The contrast between the Northern League Division 2 promoted clubs from last season could hardly have been greater. While South Shields romped to the title on the back of big crowds, big names and big money, the likes of Chester-le-Street and Ryhope CW joined them despite having some of the smaller budgets in the league.
One year on, and the clubs’ paths are diverging: for Shields, it’s dreams of FA Vase glory and the expectation of another promotion; for Chester it’s been a tough time at the foot of the first division. True to the Cestrians’ roots, they have a young line-up: past products of the club’s youth system have become major players in the Northern League, with players from the 2004 FA Youth Cup run going on to win the Vase at Dunston and keep goal at Sheilds. But the visit of West Allotment Celtic was a clash of the bottom two, with Chester dead last, if only on goal difference.
Far from downcast, the chat at the gate was resolutely upbeat. A mix of gallows humour and defiance posted this as a potentially good game. Despite the teams’ lowly positions, both believed they could get a win here and the football promised to be competitive, even if lacking in a measure of finesse. Not everyone saw it the same way: a pair of groundhoppers, discussing events as they left the ground, complained vehemently about a game they regarded as poor quality, somewhat overlooking the determination Chester showed in a brave but unsuccessful second half in which they battled against a pudding of a pitch as well as the Celtic defence.
Trailing by a single goal at half time – Michael Hall bundling home a cross at the far post, with the linesman flagging that the ball made it over the line – Chester spent the second half knocking on the Celtic door. The visitors deployed a high defensive line and relied on an offside trap marshalled by veteran player-manager Paul Stoneman, but were vulnerable to pace down the Chester-le-Street flanks. Winger Joe Hailes was a constant threat; top scorer Lee Mole might have equalized when through on goal but dragged his shot wide; Dominic Laws came close to levelling with a shot that flashed across the face of goal, turned behind by Chris Bannon; David Surrey came closer, hitting the post in the last 10 minutes. It wasn’t always vintage football, but it was far better than the grumbling hoppers made out.
And, for all the club’s struggles to compete in a league that involves some serious financial commitment, there’s precious little grumbling at Chester. It’s a club that tries to root itself in its community – from the ‘inspired facility’ of the 2012 lottery-funded all-weather 5-a-side court, to the lad looking at the team-sheet and picking out the player who ‘lives two doors down from us, Dad’. Maybe there’s never been a true ‘boom’ at Chester Moor, that memorable Youth Cup trip to Upton Park aside, but since the club’s formation in 1972 there’s never been much hint of an alarming ‘bust’ either. And, at a time when so many teams find themselves stretched beyond their limits at all levels of the game, the ability to chart a steady course remains something to be proud of.
Moor Park, Chester-le-Street, England
Northern League Division Two, Feb. 4, 2016
Chester-le-Street Town 0 West Allotment Celtic 1 (Hall)