An English Soccer Team’s Existential Crisis: Is It Really in Wales?

Chas Sumner has heard the quiz question in all its forms. There was the one asking, “Which club has an international border along the center line of its stadium?” Or this one: “Which football team changes in one country but plays in another?” Or: “Where can you take a corner kick in England but score a goal in Wales?”

The answer to all three, Sumner knew, was Chester FC, formerly the mainstay of English football’s professional divisions, but currently residing in their sixth tier. For 30 years, Chester, the team of which he was the official historian, had played in a stadium straddling the largely nominal line between England and Wales.

Not that it seems particularly important to anyone. The stadium location was nothing more than a minor claim to fame and the occasional inconvenience: two countries sometimes meant red tape for two local authorities. Other than that, Sumner said, “no one even knew exactly where the border was.”

This was true until last Friday, when Chester FC suddenly discovered they were occupying contested territory. Summoned to a meeting with the two local councils – Flintshire, Wales and Cheshire West, England – and the North Wales Police, Chester leaders received a letter accusing them of violating Welsh protocols on coronaviruses.

Chester had played at home twice over the New Years period, drawing crowds of over 2,000 fans. This was in line with the rules in England, where lawmakers did not impose new restrictions on public gatherings even as the Omicron variant came into force, but it violated the laws of Wales, where the government introduced regulations. more stringent on December 26. which limited crowds at outdoor events to no more than 50 people.

Chester did not believe these changes applied to his case. “This is an English club playing in a stadium that covers both England and Wales,” said Andrew Morris, volunteer chairman of Chester. “We play in the English league, we are registered with the English Football Association, the ground on which the stadium is built is owned by an English council. We are subject to English governance and police.

The stadium itself, in fact, was designed to make this status very clear. “Normally the main stand in a stadium is built away from the sun,” said Mark Howell, a former board member and still a club volunteer. “In Chester, it’s fair to you, because they built the stadium to make sure the front door is to England.”

For the Welsh authorities, it made no difference. “The home of the Chester Football Club is in Wales,” a government official said last week. “Therefore Welsh regulations apply. “

In response, Chester postponed his game scheduled for this weekend as he sought legal advice on how to break the deadlock.

It was not the first time that the divergent approaches to the pandemic taken by the four nations that make up the UK have caused borders that have long been viewed as moot, even after Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland established their own parliaments in 1999, taking a much more solid, more concrete form.

“The border never really mattered,” said Howell, a member of Chester’s board of directors. “The stadium was built before decentralization, so nobody even thought about it. And even after that, no one thought about it. There were differences – people in Welsh postcodes could get free prescriptions on the health service, and people in English postcodes couldn’t – but that wasn’t a problem. “

It turns out that even the trivial questions about Chester were wrong. In fact, the border does not run along the center line of Deva Stadium or cross the pitch. He crosses the parking lot and splits the club offices.

Over the past two years, however, the borders between England, Wales and Scotland have become extremely important. The villages that cover them have sometimes found different rules in place for different parts of their population as one country goes into lockdown and another leaves. Travel between constituent nations has been discouraged or prohibited, with police effectively preventing freedom of movement within Britain itself.

In football, too, the long-standing fluidity between the English and Welsh leagues has posed a problem. The four Welsh teams that play in the English league system – Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham – continue to play at home, but the law prevents them from doing so in front of a crowd of more than 50. Fans are, however, allowed to watch their matches on the road: Cardiff, for example, is expected to arrive with several thousand supporters at an FA Cup match in Liverpool next month.

The New Saints – a team based in the town of Oswestry, a few miles inside the English border, but competing in the Welsh Premier League – have at the same time been subject to Welsh restrictions. “Legally, maybe we could play,” said Ian Williams, the club’s director of operations. “But we are affiliated with the Welsh Football Association, so we choose to line up with all the other clubs in our league.”

It is the case of Chester, however, which is perhaps the most complex. There has been no sign, so far, that the Welsh government will change its position, Morris said. “They insist that we fall under Welsh law,” he said.

Wales have offered Chester payments to make up for lost ticket sales, but the club have been told their acceptance could jeopardize his registration with England’s FA Morris hope Welsh regulations will change in the coming weeks, allowing fans to attend and break the deadlock. But he conceded that if they stayed in place for another month it could “tip the club overboard” into a financial crisis.

The consequences could go even further than that. Sumner said he was concerned that “the way football is organized between the two countries is now being called into question”.

“It’s a strange fight to choose,” he said. “No one cared about the border before. Now that opened up a box of worms, and it could do a lot of damage. “

Morris is also aware of this. He has sometimes had the impression this week that “the UK may start to fall apart because a Sixth Division football match cannot take place”. In talks with local authorities, he raised the idea of ​​moving the border so that it encompasses the entire stadium, ending Chester’s geographic curiosity.

“It’s not on the table,” he admitted. “I understand why. The border crosses villages and fields far below. They don’t want to get caught up in the horse business.

He is more hopeful that a deal with the Welsh government can be reached, a deal that will crystallize Chester’s status as an England team who just happen to have part of their ‘stadium imprint’ in Wales. It might cost Chester his claim to fame, but it would be the wise solution. The club which fortunately existed in England and Wales now feel they have no choice but to choose one or the other.

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