Even for an experienced campaigner like Gary Stopforth, the early throes of this season at Chester FC have been uniquely and frustratingly barmy. One-time Salford City bosses Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley are bidding to deliver an immediate return to the Vanarama National League in their debut season, though until last Saturday, the club had to contend with over a month without a home match, following water damage to the Swansway Chester Stadium. Add in a 5-3 win here and an 8-1 loss there and you start to get the picture of an already-tumultuous campaign.
Established in 2010 after the original Chester City were wound up, Chester FC’s financial struggles were widely reported during a desperate 2017/18 season, as the Blues suffered relegation. However, with the £1m investment of Stuart Murphy to help over the next three years, a promising youth crop, plus the arrival of two managers steeped in non-league promotions in their early career to date, there were waves of optimism at the clean slate this season offered.
Despite a couple of defeats, a win last time out over Bradford (Park Avenue) means that with three games in hand on the majority of the league, suddenly it all looks a lot brighter after their opening dozen fixtures. There has been an overhaul of player personnel this summer, and Johnson and Morley signed a former Clitheroe teammate and a player they had at Ramsbottom United and Salford City in Gary Stopforth.
Morley said his consistent high intensity sets the tempo in training and games, helping make the 32-year-old a necessity in their new project. When it comes to patrolling a non-league midfield, the former Stockport County player knows the territory better than most, though his on-pitch attributes tell only a fraction of the tale of one of non-league’s colourful characters. He certainly didn’t disappoint in this conversation…
Scott Burton’s the captain but you’re undoubtedly a leadership figure in the squad and have been previously in your career. What does that entail, as you see it? Is it about going out of your way to include people in the social side, as well as demanding high standards?
Yeah, with any new lads, always introduce yourself, make them feel welcome, and passing on advice, because we’ve got quite a few young lads in the team. Maybe they haven’t played at this level before and there might be a bit of shouting going on, but whenever you’re telling someone information, I’m not doing it for the benefit of me, I’m doing it for the benefit of us, to pull together. We’ve got a couple of leaders in the team and it’s just trying to get the group really to gel, because it’s hard when it’s a new team, new faces, new style of play. It’s just trying to help everyone push in the same direction and I’ve found that at a lot of clubs. Your leadership comes from your management but it needs to come from a few players as well.
People in the game often talk about a great team spirit in successful sides, but can you have a group who aren’t necessarily the best of friends, but it still works? Or does there have to at least be friendship in part?
It sort of helps. I mean at Stockport, we had a bit of banter but we weren’t as close as when we were at Salford. If everyone’s doing their jobs, it’s all about results; if everything’s going well then it doesn’t really matter. It’s when things aren’t going so well; I’ve never really been in a dressing room where people can turn on each other, so I wouldn’t like to comment on that. It’s alright at Chester, even when the results haven’t been going so well. We’ve had a couple of arguments at half-time, which is good, but no one’s saying nasty comments to each other or calling people out. You do need that closeness a bit, but it’s not the be all and end all.
Some difficult aspects of the season so far of course, but for toughest, most ridiculous or surreal situations you’ve experienced in your career, what stands out?
I remember when we were at Ramsbottom and we turned up for the game and it was two metres under water. I think that was the best one; there were actually ducks on the pitch. I’ve played at different levels but I played for Clitheroe and we got beat. The fans were travelling back on the same coach as the players and a massive argument ensued. The chairman ended up punching one of the fans. I was only a young lad and I was just watching with a smile on my face.
Liam Watson at Southport said a few weeks ago that people might complain when you play it long but it’s about knowing this level of football. In terms of playing style, what are the key things you’ve been trying to do as a team, and what have you found seems to work best from your time in non-league?
Yeah, I can understand what he’s saying. You can play long ball but you try and play with a bit of quality. I think we’re still trying to find our feet. Jonno and Bern have got their style of play, which is high-tempo, win the ball high up, and it’s just getting people to buy into it. Sometimes you’ve got to go long, but it’s all about getting the continuity between the strikers and the defenders, the full-backs or whoever’s playing the ball, to know what they want, whether it’s to feet or in behind. That’ll come with playing together.
When you left Stockport and just before you joined Colne much closer to home towards the end of last season, you mentioned the difficulties of working full-time and then having a four-hour round trip three times a week just to Stockport. How’s it been since you signed for Chester?
On the way back, it’s about an hour, but on the way there it’s just all the traffic on the M60. We have to go about four motorways to get there. I think Jonno and Bernard, because a lot of the lads are from up Manchester way, they’re on about hopefully putting a training on in Manchester on a Thursday, which would be so much easier. To be fair, there’s a couple of the young lads from round Chester, but a lot of them drive; there’s only Gaz Roberts who doesn’t drive! He’s 31 – how can you get to 31 and not drive?
I travel in with (Chester defender) Steve Howson and I’ve known Steve about ten years. He makes me laugh so it makes it more bearable. I don’t know what I’d do if he left or whatever, if I had to go on my own. He’s always a good lad, he’s always got a smile on his face and some sort of story; whether it’s bullshit or not I don’t know. We have a good swear as well, because we don’t really swear in front of our girlfriends. Sometimes when we get close to training or the game we get the tunes blasting, so it’s a nice little routine.
Have you still got your window cleaning business?
Yeah, I’m in the process of trying to sell my Burnley one. I’m just getting that all up to date, and then I’ve just got one in Skipton now, so I’m just gonna sell that and sit on the money for a bit and see what happens next season. If I need to buy another one, I’ll buy another one. Sometimes, when I’ve got a busy week, with football as well, I can just be absolutely wiped out by Sunday…especially if I go for a few ales after a game if we win. I think it has a few positives if we go out; it’s better to go out and keep your body moving after a game.
Like Stockport, does it feel every day you’re around the club that it should be at a higher level? I know it’s an obvious thing, and every player who signs somewhere seems to come out with some variation of ‘it’s a massive club,’ but do you get that sense a bit more here?
Yeah, I do get that sense and it was the same at Stockport, but the league’s a tough, tough league. It just is. It’s got the best part-time players probably in the country playing in this league, because everyone else is full-time, and it’s got lads playing in it where they’ve got decent jobs, so they can’t really afford to go full-time. Who won the league last year? Salford – biggest budget. Year before that, Fylde – biggest budget. The team with the biggest budget, come the end of the season they’ll be there or thereabouts usually.
I don’t think we’ve got a massive budget, so I think it’s just patience. It’s probably better to go up to that Conference with more infrastructure in place so you can then go up again. You see a couple of teams who’ve gone up and you can’t really see them getting out of the Conference, ever. So you’re just trying to avoid relegation for four seasons. I think Stockport was the same; they wanted to go up and then hopefully go up again and establish themselves. So I think budgets obviously come into it, but Chester is a very big club for this level, and the fans obviously remember times in the League. They just need to be patient and stick by whoever’s in charge and see where it takes you. The only other thing is just give up, because with most football fans up and down the country, there’s only a few teams’ fans who are happy. The rest of them are just whinging!
I’m a Burnley fan; I used to watch them in the old Division Two and we just got knocked out of Europe and people are having a whinge about that. It’s just the life of a football fan. I’m a fan myself and even I was saying I can’t believe we didn’t go for it (against Olympiakos in the Europa League). I think you just need to stick together, especially Chester. The board want the team to do well, Jonno and Bernard want the team to do well, we want to do well as players, the fans want us to do well and we’re the ones as players who can actually affect it. It is hard and it is frustrating when you’re playing and you have a bad result. I’m just as, if not more pissed off than the fans. I always give my 100 percent, so it’s just frustrating, and we just need to put it right.
When did the idea of joining the club first get mentioned? Describe the scene…
Well I took my dad on holiday to Benidorm for his 60th. He never really gets away; he’s one of them old-school blokes who’ll just work for his beer and his food, so he never saves up. So I said ‘right, I’ll pay for you to go away to Benidorm with me.’ So, paid for the hotel, flights etc. and I said ‘if you need some money when you’re there I’ll sort you out, but just have a good week of work or whatever and see what you can bring.’ He ended up bringing £35.
I thought ‘this could literally spoil the holiday straight away so I’ll just leave it.’ So I let that go, but yeah, I was over there and Jonno text me. Me and my dad were proper leathered – my dad knows Jonno as well – and we were in some random bar watching a game. He just said ‘do you fancy it?’ and he weren’t sure yet he was going to Chester; I don’t think he could tell me but I think he’d already sorted it out. I said ‘yeah, course I do. It’s like getting the old band back together.’ I’ve played with Jonno in the same team and he’s been my manager for six years, always talked to him and had a chat about football, I’ve been on nights out and stuff, so I’d class him more as a friend. So when your mate who you’ve had success with comes and calls, it was a no-brainer really. It was just a case of sorting it out with Colne.
You’ve said before when you were asked about the now-famous dressing-downs from Jonno and Bernard that they’re never nasty with it. Even though they were successful seasons, the team talks when it was going wrong were obviously a memorable part of the Salford City documentaries (on the BBC and Sky Sports). Have you got to be a certain type of character to not take that personally? Have you seen players fall by the wayside at clubs before, just simply down to personality type and not even ability?
To be fair on Jonno, he doesn’t give it to the people he doesn’t recognise as being able to take it. He just gives it to me and Howson! If he does it, it’s usually as a group. If they see someone who looks like they’re gonna crumble if you say something, they’re not daft, they’re not gonna say anything to them. They know which players need an arm around them and which players need a kick up the backside. But yeah, watching that documentary, some of the things made me laugh! It’s the same old: when you’re used to success and suddenly things aren’t going right it’s hard to take. But they’ve always turned it around and they’ve had positive seasons for the last six or seven years. So you’ve got to just trust them.
You’re a Burnley fan and played for the club at a young age, but Blackburn as well. What were your experiences like at those two clubs?
I went to Burnley, I think I was six or seven, I was there until 11, and Burnley wasn’t what it is now. I think for one of the games they rang me up and said do I know any goalkeepers? They spoke to my mum and dad. It’s like, ‘what do you mean? Kick-off’s in an hour!’ It was when you didn’t just play for a club, you played for a local team, and I got scouted by Blackburn, so I went there. It was a tough decision but at the time they were a Premier League team, only a couple of years before, they’d won the league, so I went there and the facilities were spot on. I was there until I was 20; I got a three-year YTS and then a year pro under Mark Hughes.
But the pros, that’s another thing, there were that many people who got a year pro and just never got anywhere near the first team, because they could just go and sign someone from Europe for like £6million. It’s like, ‘I’m not gonna play, I’m on £450 a week!’ That was always a nice thing, because I’m from Burnley so all the people from Blackburn give me shit, and when I went home, all the people from Burnley give me shit for playing for Blackburn. I didn’t mention football back home, I just tried to keep it quiet! I got let go from Blackburn after nine years and it’s hard to take, especially when you’ve been playing on really good pitches and they say ‘you’ve got to go out on trial’ and you’re not even sure if the manager’s actually asked you to go on trial, it’s just set up. I just lost interest; I didn’t play football for about eight months. I had about eight months partying, trying to get my head straight, and then I got back into it again. That’s playing for non-league teams and trying to work my way back up, so to speak.
Having played a bit in America (New Orleans Jesters and Baton Rouge Cult Capitals), you left Stockport initially to play in Australia. How did it all go, and could you focus on football mainly or was there a job on a farm somewhere you had to do alongside it?
I went to Brisbane, and the guy who set me up, I could have chosen either standard money, but he also said like lifestyle, because Brisbane was really hot. Having just gone through an English winter I thought ‘right, I’m going somewhere hot, I’m not arsed.’ In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have done, because I went to this team, and it was just (laughs), it was like a Sunday league team. I didn’t think it would stress me out as much as it did; because I’m a competitive person, you want to win. So I went there for four months, but that was interrupted with the death of my mum’s partner, Steve, so I came back for the funeral. I went back over but when the season started I thought ‘right, I’m coming back home.’ I was there for about eight months.
This job I did at first, oh my God. The guy said ‘we’ll sort out your job, accommodation’ – they just say that shit to get you over there! To be fair, the guy was sound, really funny and I got on with him, but he was just an idiot. I’m going 14,000 miles on my own, to the other side of the world, other side of the flat Earth, I got there and I went through all my savings in about two weeks. I went out a few times, but you’ve got to when you get there. He got me this job in this factory in the middle of summer and basically you were making these partition walls for prisons. I did like three weeks as a temp and the money was alright. The first day I worked was a Friday, and I thought ‘quality,’ because Fridays at work feel like nothing, don’t they? After that Friday I thought I’d been there a month. After that, I ended up working in the (football club) manager’s mum and dad’s fruit and veg deli. That was alright, learning about different types of parsley.
I met a good couple of people, but I’d just say for anyone thinking of going over there – because my life back home was good – go over when you’re younger and go over to live there and that’s your focus. Don’t go when you’re 30. It was a good experience, let’s just say that.
Since the start of your career, how have you changed, and how have you not changed?
I think I’ve got physically better but technically shitter! I think that’s a good assessment. I read the game a lot better, my touch is still alright, but I used to be good. Maybe it’s the levels I used to play at, like when I played for Clitheroe I was the main man, like twisting people up! But I think people would say I’ve become a better player, because you learn the game and situations. I’ve had a decent little career. The FA Cup run (with Salford in 2015/16) was magical, I’ll never forget that. As a person, I think I’ve matured but very, very slowly.
Are there any misconceptions about you, do you think?
Yeah some people will come up to people that I know and say ‘oh, Gaz Stopforth, he’s a lunatic, he’s mental,’ but they don’t even know me. Burnley’s a small place but I’ve never even spoken to these people. Don’t get me wrong, I like to have a little giggle and stuff but I can be serious when it comes to football; if I get beat it ruins my weekend.
Looking back over your career up to now, is there anything specific you would have done differently?
There’s loads of little things throughout your life, I think, that you would have done differently, but that’s all about growing up. Maybe I’d have stayed in more when I was at Blackburn, but unless I was an extra four or five inches taller, scored ten goals a season, or been quicker, I don’t think it would have made much difference! I think I’ve found my level really for what I am. They’re all ifs.
What do you like most about non-league, and what don’t you like?
I used to really like in the lower leagues going to random clubs where it felt like they’d just stepped up from Sunday league. There’s a pub next to it and the cricket club, and some of the fans are giving you shit, but you can hear what they’re saying and you can give it them back. I used to love it, it was brilliant. I tell you what’s changed in non-league, though – some of the money going round. My old Rammy team that got promoted out of that league, we had Darlington, a really good Curzon (Ashton) team, I played a couple of games in that league for Colne and the standard, it’s nowhere near what it used to be. I think the players playing in a higher league now, ten years ago would be playing in the Unibond Prem. It’s because, I’m not sure, maybe there’s not as many people playing, it’s something weird, because some of the money you hear people are on in the league below and league below that, it’s frightening. You could make a good career out of it, just playing football in the Conference North. Us old-school lads, we have to work.
Finally, while the hope is obviously that Chester will turn out this way, is there a spell in your career that you would probably pick out as the happiest all round?
I’d probably say the season where we went up with Rammy was the best. Just because, you know when there’s a film on and you always root for the underdog? We lost something like five games at the start of the season, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, and from there, we beat everyone and we ended up going away to Darlington. They had about 3,000 fans, they’d have expected to beat Ramsbottom, they’d probably never even heard of them, and we just absolutely gave it to them in the semi-final. We went to the final, won that in extra-time, and it was just a moment where you knew after that, that Rammy couldn’t really go any higher and you knew the team’d get dismantled. It was just a really good, happy time, but…maybe this season with Chester’ll be better.
Interview by @chris_brookes