Chester City fans celebrated the arrival of Terry Smith, who took over the club last year. They are not celebrating now, says Mark Howell
Terry Smith, the 40-year-old former coach of Manchester Spartans American Football team, took control of Chester City in July 1999. Asked to explain his interest, Smith cited his children’s love of Chester Zoo and the fact that “Americans love history, and Chester is steeped in history”. Supporters celebrated nonetheless. They had raised over £100,000 towards Smith’s takeover and were set to own over 30 per cent of the club, which had been in administration for almost a year.
Things soon started to go wrong at the Deva. Senior players complained about Smith to the local press. When he was put on the transfer list, captain Andy Crosby said he felt the club was “falling apart”. City lost centre forward John Murphy and 1998-99 player of the year Ross Davidson. Four local business groups pulled out of the proposed share deal with Smith, who denied ever making a formal offer to them to get involved. Instead, he introduced a share offer restricted to members of the club’s independent supporters association. Three ISA members were subsequently appointed to the board. Chief executive Bill Wingrove left within a month and later won over £10,000 after suing for unfair dismissal.
The defining moment of the season came after only three matches, when manager Kevin Ratcliffe resigned citing “major differences of opinion with Terry Smith” and invoked a clause in his contract allowing him to resign and have his contract paid up should a new owner come in. Smith denied knowledge of this contract, and accused Ratcliffe of conspiring against him with former chairman Mark Guterman. Ratcliffe subsequently won his case at a tribunal. The club is currently appealing against the award to Ratcliffe of £200,000 plus interest.
Following Ratcliffe’s resignation, Smith named a “revolutionary” five-man coaching team, including himself in the role of team manager. “All coaching,” he claimed, “is 90 per cent the same, regardless of the sport.” The team managed just 16 points from a possible 75 between September and January, conceding 52 goals and scoring only 16. Smith named defensive, midfield and forward captains in an attempt to provoke “leadership qualities”. Ten-page dossiers were produced for every game, there were substitutions after ten minutes and players were ordered to say the Lord’s Prayer before a home game.
Smith’s relationship with both the “supporters” board members and the ISA declined badly. It was claimed that Chester City were debt free for the first time in years, yet no accounts had been received at Companies House since 1996. On December 13, with the club in 23rd place, the ISA unanimously passed a vote of no confidence in the role of Terry Smith as team manager.
In the programme for the Halifax Town match five days later, Smith announced the withdrawal of the ISA Supporters Share Offer. The ISA had to write over 550 cheques to disillusioned supporters, and had spent over £6,000 in irretrievable legal fees. On January 7, following three successive defeats, Ian Atkins was appointed director of football, with Smith retaining the title of first team manager.
Atkins almost performed a footballing miracle but, as everyone now knows, the team was relegated on the last day on goal difference. His side conceded only 28 goals in 21 games, seven of those in one game against Brighton. Unbelievably Smith, seemingly envious of Atkins’s popularity, described his results as “disappointing”. The supporters are frightened that Smith may once again attempt to manage the first team in the Conference. Further relegation, they feel, would spell the end of professional football in the city.
Since the end of the season, Smith has publicly attacked the ISA and the local press. One of his “supporters” board members, David Evans, has resigned, criticising the chairman’s failure to encourage help from the local business community. The Executive Members Club, which accounts for over half of the club’s commercial income, has condemned Smith’s actions and called for a boycott of season ticket sales until the appointment of a “professional and competent manager”.
A lot now depends on whether the board has the ambition and foresight to give such a manager a workable budget to spend. Giving Ian Atkins an extended contract would be a great start. Rumours abound that local businesses are keen on buying Smith out, that a lot of players will be leaving and that the club is back in debt. Déjà vu is setting in…
From WSC 161 July 2000. What was happening this month