Writing about a football club for a living is just about the dream role for many. How about when it’s also ‘your’ club? It beats the life out of doing a job that means nothing to you, but football isn’t all it is classically packaged and polished up to be, and covering the club you love can leave you feeling wildly conflicted, especially in the bleakest moments.
In these unprecedented times (oh you’ve heard that one, have you?), Dave Powell is a Business of Football Writer at the Liverpool Echo, but in a fairly recent previous life, his day job concerned footballing matters not too far south. The lion’s share of the Chester supporter’s day job saw him documenting the club for the Chester Chronicle/Cheshire Live.
It is just over a decade since the famous old Chester City’s reformation, with Dave covering a sizeable percentage of the Chester FC story to date. He has certainly seen a lot. Enough to write a book about maybe. Or answer some questions for Non-League Daily. (What’s cheaper?…The second one it is!)
Firstly Dave, with the job you’ve been doing more recently, has it been more so enjoyable or difficult watching on at Chester as ‘just’ a fan again?
Given the restrictions on our lives still, and the fact that non-league football has been so stop-start, I don’t feel that I’ve been able to get that feeling back just yet. The biggest part of watching Chester for me is being there, speaking with my friends and fellow fans and savouring the experience of it all; without all that, it feels very hollow. I have been watching all the streams and that’s been great, but there was always a feeling that this season would be an exercise in futility, and so that has proven to be the case. A very expensive exercise. I can’t wait for when we can actually return and I can experience being a fan again and everything that goes with it on a match day.
The overall time period in which you covered the club, which years did that encompass?
I started covering the club in the summer of 2016 but had been on the Chester Chronicle sports desk for two years before that doing bits and bobs on the Blues. The four years I did it took in a relegation, financial crisis and a global pandemic.
After studying, which I know you’ve talked about previously, and your wife giving you that vital encouragement to actually pursue it, how do you ultimately end up covering the club professionally? Describe your ‘foot in the door’ process, if you like.
I was like a sponge when I started studying. I had been made redundant from a job I hated and was no good at, and didn’t know where I was going with my life. The only thing I knew I could do well was write, so I just poured my energy into that. I went to the University of Chester as a mature student and worked three jobs, as well as volunteering twice a week on the sports desk at the Chester Chronicle. That then helped me get a news job at The Chester Leader and then my placement was the reason the Chronicle offered me a permanent job two years after I graduated. When Jim Green left to become chief executive of the Chester FC Community Trust, I took on the role covering the Blues. I had applied for the job about two years before but lost out to Jim (rightly so, a king among men).
When I think of Chester, I know where the club’s been and the support that’s been there through the decades. Probably strangely, though, I think of someone like Angus Eve first! Just for the time I grew up in and noticing certain names at other clubs that end up sticking in the mind. What are your earliest memories of the whole experience of supporting the club? Perhaps that first ‘wow’ moment at the ground that I think we all have as fans.
Angus Eve – part of one of the most bonkers football storylines in recent history. That Chester season he was a part of was a disaster but oh so memorable, mainly for the wrong reasons. I remember vividly my first game: it was Chester v Northampton in November of 1993 and we won 1-0 at the Deva. The game is still on YouTube. My late dad was a lifelong Chester fan and it became the glue that bound us through our lives, the Blues. We would traipse around the country and follow their fortunes and it made us into great mates. The first game wasn’t a ‘wow’ kind of a clash, I’d just stuck with it because I liked spending time with my dad. Later in that 93/94 season, where we won promotion to Division Two, we played Preston in a top-of-the-table clash and it went OFF! A full house, fans clambering over the sides to get a look, a five-goal thriller and a last-minute winner from Graham Lancashire. That was it, I was hooked. Bought a shirt shortly after and I was bound for life. No room for any other football love in my heart.
— Dave Powell (@_DavePowell) August 17, 2019
Whereabouts in Chester or close by is/was home to you? Was it always a walk to the ground on a home match day, or were you a bit further out than that?
I actually lived just over the border in Penyffordd, Flintshire, about 15 minutes or so away. No walk to the ground but we always had a ritual of picking up my late Uncle George en route from Garden City and listening to Neil Turner on BBC Radio Merseyside giving us the build-up. Almost three decades on and me and Neil are huge friends; a wonderful bloke.
What would you outline as the toughest aspect(s) of covering the club you love for a job?
Trying to park my feelings as a fan can be difficult, and I probably overstepped that line on occasion. Also, you can suffer from knowing too much about your club; I kind of preferred it when I was less informed and just able to take in the matches without the other drama. It has its benefits, though. Being a fan, I had a good idea how the fans thought in the main, and I knew my history. The fans knew I cared deeply about the club, and that helps build trust between you and the reader. They have to trust you.
Tell me about giving Marcus Bignot a lift to the train station after he’d collected his belongings and left the club. How did you end up being the Chester manager’s driver on the day he leaves? Assuming you weren’t just moonlighting as a chauffeur/taxi driver at that time!
I’d gone to pick up something from the club shop after work and I see Marcus coming out with a little cardboard box filled with belongings. “Powelly, I need a lift to the station and you owe me one for all the horrible things you wrote,” he said. I gave him one and we just chatted about football. He was a good guy, Marcus. Wrong man at the wrong time maybe, but a good guy and someone who I had a lot of time for. He’s a great coach, too, it just wasn’t the right environment for him to thrive. I’ve seen him since and we’ve had a beer together and good laugh. He never took stuff to heart, just realised it was part of the job and was happy to park it when the game was done.
That 17/18 season, it seemed that probably along with Hartlepool, most days there was a new twist with the struggles the club was going through. Tell me about your role that season and how uniquely challenging/strange it was.
From the very start it didn’t feel right. The summer signings were welcomed but none worked out and the money wasn’t spent at all well. The writing was on the wall when we were chatting after a pre-season friendly to an ex-Chester player who had just left the club the week before. “They’ll go down, definitely,” he told us. We laughed at the time. The performances were dreadful and it was a learning curve for me; I was far too weak to call it out at the start, I should have been at it from the end of the previous season. As the crisis unfolded, it did give me the chance to challenge myself like never before and attempt to get answers and hold people accountable. That season kind of needed to happen for the club, it had been sleepwalking to that for some time. Going on national radio to talk about why you wrote an article slagging off the players so much wasn’t in my grand plan. The players in my first season had been great, and some remained solid throughout, but I had some sour relationships with players after I started being more critical. There are some from that team that wouldn’t give me the time of day even now. I’d not seen a side with such disharmony since the last knockings of Chester City under Stephen Vaughan. It was pretty toxic and I didn’t particularly enjoy myself that season, although it was the most important for me as a journalist. I learned a lot and it provided me with a voice at Chester at last.
That Marcus Bignot one aside, are there any other favourite/surreal stories from your interactions with those in the game? Be it in press conferences, motorway service stations, or any other scenario at all.
Many of the times I have laughed the hardest have been while on the road with Chester. I’ve been stuck on an M1 slip road for seven hours after a Saturday game in Hertfordshire with another journo before now. Both of us had less than 10% battery and no hope before someone called us back at 12am to change a tyre that cost me £400. My passenger was flapping more than a pigeon in a conservatory and had used his final juice in the phone to call his parents; we rowed. In terms of surreal, the few days I spent in Newquay with the team before the 2019/20 season were epic. A load of fans came down and we had the best laugh. Drinking way too much Red Stripe with Bernard and Jonno and getting the glow sticks out to ‘Rhythm is a Mystery’ by K-Klass, while one part of K-Klass – Paul Roberts, a Chester fan – was getting on the ale with us. Turned out he asked the DJ for the song. Legend. Unreal few days. Pressers with the players could be challenging with Craig Mahon around. Me and Shane (Pinnington) had to find places where he couldn’t interfere (i.e. get his wang out) while we were chatting to a player about the weekend game to come. The club shop, the ref’s room, wherever it was, he would find you.
For the club in general, I give a lot of credit to the communication aspect, which Albert (Davies) is obviously central to. Non-league and otherwise, I think there’s some really good people doing these roles in football, and there’s also some shockers, in all honesty, in terms of helpfulness and courtesy. How much pride does it give you that the club seems to get that side of things right? Is it a reflection of the people who’ve helped build it in the past decade?
There’s a lot of great work that goes on behind the scenes at Chester. Since Albert has come on board, the content has been fantastic and has played a big part in people staying engaged with the club at a time we couldn’t physically be there. The volunteers who do the comms, the likes of Matty Johnson, Phil Turner, Jason and Lottie Walker, and James French all do a great job in making sure fans feel a part of it. Albert has a very wide skill set that has grown since he started at Chester and it’s been great to see him thrive. He’s a good mate and I think he’ll go far in the industry. He’s thorough, totally professional and makes a valuable contribution that deserves to be acknowledged.
In terms of the way the game’s spoken about and covered at this level, or football in general, what’s good as you see it, and/or what annoys you?
I pretty much hate FA Cup coverage, I know that sounds mad. It’s great for the clubs and such a money-spinner, but it often means having the piss taken out of you, maybe not intentionally, on a national scale. Still people talking about posties and milkmen playing up front for Ragarse Rovers. That might be the case but they are also lads dedicated to what they do and lads who have often come through the same systems as those who are lauded on our TVs every week. Oh, and it would be great for ex-League clubs to get used to being non-league. The idea of divine right doesn’t exist because you used to play Rochdale. The sooner clubs like that adapt, the sooner they will be back where they want to be.
Do you think there are any misconceptions about the club? Either in recent times or back through the years. Anything you wish people understood about Chester a bit better.
We are always told we let our club die. That one is wheeled out often. The club was already dead before it got to the High Court; it was a disgraceful shell of something that used to bring joy to many. Notions that the fans would have taken on the debt from someone like Stephen Vaughan is laughably stupid and shows a very limited understanding of the issues the club faced at the time. Nobody knew for certain people would buy into a phoenix club, some feared that it would be a non-starter. I wish people realised how hard it is to keep a team competitive when you are run by the fans on a voluntary basis. The hours that are put in are not to make sure they gain financial reward, it is because they love the club. I believe that post-Covid, we will see more of it. People just want their clubs to exist right now and betting it all to try and get into League Two and play Salford City seems foolish. When success occurs at Chester, it is because we have made it so. The three promotions under Neil Young were three of the most thrilling years in all my time supporting Chester. We went from having no balls to train with in 2010 to building a £1.5m football hub for the benefit of our city in 2021. Some club.
— Chester FC (@ChesterFC) April 6, 2013
I’m saying this as a Sheffield Wednesday fan in a time where Sheffield United and Leeds have made it back to the Premier League. How does the Wrexham takeover and all the widespread interest make you feel? Can you take any shred of gladness for them, or has it been a bit of a stomach-turner to constantly see on social media etc. as a Chester fan?
No, I’ve got plenty of mates who are Wrexham fans and they would say the same if the shoe was on the other foot. I want them to lose every game and be miserable when it comes to the football, but what I will say is that I am intrigued by it and think that it will be a good thing, however much I may wish the opposite. If the involvement of Wryan and Wrob, as they are being coined, means a lasting effect of more employment opportunities for people because of the increased spotlight on Wrexham, or if it enriches community projects because of it, then that is fantastic, and I dearly hope that happens and leaves a lasting legacy. But on the pitch? Nah. Hope they lose every game 7-0. Not a Wrexham fan who would say different if it was flipped.
If you were in charge of a celebrity consortium taking Chester over (we’ll clear it with CFU afterwards, it’ll be fine…), who would you have involved in that dream team?
I would clone Jim Green several times.
(Second half of the question, before Dave’s Jim Green answer…) And which of those famous names is then acrimoniously leaving the board later down the line, and for what reason?!
He’ll never leave. The guy’s first words were ‘Trevor Storton’.
Finally, what are you looking forward to most about watching Chester again in person, when the matchday experience really is fully restored? What are the details you’ll cherish?
Seeing my mates. Sharing a beer. Whinging about really unimportant stuff again that feels like THE most important thing in the world at the time. There are few things as good for the soul as three points on a Saturday. That will remain.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @_DavePowell
Questions by @chris_brookes