffin took over the number 9 shirt from the injured Tommy Tilston and utility man Ralph Morement dropped to the reserves.
Despite taking an early lead Chester succumbed to a much improved Bradford team who had lost their three previous matches. In the end Chester were perhaps unlucky not to draw and were left to rue Frank Hindle’s missed penalty with the score at 1-1.
Chester got off to a perfect start and took the lead in 4 minutes when Coffin headed in a cross from Les Devonshire. Instead of building on the lead Chester surrendered the initiative and allowed the visitors back into what developed into an end to end encounter. Bradford came close to scoring when Hindle cleared a John Smith shot off the line with Harry Threadgold out of position while, at the other end, Mitchell Downie pushed away a Devonshire free kick and a fierce drive from the same player just passed wide of the post.
In the 29th minute Bradford capitalised on Chester’s failure to extend their advantage when the ever dangerous Billy Elliott came inside to head a Bill Deplidge cross past Threadgold. Chester had the perfect opportunity to regain the advantage on the stroke of half-time when Arthur Wheat was harshly adjudged to have handled the ball. Hindle was the man who stepped up to take the penalty but his weak effort passed wide of the post. The decision to hand responsibility to the normally reliable full-back was questioned by the Chester Chronicle who pointed out that this was his first ever penalty kick.
Bradford took the lead in the 66th minute when Smith headed down an Elliott cross for Deplidge whose shot gave Threadgold no chance. The Yorkshire side also struck the crossbar while Threadgold made a good save from Smith. Meanwhile Downie saved well from Astbury and both Burgess and Coffin missed good chances when well placed. The best opportunity for an equaliser came in the later stages when Billy Foulkes went on a mazy run from his own penalty area and slipped the ball to Coffin who shot straight at Downie. Bradford had to contend with a number of goalmouth scrambles but Downie continued to make some excellent saves and Chester were left to face an early cup exit.
Bradford’s outstanding player proved to be outside-left Billy Elliott who caused problems all afternoon with a brilliant exhibition of wing-play which right-back John Molyneux could not match. While an uncoordinated Chester defence struggled to cope with a potent Bradford strike force the visitors proved stubborn at the opposite end with centre half Les Horsman particularly dominant. Wingers Devonshire and Foulkes were arguably Chester’s best forwards but they lacked service with neither Burgess and Hankinson being particularly effective. Wing-backs Tommy Astbury and Peter Greenwood were not as impressive as usual and Coffin should have scored more than one goal had he displayed more steadiness.
The attendance of 8,255 drew gate receipts of £701.
Chester’s defeat cost them a meeting with the man who had lead them into the Football League in 1931. Charlie Hewitt had moved to Millwall after leaving Sealand Road in 1936 and the London side were drawn against Bradford in the 2nd Round. Hewitt’s side went on to win this encounter after a replay. In the league Bradford climbed to 6th place, seven places above Chester who struggled to maintain any consistency and neither troubled the top or bottom of the table.
Astonishingly the 1st Round elimination was the first time that Chester had been defeated at this stage of the competition since a defeat to Lincoln City in 1890.
Bradford man of the match, the promising Billy Elliott, had asked to be put on the transfer list before the FA Cup tie and went on to greater things. The following summer he moved to Burnley for £23,000 and was awarded the first of five England international caps in 1952. He later spent six seasons at Sunderland. Another man on the transfer list at Park Avenue was inside-forward Jack Haines. He remained with the club until 1953, when he was transferred to Rochdale, before signing for Chester in 1955 at the age of 35.
Four players featured in their final FA Cup game for the club. The man who missed the penalty, full-back Frank Hindle, ironically moved to Bradford in the summer after two seasons at Sealand Road. He never managed to find the back of the net for Chester in any of his 81 appearances and, despite making more than 200 appearances for his new club, he also failed to score at Park Avenue. Hindle died in Scotland in 2013.
Former Preston inside-forward Jimmy Hankinson failed to establish himself at Sealand Road and only made 15 appearances for the club. Although he was retained at the end of the season he appears to have left Chester during the summer.
Another player who only spent one season at Chester was outside-left Les Devonshire. The Londoner was a regular at outside left and only missed two league games in 1950/51. Like Hankinson he was retained in the summer but returned to London and signed for Crystal Palace where he remained for a further four years. He later played for Margate and Canterbury City and died in Middlesex in 2012. He was the father of future West Ham and England player Alan who has been a visitor to the 1885 Arena in recent years as manager of Braintree Town and Maidenhead United.
Another player who signed for Crystal Palace was Birkenhead-born Albert “Cam” Burgess who managed an impressive average of more than a goal every two games at Chester. He was leading scorer in each of his three seasons at Sealand Road and moved to Selhurst Park for £3,000 in September 1951. The nippy forward continued to find the back of the net regularly for Palace including a hat-trick in his 2nd game and 18 in his first 15 league starts. In a four game spell the following season he netted three hat-tricks. In July 1953 he moved back north, to York City for £850, and after one season returned to Cheshire with Runcorn. He died in 1978.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Chester’s reward for their 1st Round victory over Goole Town was a long trip to Exeter City, the furthest distance the club had ever travelled for a fixture. Like Chester, the Grecians were struggling in their league and propped up Division Three South with only 11 points from their 18 league games. They looked particularly susceptible in defence, having conceded 45 goals, and it was reported that they were experiencing the worst season in their chequered history.
Despite the poor league results spirts had been raised in Exeter after a 5-3 win at Millwall in the 1st Round and their manager, George Roughton had proclaimed that: “…if the lads play as well as they did at Millwall on Saturday we shall be in the 3rd Round.” Unfortunately this optimism had quickly evaporated as the Grecians were hammered 7-1 in a league game at Swindon Town the following week. Chester manager Frank Brown had scouted that game and the Chester Chronicle stated that he returned from the game “cock-a-hoop’.
From a personal point of view the tie held additional interest for Brown as he had played a handful of games for the Devon club during the 1921/22 season.
While Exeter had their problems there was also an underlying feeling of discontent at Sealand Road as the club languished in 20th position in Division Three North and displayed a remarkable level of inconsistency. After joining the Football League in 1931 the club had been a top ten fixture throughout the 1930s and this had appeared to carry through the war with a 3rd place finish in 1946/47. Unfortunately, despite some notable FA Cup ties, league form had slumped dramatically and with a 20th position in 1947/48 and 18th in 1948/49 the local papers were increasingly peppered with letters from disgruntled supporters. The day before the cup tie the News Chronicle featured Chester in their “My Team” spotlight under the headline “Down in the Dumps on Deeside.” and a wide range of letters outlined the problems with the current team.
With both teams struggling there was little to choose in what was a closely matched tie. The Chester players did not engage in any special training but as usual there was time for golf at Hawarden and the players set off for Devon by train on Friday morning. Meanwhile the Chester’ Supporters Club arranged a day excursion, leaving at just after midnight on the day of the game and around 70 supporters availed themselves of the 47/2d trip. For those supporters who stayed at home it was arranged for the score at Exeter to be given out at the reserve game against Crewe at Sealand Road every 15 minutes.
2 – The Match
In between the Goole and Exeter FA Cup ties Chester had suffered a setback where they failed to take their chances in a 4-2 defeat to Carlisle United at Sealand Road.
While the attack came under fire for their lack of incisiveness there were clearly defensive problems with the left flank in particular singled out for criticism. Against this backdrop Frank Brown elected to move Eric Lee back to the left-half position, where he had made his name in the first season after the war. Meanwhile Dave McNeil, who had played in the Goole FA Cup tie, replaced Reg Butcher who had struggled in the problematic left back role against Carlisle. Frank Hindle, who had been signed as a left-back continued at centre half, a role he had taken after Lee’s call-up for England amateur duties.
Despite the defensive changes the tie was as good as decided in the first 15 minutes as Chester conceded an early, sloppy goal and then were unfortunate to lose goalkeeper Ted Elliott to concussion shortly afterwards. The loss of Elliott saw winger Bill Pearson take over in goal as Frank Brown’s team played the remainder of the game with only 10 men. Even with this handicap the team acquitted themselves well and played the better football so Exeter’s late penalty and the 2-0 scoreline slightly flattered the home side.
Exeter started the game brightly and produced their best football in the first 15 minutes. After only four minutes defensive lapses cost Chester dearly as Lee and McNeil failed to deal with right winger Bill Harrower who had all the time in the world to get in his cross. With Elliott static on his line and full back John Molyneux hesitant, Duggie Regan finished expertly to give the home side the lead.
It was a goal that should have been prevented and Chester responded quickly as Harry Jackson’s first-time drive was blocked by a defender with keeper Bert Hoyle beaten.
Worse was to follow for Chester on eight minutes when Molyneux missed a tackle and keeper Elliott received a kick on the back of the head as dashed out to save the situation. After a few minutes attention the former Wolves man returned but it was clear he was in no fit state to continue and outside left Pearson took over in goal.
Despite this setback Chester continued to have their fair share of the play and winger Jackie Davies, the pick of the forwards, was unlucky not to score when he set off on a dazzling run through the Exeter defence only to shoot a few inches wide from ten yards. Davies continued to cause the home side problems with his tricky running and he almost scored an equaliser before half time but his shot was blocked by Stan Rowe.
Chester continued to take the fight to Exeter in the second half but despite good work from Tommy Astbury, Billy Foulkes and Davies the forwards were not able to take advantage and few clear opportunities were created. Albert Burgess did get the ball into the back of the net on two occasions but both were rightly disallowed for offside. Chester’s best opportunities came from corner kicks and centre half, Frank Hindle was particularly unlucky when his towering header was blocked on the line by Leslie Doyle with keeper Hoyle nowhere.
Hindle, who had an outstanding game, was also a threat marauding out of defence and he was unlucky on one run when he was blocked by his own player Burgess when running through on goal. It was therefore unfortunate that the former Blackburn defender was culpable for Exeter’s second goal two minutes from time when he upended Archie Smith with an over-enthusiastic challenge.
Regan scored from the resulting penalty with a mishit shot that went where neither he or stand-in keeper Pearson expected. Talking about the penalty after the game Pearson said “I went to the left. Regan told me as we came off that he had miskicked and the ball went to my right instead of to the left as he intended.”
It was a shame for Pearson that he was unable to keep a clean sheet after such a confident display. His jumping, diving and one remarkable save from Charlie McLelland was appreciated by the Exeter crowd who sportingly applauded him off the pitch at the end of the game. The former Grimsby man admitted that he was no stranger to the role having represented the RAF in goal and he also confessed that it was his favourite position.
Despite Pearson’s heroics it was a game that Chester didn’t deserve to lose and even with only 10 men they created enough chances to win the game. If they had remained at full strength they would have beaten what was considered a moderate Exeter side.
While Chester were unlucky to be eliminated from the competition they had at least gone down fighting. The following week they suffered another defeat, this time 3-0 at Stockport County, and this result prompted another defensive reshuffle. Hindle returned to the left back role and Eric Lee was reinstated at centre half, a move that appeared to stabilise the team as results improved in the second half of the campaign. In the end Chester recovered to 12th position with only four defeats after January 1st.
Exeter were drawn against non-league Nuneaton Borough in the 3rd Round and comfortable beat the non-leaguers 3-0. In the 4th Round they received a plum draw against Liverpool at Anfield where they were beaten 3-1. Back in the league results improved in Division Three South and they hauled themselves off the bottom to finish the season in 16th position.
Despite his concussion Elliott returned to the team at Stockport the following week and surprisingly didn’t miss a league game in 1949/50. Although he started the first two games the following season he was displaced by promising young keeper Harry Threadgold before joining Halifax Town in November 1950. He died in 1984.
Dave McNeil also played in the defeat at Stockport County but this proved to be his last league game of the campaign. It was 12 months before his next appearance, one of only six in 1950/51, and in 1951 he moved to Holywell Town for two years before a season at Northwich Victoria and three at Colwyn Bay. A product of local football he had initially signed as an amateur of Chester in 1938 and his loyalty was rewarded with a testimonial against an Everton X1 in 1951. Always remembered as the full-back who tamed Stanley Matthews in the 1947 FA Cup tie at Stoke City he died in 1993.
The promising Jackie Davies, who had performed so well at Exeter, suffered a badly fractured leg in a league game at Bradford City only two weeks later. Although the 23 year old forward briefly returned to the team at the start of the 1951/52 season the injury effectively ended his career. He died in 1973.
Centre forward Harry Jackson, who had scored a hat-trick against Goole Town, found himself edged out of the side in the second half of the campaign when he lost his place to local lad Geoff Coffin. He was released at the end of the season and signed for Hyde United. The former Manchester City and Preston player died in 1984.
Hero of the day Bill Pearson only played 12 league games for Chester before a persistent knee injury forcing him into retirement from the professional game at the end of the 1949/50 season. The Irishman continued to play amateur football in Yorkshire and died in 2009 after a long illness.