English football’s existential crisis: is it really in Wales?
Chas Sumner heard the test question in all its forms. Someone asked, “Which club has an international border that runs the length of its midfield?” Or this: “Which football team changes in one country but plays in another?” Or: “Where can you take a corner kick in England but score in Wales?”
The answer to all three, as Sumner came to be known, was Chester FC, who was once a champion of the professional divisions of English football but is currently based in the Sixth Division. For 30 years, Chester, the team that served as their official historian, played in a stadium that straddled the nominal line separating England from Wales.
It doesn’t seem to be particularly important to anyone. The stadium’s location was little more than a simple claim to fame and an accidental inconvenience: two states sometimes meant the paperwork of two local authorities. Other than that, no one knew exactly where the boundary was,” Sumner said.
That held true until last Friday, when Chester FC suddenly discovered it was occupying a disputed area. Called to a meeting with both local councils – Flintshire, in Wales, and Cheshire West, in England – and North Wales police, Chester executives were handed a letter accusing them of breaching Welsh coronavirus protocols.
Chester played twice at home over the New Year period, attracting more than 2,000 fans. It was in line with rules in England, where lawmakers stopped imposing new limits on public gatherings even as the Omicron formula took hold, but it broke laws in Wales, where the government introduced stricter regulations on 26 December. That limited crowds at outdoor events to no more than 50 people.
Chester did not believe these changes would apply in his case. “It’s an English club that plays in a stadium that covers both England and Wales,” said Andrew Morris, Chester volunteer chief. “We play in the Premier League, we are registered with the FA, the land on which the stadium is built is owned by an English council. We are subject to English governance and English police control.”
In fact, the stadium itself is designed to make this situation crystal clear. “Usually the main stand of a stadium is built facing the sun,” said Mark Howell, a former board member who is still a volunteer with the club. “In Chester it’s totally in your eyes, because they built the stadium to make sure the front door is in England.”
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For the Welsh authorities, that made no difference. “The stadium of Chester Football Club in Wales,” a government representative said last week. “So Welsh regulations apply.”
In response, Chester postponed her match scheduled for this weekend as she sought legal advice on how to choose a path out of the impasse.
It was not the first time that the divergent approaches to the pandemic taken by the four countries that make up the UK had caused a border that had long been seen as theoretical, even after Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland established their own parliaments in 1999, to take shape More solid and more realistic.
“The boundaries didn’t matter that much,” said Hoyle, a Chester board member. “The stadium was built before the transfer of power, so no one thought about it. Even then, no one thought about it. There were differences – people in Welsh postcodes could get free prescriptions for health services, and people who They speak more English than that – but that wasn’t a problem.”
Even petty questions about Chester were wrong, it turns out. In fact, the boundary does not run along the halfway line at the Diva Stadium or penetrate the field. It passes through the parking lot and makes its way to the club offices.
But over the past two years, the border between England, Wales and Scotland has become very important. The villages it straddles have, at times, found different rules in place for different parts of their population as a country goes into lockdown and other exits. Travel between constituent nations has been variously discouraged or prohibited, with police effectively preventing freedom of movement within Britain itself.
In football too, the long-running fluidity between the English and Welsh leagues has presented a problem. The four Welsh teams that play in the Premier League system – Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham – continue to play matches at home, but are prohibited by law from doing so in front of crowds of more than 50. Despite this, they were allowed to attend their matches on the road: it is expected that Cardiff, for example, has several thousand fans arriving when it plays an FA Cup match at Liverpool next month.
The New Saints – a team based in the town of Oswestry, a few miles within the English border, but competing in the Welsh Premier League – have simultaneously been subject to Wales’ restrictions. “Legally we might be able to play,” said Ian Williams, the club’s chief operating officer. “But we are affiliated with the Welsh Football Association, so we have chosen to get along with all the other clubs in our league.”
However, Chester’s case is perhaps the most complex. Morris said there was no indication yet that the Welsh government would change its position. “They insist that we obey Wales law,” he said.
Wales offered Chester payments to make up for lost ticket sales, but the club were advised that accepting it could jeopardize its registration with the FA Morris, and still hope to change Wales’ regulations in the next few weeks, allowing fans to attend and end the deadlock. But he conceded that if they stayed put for another month, he could “flip the club over the edge” in a financial crisis.
And the consequences could extend further. Sumner said he was concerned that “the way football is organized between the two countries is now being questioned”.
“It’s a strange battle,” he said. Nobody cared about boundaries before. This has now opened a can of worms, and it can cause a lot of damage.”
Morris was aware of that, too. He has felt, at times this week, as if “the UK may start to fall apart because a football match in the Sixth Division cannot take place”. In conversations with local authorities, he raised the idea of moving the boundary to include all of the stadium, putting an end to Chester’s geographical curiosity.
“This is not on the table,” he admitted. “I understand why. The borders pass through villages and fields along the way. They don’t want to be drawn into the horse trade.”
He is more hopeful that a deal can be found with the Welsh government, one that crystallizes Chester’s standing as an English team that happens to be part of their ‘home footprint’ in Wales. It might cost Chester to claim fame, but it would be a reasonable solution. The club, which happily lives in both England and Wales, now feels it has no choice but to choose one or the other.