When the going gets tough - a year of learning at Chester FC

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Whilst SD promote the model of supporter ownership across sport, as we say to any clubs and supporters entertaining this option it doesn't guarantee success. Football moves so quickly, so the incredible achievements of Chester fans protecting, reforming and rebuilding their club were somewhat drowned out after a particularly bruising season last year. Now with some time to reflect we thought it would be helpful to check in with non-executive Director Rich Lynes about the past few months and what the future holds....   

What went wrong at Chester FC last season?  

Pretty much everything it's fair to say. We had assembled what we thought was a strong squad of players whose track record indicated a competitive and enjoyable season was on the cards. We had increased the playing budget significantly and we all looked forward to a season without the stress of relegation, maybe even a shot at the extra two play off places. 

From day one it turned sour. We turned up at Solihull Moors only for the match to be postponed at the last minute on safety grounds. When we eventually got going results were poor. With Just one win, four draws and 3 defeats it became clear that we were in for a season of struggle and the manager was relieved of his duties.  

After the new manager was installed,results failed to improve, gates plummeted and money became very tight, We had accumulated a decent cash reserve, but when that was being used to keep our heads above water, we knew we were in trouble.

Things on and off the pitch continued to conspire against us and before long relegation was inevitable and with relegation to the National League North confirmed we lost our second manager of the season.

The City Fans United Board belatedly advised the Trust members of the cash flow crisis and asked for help to keep the club afloat.

How have the Trust and the Supporters responded?

It was never going to be easy to deliver such bad news and quite rightly, a great deal of anger was vented.

That said, the response from the membership and the wider football community was simply amazing. The initial Target of £50,000 was reached in no time at all and the immediate threat to the business was averted. So much help was received from so many people. It became clear that everyone associated to the club were prepared to roll their sleeves up and do whatever they could to keep us going.

What lessons have been learnt and what changes have been made?

It was clear that significant changes were required, A number of board members resigned and new directors were co-opted.  Experienced non executive directors were appointed to both the main Board and the Operations Board to offer advice and guidance. This included Mr Stuart Murphy, a previous sponsor who contacted the club late in the season to offer a financial donation.

Work Groups were formed for every area of the business, reporting into a director. Their contribution has been immense in steadying the ship.

An in depth review of the business was carried out with the assistance of Supporters Direct and this came up with 25 recommendations for immediate improvement, covering everything from strategy,financial management to human resources and volunteer management.

What difference will Mr Murphys donation make to Chester FC?

It could be huge for us to be honest! Stuart has pledged to donate one million pounds to the club over three years. The majority of this is to be invested in Infrastructure projects and the plan is that we will become far more sustainable as a result.

It is important to note that during the process of negotiating the donation, Stuart made it clear that he had no interest in changing the ownership model and that 100% fan ownership would be retained.

How are you feeling ahead of the new season?

Well, most supporters at every club looks forward with optimism before a new season and in that respect we are no different. We have recruited the management team who won the league title last season with Salford, so we know that there will be a fit squad of players who will do their best for us. After last season that is all we can ask. Of course we have greater ambitions for the future, but if we achieve that it will be without risk to the clubs future. We have hopefully learned that if your income is 99p and your outgoings are £1, the result is misery.

Any advice for clubs that are facing a challenging period?

Firstly, I would say be as transparent as possible with your membership. Bad news is not easy to share, but it is essential. As we have discovered, if you ask for help, people will come forward with assistance in many different ways. That way, a crisis can often be avoided.

Set realistic budgets that do not rely on success on the pitch. Do not gamble with the future of your business.

Learn to say sorry when mistakes are made. Nobody is perfect and if you are running a business with volunteers, the membership will understand as long as lessons are learnt.

Always make decisions that move you forward towards your strategic aims.

Last, but very much not least, look after your volunteers, without them you are nothing.

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