On the borderline

IT really does feel like the edge of the earth at Chester’s Deva Stadium. From the press box, looking beyond the stand opposite, all I could see were miles and miles of fields and electricity pylons. Mind you, the last thing I was thinking about was what I could see.

“People in the main stand are getting a bit of a smell,” said Chester’s public address announcer moments before this afternoon’s League Two match against Bury kicked off. “Unfortunately, we can do nothing about it. Who would have thought you’d get muckspreading in December?”

We used to call that aroma ‘fresh country smells’ when I was small. Judging by the need for a public announcement, I’m guessing they’re not a regular feature of Chester home games. (Although it might explain why they’ve struggled at home a bit this season.)

I certainly don’t remember such an aroma the last time I went to the Deva Stadium. That was for a game against Bury too; and a controversial one. Bury won an FA Cup second-round replay there 3-1 last December; but then it emerged that the Shakers had inadvertently fielded an ineligible player in on-loan Hartlepool midfielder Stephen Turnbull, and they were kicked out of the competition. It’s still a sore point at Gigg Lane.

Despite my previous visit, I still struggled to find the Deva Stadium. It’s tucked away at the end of a business park, in a location so well hidden that even Ranulph Fiennes would probably have to stop and ask for directions.

The most well-known fact about the Deva Stadium is that part of it (the main stand) is in England and the rest (including most of the pitch) is in Wales. It’s Wales where the fields and pylons are. And I feel it was Wales that the public address announcer was blaming for the smell enveloping the main stand.

He’s a cheeky chap, that announcer, as he proved when reading out the teams before the game.

“At No 3 for Bury, a man who used to play for Chester City many years ago,” he said. “He’s had a marvellous career when you think about it. Now approaching 39 years of age and he’s still playing. Ladies and gentlemen, give a warm welcome to Chester City to Colin Woodthorpe!”

Talk about damning with faint praise. Oh hang on, he hadn’t finished.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I had a chat with Colin earlier. He’s feeling a bit under the weather, but he’s still playing.”

Amid all the announcements, he played a specially-mixed tape of Christmas hits, featuring the usual suspects (Slade, Band Aid) alongside the more leftfield (I Was Born On Christmas Day by Saint Etienne) and what sounded suspiciously like Whigfield’s version of Last Christmas. (If I was, I suspect it’s the first time it’s been heard in public anywhere since it was released. Then again, maybe my ears were deceiving me.)

However, the tape wasn’t long enough to cover the hour that had to be filled before the game, with the result that the public address man had to play it all the way through twice before the match, and then once again at half-time. So having gotten all the way to December 22 without hearing Noddy Holder yell ‘iiiiiiiiiiit’s Chriiiiiiiiistmaaaaaaaas’ once, I’ve now heard him yell it three times.

On the pitch, Bury made history by becoming the first club since Coventry City circa 1978 to play in an all-brown away strip. Maybe that, combined with the pungent aroma of manure continuing to circulate around the stadium, was what put Chester off their game in the first half.

On the other hand, maybe it was the home fans’ insistence on heckling with exasperation at every mistake their team made. Chester may be sixth in League Two, but they have lost more games at home this season than every other team down to 11th. I’m not sure that’s a coincidence.

Either way, Bury should have been three up by half-time. After Andy Bishop gave them a 16th-minute lead, Paul Scott, Glynn Hurst and Nicky Adams all missed clear chances to extend it. Inevitably, Chester equalised with the last kick of the first half, through Mark Hughes (that’s the former Tottenham trainee who used to play for Oldham, not the curly-haired Welsh bloke).

At half-time, there was more Noddy (I don’t really go in for hanging stockings on walls, since you ask) and more drama. Despite several appeals from the announcer, the winner of the half-time prize draw could not be found. Would the first prize – a Christmas hamper, a replica 1992/93 Chester City shirt and a box of Celebrations – be claimed? If not, would there be a rollover?

Back to the game. Twenty minutes into the second half, Bishop was sent off, collecting a second yellow card for sliding into Chester full-back Simon Marples. Bury manager Chris Casper aired his frustration repeatedly to fourth official Michael Oliver, like a passenger who has arrived late for his Easyjet flight and been told he can’t board the plane.

A game which Bury had dominated early on was slipping away. Ten minutes from the end, Richie Partridge got down the left flank and crossed for Kevin Ellison to head in off the far post. Chester 2 Bury 1. The Shakers’ fourth straight league defeat. It’s not looking like a very merry Christmas for Casper.

“I’m convinced if Andy Bishop had stayed on the pitch, we would have at least drawn the game, if not won it,” said Casper afterwards. “I thought it was a scandalous decision.”

Time to go home and prepare for Christmas. But not before the final loose end had been tidied up.

“We’re delighted to announce that the half-time draw first prize has now been claimed,” chirped the announcer.

I bet it was one of the players who won, wasn’t it?

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