Jeff Banks: Bringing Football Back to Chester

Photograph courtesy of Jeff Banks / Twitter

For those out there who may not know you, can you talk about your background, where you’re from and how you got yourself involved with Chester F.C?

“Yeah, basically I’ve been a Chester fan all my life, so I’ve virtually been blue since the early 1980’s. They were never the most successful of clubs, but they were the club closest to myself, so I always followed them. It was always a challenge with the Man United and Liverpool fans around the area as well – I enjoyed plenty of ridicule at school for supporting Chester!

“Things changed for us in the late 80’s when we lost our ground in Chester and we had to watch them play in Macclesfield for two years which was a 90 mile round trip.

“If we can get through that, you can pretty much get through anything! But what followed in 2010 when the club went under, thankfully, there was a group of us that decided that everyone needed to take some action a few months before that because we knew what was coming.

“So, from sitting in a pub, we decided to see what we could do to save football in Chester, and it went from there. The minute Chester City Football Club went under in the High Court we were ready to go with the official applications and reform the club”.

Did you have any form of role in the previous club before it was reformed in 2010?

“No I was just a fan of Chester City at the time, until I served on the board for the phoenix club for four or five years as Media Officer.

“When we put it together we all looked at each other and said ‘Well, what would you be good at?’ and I enjoyed all of the media side of things. So, that’s where we took the plunge with our roles and I decided to go ahead with the media role”.

What were your day-to-day requirements as Media Officer?

“To be honest it’s hard to say day-to-day because you’re still working at your normal job whilst trying to balance everything with the football club. I was fortunate to work at MBNA who are the clubs main sponsor and have been for over ten years now.

“I worked for that company at the time and we ended up taking interviews on the breaks at work where we’d have to go into a quiet corner, go on the phone and speak to the likes of Radio Five or Local Radio, just to try and do interviews to put the club out there as far and wide as possible.

“It sounds a bit of a cliche, but we had a dream and we wanted to try and push it out to as many people as possible and get support behind us. So, that’s the day-to-day things, and because I looked after the football clubs website to start off with, my day started at five in the morning, when I’d spend a couple of hours updating the website, go to work, and spend a couple of hours again when I was finished.

“That was difficult because it took a lot of your time up at home where really, that should be your family time. But you put everything you can into it to try and make sure that the club got off to a great start and obviously on the pitch was racing away with success as well- so it was hard to keep up in that respect, but it was a good challenge to have”.

How did you manage to consistently balance everything? It must have been extremely tiring

“Yeah, 100%. I think the adrenaline pushes you on, which sounds strange in that kind of role, but knowing that things are going so well on the pitch, you don’t want that to fall.

“And the more you push for success, the more it finds you. But you’ve got a fan base out there almost like waiting on more information coming out.

“Because we were starting from scratch, there was so much news that had to be put out there, but it was kind of like a snowball effect where it never stopped. So yeah, very, very challenging, but enjoyable and rewarding at the same time”.

At the beginning, how many of there were you that had this collective idea of bringing the club back?

“There was probably about nine of us who were sat in the pub seeing what we could do. And from that point, we looked at the various supporters trusts and clubs that were there – we have four or five different support groups. So what we thought was the best thing to do was to have one group that would all fall under the same umbrella.

“And that’s how City Fans United was formed. Yep. We had a launch night, which celebrated the club as it has been where we had a group of old players come down for a night where we all enjoyed a good drink, celebrated and formed City Fans United.

“And it went from there really. What we wanted to do is just make sure everybody was on the same page, too many different supporters groups can maybe not help sometimes – so unifying everybody was important and it meant we all knew what we were aiming for and what we have to deliver”.

Going from nine of you in the beginning before forming City Fans United, how many members do you have now?

“So, now we’ve got between 1000-1500 members, but we’ve also got a good chunk of junior blues – about 300-400 of them.

“The challenge that we certainly faced straight away was that it was almost like a crisis time. A lot of people will sign up for things, bring the family and bring the dog in or whatever, and we had over 3000 members at the time – that was the peak.

“But the difficulty is when you get to a point where things are plateauing, after you’ve had the success, but then it balances where if you end up not going any further in the league, it becomes difficult to maintain that level of membership.

“But at the same time, it was the ownership of the football club, which is what City Fans United is all about – they own Chester Football Club. So, it was really trying to maintain a decent level of support and people coming through our gates – if you think about our average home gate, in normal times it would be around about 2000.

“So, to nearly have 2000 members is incredible really. But it’s all about everybody looking after their club and everybody doing their own little thing – I did my little thing. People do things like volunteering down at the ticket office, helping to decorate the ground. or even shaking tins to raise money.

“So, everybody does their little thing, but it means so much collectively – that’s what City Fans United is all about.”

I noticed when you said you’d done your little thing for the club that you pointed to the Chester F.C. badge, was there a reason for that?

“Well, the badge is a good thing in itself, I remember we had a launch night, like a public meeting, down at The Guild Hall which is one of the most historic venues in Chester, and we revealed a club badge that night, and it was designed by a Chester fan!

“We put a few ideas out there to be voted on. And we had this one revealed at the launch night, and it gathered pace from there. It’s an attractive looking badge and it’s got parts of the old Chester City badge on it as well.It’s just great that so many people believed in what we were trying to do”.

What have you found are the pros and cons to fan ownership?

“Well, the pros, first of all, is that the future is in your own hands – I know it sounds a bit of a cliche, but that’s exactly what it is.

“If we don’t put the effort in or look after the football club then it would just go straight back down the drain. The membership has pushed the club forward, there’s no doubt about that. To win the first three championships in a row, that was because people believed in what we were trying to do and the support was there.

“The cons I guess you could say is the argument of ‘is there is a ceiling to how far you can go as a fan owned club?’. Personally I don’t think there is. There’s certainly challenges, but you can look to other clubs, the likes of Wimbledon who’ve made it into the football league, Exeter have been one as well.

“So, there’s examples out there which you can certainly point to. But yeah, it doesn’t come without challenges and that’s probably the cons, every pound matters so much to a club like us. We’re seeing at the moment that there are clubs out there who are owned by individuals who can afford to throw money at it. But what you tend to find is those owners will end up attaching loans to the club, which immediately puts the clubs in debt. That’s pretty much exactly what has happened in the past.

“We had a succession of owners who were dragging the club down, which is very difficult as a fan to try and counteract that because you may not have the money that those people have to run the football club the way it should be. The last owners ran us into the ground because they didn’t pay a tax bill of £26,000, which in this day and age is criminal.

“For a football club loses history, almost, but certainly it’s lose its status in the football pyramid at that time. For the sake of just not wanting to pay a tax bill and killing the club out of spite, it’s disgusting, and this is where I say as fans we can control our club, it’s everyone’s club, and everybody has a responsibility to look after it”.

How has the past year been for you all, trying to work through the pandemic?

“Well, we’re used to challenges at Chester!

“I mentioned the owners in the past, and we had a flood not so long ago at the ground which set us back as well – that was difficult to work through. So, we seemed to come out of one crisis, whether it be a financial one or something at the ground, and then the Coronavirus comes in and hit you for six as well.

“I think as a club, we’ve dealt with it as best as we can. In terms of the health and safety side, there’s no issues at all. We’ve followed all the protocols and but everything into place. But obviously with no fans being allowed to into the ground, it’s, it’s really, really hard, because there’s no income.

“The football club still has bills to pay, and players wages to pay. We’ve got a great set of players who took part in the playoffs at the end of the season without pay, which for a football club is fantastic. And I don’t think it would have happened to any other club that wasn’t fan owned.

“But we’re seeing the challenges right now. We were quite vocal about it because as a fan owned club we don’t take on debt, our constitution says we don’t take on any loans because the club has to be debt free, simple as that. So, to be offered loans now, as a, as a way of survival just goes against the very point of a community run football club.

“So, with a lack of income, we’re relying on those grants that we’re fighting for at the moment. But if you can’t get the fans in, and nobody is wanting to give you grants, then how can we go any further? What we want to do is make sure we’re doing the right thing for the football club because it could just so easily be lost by making the wrong decision”.

Having looked at the City Fans United website, I can see there is a lot of community work and fundraisers organised by the group, can you tell me a little bit more about what that entails?

“Yeah, like I mentioned before, we have to raise the money ourselves, there’s no sugar daddy. So, everybody digs deep in the fan base to do what they can to support it.

“There’s different sort of fundraisers. Last year we did Boost the Budget, which was one that we decided to go out with – we’d looked at other couple of clubs who had done such an initiative, and whilst we don’t want to go the fans all the time asking for the money, we’re all owners, so we all need to contribute somehow to keep that going.

“And what it helped is where whilst we’re not playing football right now, but where you see Chester in the table is that the Boost the Budget has more than helped us get to where we will be. We were in need of support to try and help Bern and Jonno in their for promotion, because we all want to get promoted.

“But it’s kind of turned into a survival package now, because if the Boost the Budget money hadn’t been in there then we would have probably been stopped playing football a lot sooner. But there’s different things that we do – we’ve got the sales lottery, which everybody who is a member can take part in. We’ve had some fantastic emails through today actually about people who won first prize on that.

“But they’ve donated it back to the football club, because they know the football club needs it more, which is amazing. We’re talking about people winning £500 here and they’re telling us to take it back. Amazing”.

Especially in times like this, £500 can be huge money for a lot of people

“Yeah, when you see people saying the club needs it more than them, you know they’ve got our badge in their heart, and if you cut them, if they probably bleed blue and white. It’s the simple things that make a massive difference”.

Short-term is of course to come through the other side of the pandemic, but once you see light at the end of the tunnel, what are the long-term goals both on and off the pitch at Chester F.C?

“Well, I think obviously short-term is survival. I think we’d love in the short-mid term to get back into the National League. We seem to be on course for a good shot at it this year, having had a couple of attempts, which we came close in.

“It’s a difficult one, but every Chester fan will think back to the days of being in the English Football League (EFL). When you see the memories videos on Twitter and you see a packed stadium with loads of people behind the goal. They were great times. We want those back.

“We had some great times less than 10 years ago and we want those back. But it takes a hell of a lot of work and time and effort to actually get anywhere close to that. But the ultimate aim personally, I want to see us back in the EFL, I grew up supporting Chester and I’d love to see us do that again.

“One of the reasons I got involved when I did over 10 years ago was because I wanted to see us beat Wrexham! They’re the best memories Chester fans have.

“And our first win back in the National League was away at Wrexham. We scored a last minute winner on the TV, Ben Heneghan steps up the last minute and scores in injury time”.

I bet that is exactly how you dreamed it!

“Every Chester fan probably dreamed of themselves scoring that winner to be honest!

“But it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as it was against Wrexham, that’s the main thing. We have a bit of banter about it, and that’s what football is all about. You don’t overstep the mark, but there’s lots of banter to be had with them. The ownership that they’re moving onto now obviously seems very lucrative, but for some reason they want to beat Chester as well so they might wait around a little bit for us to catch up with them!”.

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