In the English fifth tier, an old feud still boils the blood when Chester host Wrexham
The whirring blades add drama to the scene as a police helicopter monitors the security operation below. Fourteen coaches carrying 750 travelling Wrexham supporters are escorted by as many police vans with “Heddlu” (police in Welsh) on the side as they cross the border into Chester, England.
The rivalry between the towns Chester and Wrexham, located 16 kilometres apart, is longstanding and most regularly played out in football. It is not a friendly rivalry, and there are equivalent police numbers at the fifth-tier match as for a high-profile English Premier League game, where the crowd could be 20 times larger.
Past troubles mean police have made it a “bubble” game – the only one in non-league football.
All travelling Wrexham fans were required to collect their match tickets on their coach transport four hours before the game to prevent groups travelling independently and reduce the chance of disorder.
Such operations are normal when Ajax play Feyenoord or Cardiff City play Swansea City in South Wales. It is unique in the Conference Premier, England’s fifth tier, but then the border skirmish between the blues of Chester and the reds of Wrexham is unique.
It is England versus Wales: a largely middle class English city against a working class Welsh town.
Wrexham’s economic situation has improved in the past two decades, but it remains the antithesis of well-heeled Chester. Wrexham lads are happy that it stays like that and are proud of their hard-bitten reputation.Chester never relied on traditional industries, as Wrexham did, with a large white collar workforce involved in financial services. Chester’s riverside setting, cathedral, Roman walls, the oldest racecourse in England and gothic town hall have long been a tourist magnet.
The clock on the square town hall tower only has three faces, with the Wales facing side remaining blank because, according to the architects, “Chester won’t give Wales the time of day”.
An archaic law states any Cestrian (a resident of Chester) may shoot a Welshman with a longbow if he loiters within the walls after sunset – although this law no longer offers legal protection against prosecution for murder.
“I’d like to see them try it,” one Wrexham lad says.
Chester’s population of 90,000 is more than twice the size of Wrexham, yet their support is substantially less than their rivals, partly because Wrexham attract fans from all over North Wales.
Police officers from neighbouring units are drafted to keep rival fans apart, but Wrexham’s fans arrive so early that there are few Chester fans to greet them.
The bubble is unpopular with fans, who see it as an encroachment on their civil liberty. Many Wrexham fans boycott the game in protest, meaning 450 of their 1,200 allocation remain unsold, but that does not diminish the febrile atmosphere to follow.
An hour before kick off, a dozen teenagers stand outside Chester’s club shop, but they wear none of the blue and white merchandise on offer. These local casuals, with their One Direction haircuts and bright designer tracksuit tops, all support Chester and a bigger local Premier League team.
The Liverpool and Manchester clubs are within an hour’s drive, and smaller clubs have to work hard to attract match-going fans.
“It costs us £3 (Dh18) to come to Chester, and you can go and sing with your mates,” says one youngster, who prefers to watch football live rather than on a screen.
They have no ill feeling towards Wrexham, but there is every chance that will change by the time they are 16. From the block closest to the away fans, young Chester fans goad their rivals under the watchful eye of police and stewards.
As the sun finally sets over the foothills of North Wales, the 6,000 capacity stadium falls silent to mark the 80th anniversary of the Gresford Mining Disaster, when an underground explosion killed 266 men and boys near Wrexham. All but one person in the 3,183 crowd manages to pay their respects. The one who cannot is a Chester fan shouting anti-Wrexham abuse.
The silence is broken. The Wrexham fans are outraged and surge towards the vocal home fans.
The police hold them back, a flare is thrown onto the pitch and the game starts.
Within a minute Wrexham have taken the lead and the derby – which is being televised nationally on a satellite channel – has got off to a chaotic start.
“The idiots that disrespected the minute’s silence gave us all the impetus we needed,” Wrexham boss Kevin Wilkin says as he is interviewed mid-game.
As with the angriest football derbies, it is fuelled by slights – perceived or otherwise.
Chester fans complained about a flag at the fixture between the two a year ago, which read “Two dead fans and one dead club” – a reference to Chester City’s demise and the death of two Chester fans.
The two sets of fans are unlikely to ever see eye to eye, though they have much in common. Having spent the majority of their existence in the Football League, both have dropped to non-league following financial troubles.
In Chester’s case, the club were re-established in 2010 and worked their way back up the pyramid, dropping the “City” after their name, although fans still sing with the word city.
Both clubs are supporter-owned, with volunteers helping push them back towards their aim of the Football League.
Wrexham are the third best-supported team in the conference. Chester is fifth.
The top nine supported clubs are all former Football League clubs angling for a return to the 92 club.
No other English league contains a disparity like that of the conference, where the best-supported team, Bristol Rovers, boast an average attendance 10 times that of the lowest, Welling United.
Most of the teams are full-time professionals, but a quarter (the teams near the bottom) remain semi-professional.
The game is excellent. Wrexham are the better team in the first half and deserve their lead, but Chester, with Wayne Rooney’s young brother, John, in their ranks, get stronger as the game progresses.
A 74th-minute equaliser sparks the home fans in the Harry McNally terrace (McNally was a legendary Chester manager) into celebration.
Chants of “England” follow from the home fans, while Wrexham fans, in an away end replete with Welsh flags, sing a passionate song in honour of a local drink.
The sentiment behind a flag reading “Fearless in Devotion” is tested when Chester score a 94th-minute winner.
Defender Ben Heneghan, 20, who started life in Everton’s academy before joining Stoke City and then Chester before he made Stoke’s first team, became a Chester legend in an instant.
The noise is so loud that it briefly drowns out the police helicopter, which has returned in darkened skies.
“Unbelievable feeling ... what a result. Fans were outstanding!” Heneghan would later tell his 656 Twitters followers.
“I’m bitterly disappointed with that,” bemoans Wrexham’s Wilkin. “I know what it means to the fans and the people of Wrexham, and we’ve given ourselves a great opportunity tonight to take all three points. To come away with nothing is really a kick in the teeth.”
The Wrexham fans who had derided Chester and sang “We want to go home” finally get their wish as the Chester celebrations were only just starting.
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Updated: September 24, 2014 04:00 AM