Mark Wright clearly doesn’t pay attention to the old football adage that you should never return to a club where you’ve previously enjoyed success. When Chester City started their hunt for their 14th manager since the turn of the Millennium, few expected the former Liverpool and Derby defender to return for a third spell in charge.
But while most clubs would celebrate the return of one of their most successful managers in recent history, Wright’s appointment has already proved divisive among supporters with some even talking of boycotting games while he’s in charge. In short, it’s an appointment that will just add another chapter into what has not been the happiest of decades for Seals supporters.
When American Football met Soccer
Chester may have won the Conference relatively recently, but that championship has been one of the few things to cheer since the end of the 1990s. Unlike clubs such as Carlisle, Doncaster, Hereford and Shrewsbury, Chester haven’t pushed on since that title in 2004 and seem stuck treading water at the wrong end of League Two.
Former England defender Wright was in charge during that successful spell – a time that had Chester fans dreaming that the bad times could finally be put behind them, and for two years there was a vibrancy around the Welsh border club, clearing the minds of the disasterous spell that saw the Blues relegated to the Conference in 2000.
The year before American Terry Smith had brought the club, declaring his intent to take Chester up to the Championship within three years. Many owners have got very enthusiastically hands on when they’ve got a new toy to play with, but Smith took this further than most.
Shortly after Smith’s takeover, then manager Kevin Ratcliffe quit, citing interference from his new boss. Rather than hire a new manager, Smith – who, with background in American football, knew little of the clogging end of the game his country called soccer – installed himself as manager and embarked on one of the worst ever runs for a Chester side.
There were talks of the players visiting a fast food restaurant for a meal before one game, motivational speeches that belonged in a corporate office environment, and an insistence on the Lord’s Prayer before every match. Despite Ian Atkins being brought in towards the end of the season, the Seals remained grounded at the foot of the table and were relegated from the League.
Smith eventually sold up in 2001, with Chester staring at relegation to the Unibond League. Feeling against the American ran so high, protests became the norm at Chester games. He left Chester at, quite literally, their lowest ever point.
Controversy at the top
The man who replaced Smith in the boardroom at Chester was Steven Vaughan, who brought his own controversy with him, albeit a very different kind from the American.
Vaughan was originally in control of Barrow, where Customs and Excise investigated and subsequently exonerated him for money laundering. But it’s fair to say many Barrow fans don’t have fond memories of his time in charge – the club folded and reformed under his chairmanship, while there was a lengthy battle between Vaughan and Barrow over the ownership of the club’s Holker Street ground.
Nonetheless, Vaughan initially proved a tad more popular in Chester, where he invested heavily in the club (several late payments to assorted bodies like the tax man notwithstanding). Indeed, it was his money that propelled the Seals to first a play-off final against Doncaster in 2003, before storming the Conference the following year.
Despite the impressive all-conquering run to the title that saw many pundits tip Chester for a second successive promotion, the majority of their return to League Two has been spent battling relegation. Were it not for the deductions handed out to Rotherham, Luton and Bournemouth, Chester would certainly be fighting to stay in the League this season.
While fans remain appreciative of Vaughan’s investment over the previous years, there’s still a mixture of caution and worry on the terraces about their largest shareholder, with many concerned about the lack of direction around the club. He announced his intention to quit Chester by stepping down as a director and chairman just over a year ago, but no successor has been found and he remains the club’s largest shareholder and still in de facto control.
Vaughan has been particularly itchy with the trigger finger when it comes to managers, having got through Keith Curle, Ian Rush, Bobby Williamson, Mark Wright (twice), Ray Mathias and, most recently, Simon Davies, who’d struggled all season with several poor results. Chester currently sit 19th in League Two with just three wins and a goal difference of -14.
But what concerns fans most at the moment is a move that’s divided Seals supporters – the decision to rehire Mark Wright
Uncompromising as a player, unloved as a manager
As a player, Mark Wright was renowned as a defender and loved at Derby County, where he made his name as a no-nonsense defender. England fans have season to be thankful to him after his header against Egypt in the group stages of the 1990 World Cup put them through to the next round. Even Liverpool fans would concede he wasn’t half bad, even if he was no Alan Hansen.
But as a manger, fans have been notably less welcoming to Wright. Oxford fans will remember a brief tenure in charge remarkable only for his sacking for misconduct. At Peterborough United, things started well enough, with the Posh looking good for promotion, but he was suddenly suspended then sacked for gross misconduct. The court case surrounding this is still ongoing.
Then there was the end of his first spell at Chester. Wright was tipped as one of the up-and-coming young managers in the country and had an eye for a good player – Daryl Clare, Darryn Stamp and Michael Twiss were among the pick of the bunch at the Deva in the championship-winning season. Chester had serious impressed in that campaign, but on the eve of the new season, Wright quit amid assorted allegations about his private life.
Indeed, the only time Wright has actually been sacked because of on-the-field results was his second spell in charge of Chester in 2007 after taking just three wins from his last twenty games, although he had saved the Blues from relegation the season before.
Chester, then, may be one of the very few clubs who’re willing to take a change on a manager with a chequered history. Even if that manager has twice been in the hotseat at the Deva.
But Wright is an abrasive character and not all fans welcome his appointment. Some see it as evidence that few other managers want to touch the club, while others just simply don’t want him back in their dugout. Even those on Chester’s message boards who’ve not criticised the appointment have offered little other support than calling on other supporters to get behind the team.
Time (and this may be a short amount) will tell if Wright’s appointment was a stroke of genius or a desperate measure. In some ways the club and manager currently seem made for each other.
Wright does know the club inside out and his uncompromising attitude is just what Chester need at a time when they’ve lost their direction. But there’s always a possibility that his side will mirror his last few months in charge, or that he’ll yet again be forced out for non-footballing matters. Either way, things certainly aren’t dull at the Deva. Depressing at times, mixed with a very occasional piece of elation, possibly, but never dull.