Not much seems out of the ordinary about Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley heading into a new season with a title challenge in mind. However, be it precise forward planning coming to fruition, an air of club-wide understanding, or a pre-season trip to remember, the current level of calm and contentment is one the Chester FC managers haven’t quite enjoyed before.
Unveiled as Chester’s new management team in mid-May last year, it was only a week earlier that they had parted ways with Salford City, with their National League North winners’ medals still fresh in their possession. Although it meant staying in the same division they had just won, it was also a chance to engineer a turnaround for one of non-league’s most recognisable club names, with Chester just relegated after a season saturated by turmoil.
It did also mean the former Ramsbottom United duo had to conjure up the vast majority of a playing squad at relatively short notice, for a National League North that is anything but hospitable. Summers 2018 and 2019 are not quite cut from the same cloth, as ‘Jonno’ describes.
“It’s night and day. The difference is night and day, because what you’ve got to look at last season when we came in, or when we were announced, and then I went away for a couple of weeks, we literally had three or four players at the club.
“What we had to do was beg, steal or borrow friends off friends. Lads like Grant Shenton, who played for us in the past at Rammy, Dom Smalley who played for us in the past, his brother Deane, Steve Howson. Had we had time to recruit properly, so had we been at Chester in the February or March of last year, we’d have recruited properly in terms of a profile of what we wanted to bring into the football club.
“We were quite fortunate with the standard of players that we knew would come and play for us at Chester. Plus, some of them looked at it as probably a last chance of playing at a massive club.
“Whereas this time, we’ve probably been planning since I’d say December, planning for this season whether it’d be staying in the National North or if we were to have got promoted. Of course you want promotion, course you do, but when you look back now, you almost feel like it was a blessing in disguise that we didn’t, because we didn’t feel like we’d have been in a position to get the type of players in that would help us compete at the higher league.”
Welcome to #CH1, Joel!
— Chester FC (@ChesterFC) May 21, 2019
It is a club in a far brighter position than 2017/18. Stuart Murphy had pledged £1 million to the Blues over three years (to go predominantly on infrastructure), which was approved and announced in June 2018.
The local entrepreneur has also contributed £200,000 towards a new community sports facility in Blacon, which Chester FC Community Trust announced £1.6million development plans for in March. That all ties in with the ultimate goal of the club reaching the EFL for the first time since its rebirth in 2010.
Off-field ambition has to spark in tandem with winning football, of course, and Chester’s 2018/19 campaign was an unpredictable and sometimes volatile animal to try and tame. Flood damage to the Swansway Chester Stadium brought unwelcome chaos, while up-and-down form, the odd wild result and highly significant injury misfortune shaped the season.
Having ended the season in 9th, three points shy of the play-offs, their close-season business has been impressive.
“The players that we’ve brought have been sort of a precision hit, as opposed to scattergun,” Jonno continued. “We had Jamie Morgan, who’s been touted about as one of the best full-backs in non-league football; one we’ve watched since Christmas, unreal reports on him.
“Kev Roberts, who played the last two years at Wrexham and finished fourth in the National League last year, we got him and Joel Taylor (from Kidderminster Harriers), someone me and Bern had watched for two years. They all came in pretty sharpish, so by the couple of weeks at the end of the season, we’d got them three done.
“It meant in positions where we wanted to improve, which was full-back areas, we were done, we didn’t have to panic. It was just a case of getting what we call the sort of ‘icing on the cake’ signings, and we believe we’ve gone and done that now with the next couple of signings; the keeper Russ Griffiths coming in, Danny Elliott coming in.
“So we look strong, we’ve retained all the players we want to retain, we’ve got a core of I think 13 players that are 24 and under, so they fit the profile of what we’re looking to bring in the club, where they’re hungry, sort of been rejected in the past at previous clubs, and ultimately, lads that we believe can go on and do well in the game. The balance of the group that we’ve got this year compared to last year, it’s night and day.
“We’re really happy with how we’ve done our recruitment.”
The outgoings from last season also include first-team coach Derek Egan and goalkeeping coach James Longdin, adding to the different feel in some ways. It is a game where a carefully constructed 90-minute plan can be torn up within minutes or even seconds on occasions. In the same sense perhaps, a summer placing in each piece of the puzzle to start the season with real verve and vigour can soon feel like it has been rained on.
The Blues bosses, with five promotions to their name, are keenly aware of that by now, but Jonno is savouring a real sense of satisfaction at how they have set the table for this one.
“I think this is season 11 we’re about to start, for me and Bern, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as relaxed as I do at this moment in time. Obviously, our aim is to win the league, let’s not beat around the bush.
“Doesn’t matter about budget, doesn’t matter about what you’re paying individuals, it means that we’re happy with a squad of players that we believe is good enough to go and win the league, or compete to win the league. So, when you believe that you’ve got a group of players there, and I’m not talking in a sense of I hope it happens, we’ve got a group of players that can go and compete top end of the league.
“When you’ve got that group, your job’s done, in a sense of we’ve got the recruitment done. Now what it’s about is ensuring we don’t get unlucky with injuries, ensuring we keep players on top of their game, ensuring the sessions we put on that the lads are buying into what we are.
“So, I feel so relaxed; Bern’s the exact same. There’s no sort of exterior pressure on us like it was at Salford, where there’s (documentary) cameras intruding, where the board have demands that aren’t realistic.
“It just means that us as a club – players, staff, fans – can go out and enjoy this season. If everything sort of goes right for us, then we can make some real noise.”
Midfielder Scott Burton has been raring to set the record straight after an injury-hit season that was anything but characteristic of his career. The ex-Salford City player, who was handed the Chester captaincy after joining last summer, spoke recently on here of needing to find a solution to enable him to fit his routine around the club’s new hybrid model, with increased time with the players introduced for this season.
Jonno addresses that as he assesses the likelihood of further incomings and outgoings before Boston United away on 3rd August.
“The first thing and most important thing is we’re always looking to improve; it doesn’t matter what position that is. Scott’s now in the hybrid model, he’s bought into that, so it’s two days, two nights; Scott can do one day, as can Craig Mahon, Simon Grand.
“I think the other player who’s not in the hybrid model is Theo Roberts, so it’s pretty much 99 percent of the squad, which makes it a damn sight easier when you’re planning sessions and you’ve got the main core of the squad. We’re always looking to improve but if the season starts two weeks tomorrow, we’re delighted with what we’ve got.”
— Chester FC (@ChesterFC) May 16, 2019
Jonno featured in extensive detail in the ‘Bosses’ Lounge’ feature on here last December, offering open insight into his life and recounting various stories. His liking for the game’s maverick personalities (feel free to replace with your own less diplomatic terms instead…) shone through strongly.
Chester’s gaffers are not the only ones in management to have taken players – in their case also former teammates – with them after moving clubs. Few, though, can probably claim to have had someone quite like midfielder Gary Stopforth (his feature from last season can be seen here).
The former Stockport County man made a big impression with Chester supporters last year but is another player wanting to enjoy 2019/20 away from the treatment table. He did, however, narrowly lose out to winger Craig Mahon when it came to a swimming race through the puddles at training on Friday!
With the club heading to Cornwall recently for pre-season, true to form, he was at the forefront in many ways, as Jonno describes.
“All we do is have fun. We work so damn hard in terms of a physical output and in mental output of what mine and Bern’s expectations are on the training pitch, that any sort of downtime, whether that be at the training ground, as you’ve seen today with the swimming, messing about in the puddles, or away at Newquay, we enjoy ourselves.
“Gaz is the biggest sort of child and prankster out of all of them; he’s the first to tell you, all he’s ever after is a cheap laugh. Everyone else buys into it.
“It’s why I said before, I feel so relaxed because as a group, we know how good we are. We all know the sort of components we’ve got, it’s just about being lucky with it all now.
“We have fun, and I touched on it before when I said about the cameras and stuff, now we’re at a club where they embrace what we are. That isn’t a dig at anybody else, it’s just a different type of feeling, where you’ve not got the cameras watching every move or whether you say or don’t say the right things.
“At Chester, all anyone does is have fun; providing we’re doing the work, then there’s smiles on faces. Whether that be the team photo, whether that be Gaz in Newquay with the loudest speaker you’ve ever heard, with Baywatch banging out!
“We had a bit of downtime in Cornwall last Wednesday – the weather was glorious; you could’ve been in Greece – so we had a swim. Me, Grandy, Scott Burton were about 20-foot-deep, and all of a sudden Gaz puts his speaker – you’ve never heard anything like it, by the way, how loud it is – he puts his speaker on with the Jaws music.
“You’ve got families in the water splashing and stuff and he’s waving his arms going ‘get out the water!’ The lifeguard had to come and announce himself and say ‘we’ve got families here, you’re scaring people.’
“But that’s what he’s like, he’s trying to kick a ball over a cliff; he’s hit the ball that hard the rocks are coming off the cliff, we’re all having to run for cover. Then we had a few hours downtime, we met up with (Plymouth Argyle manager) Ryan Lowe, had a beer with Ryan, and he went in the karaoke, Gaz.
“Everyone’s got their best gear on, Gaz’s got some lifeguard t-shirt with ‘G-Stop’ on the back! He’s relentless, non-stop all the time.”
Jonno also shared a video from that trip of himself and Bern singing about beans, which if anyone was at all confused, was in reference to a similar one from Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. That was on a day where they had been relaxing watching England on TV, knocking Australia out of the Cricket World Cup in the semi-final.
Full of great memories, Chester’s visit to the South West will certainly not be a one-off if they can help it.
“It was that good we’d 100 percent do it next year, no matter where we got offered to go. The only downside was we set off at 8:30 on Monday morning and didn’t get there until 5, and then on Friday on the way back, we set off at 9 and got back at quarter past 7, and then had a game on Friday night.
“We were like the away team, playing Dulwich! The coach journey sort of killed it in the end, but it couldn’t have gone any better, it was unbelievable.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes