Local derbies are one of the best things about football, particularly at the lower end of the professional spectrum. But the bitterness between non-league sides Chester and Wrexham has exposed some of the uglier aspects of the modern game.
'TWO DEAD FANS, ONE DEAD CLUB' reads a grim makeshift banner at a football ground. Amidst a miasma of flare smoke and a chorus of boos, hisses and chanting, it is held aloft by the thick, tattooed forearms of a man who resembles a darts player that never quite made it.
But this is not a fiercely contested Premier League clash, nor a bitter encounter between Championship rivals. The dead club are Chester City, dissolved in 2010 but since re-born as Chester FC; their deceased fans are David Spencer, who fell to his death from the town's city walls in 2002, and Danny Lunt, who took his own life in 2012. The banner was created by a contingent of diehard Wrexham supporters, and represents just another ugly incident in the long and bloody history of this local – but cross-border – football rivalry.
The game is played out far from the bright lights of the Premier League, in English football's fifth tier. But Wrexham are not English: the club are based in North Wales, adding a nationalistic flavour to their rivalry with Chester. The English club are based just across the border, with their ground actually straddling the two countries (the pitch is in Wales, the front gate, car park and office in England).
Open hostility has existed between the two almost since their creation, but the stakes were raised during the casuals' culture and hooliganism of the eighties.
Wrexham were relegated to the old Fourth Division in 1983, dropping them into the same league as Chester for the first time in six years. This sparked a series of violent clashes that began at their first league meeting in the lowest division. A group of Wrexham hooligans infiltrated Chester's old ground, the Sealand Stadium, by masquerading as Blues fans. A brawl broke out inside, with supporters attempting to demolish the wooden barriers that separated the two sets of fans.
An ill-advised friendly between the sides in 1985 proved to be anything but, with the game sparking a city-wide running battle between hooligans from each club. Inevitably, fighting broke out and soon spilled onto the pitch, causing the game to be disrupted and police dogs to be used to quell the violence. Officers from neighbouring Crewe had be transferred into the city to suppress the clashes outside the stadium, with buses full of casuals sent packing from behind steel-barred windows.
In an effort to reduce trouble before kick-off, the cross-border derby has achieved the dubious honour of becoming the only bubble game in non-league football. Each set of fans are required to collect match tickets away from their respective grounds up to four hours before kick-off and are then bussed to the stadium, often with a police escort.
Some argue that this has contributed to the nastier elements of recent derbies, with the sterility of the pre-game conditions forcing fans to express their hatred with banners and chants instead of fists and thrown pint glasses. Chester supporter John agrees: "[The bubble] has spoilt it for me," he said. "It's also led to an increase in unpleasant, but non-violent, incidents inside the stadiums."
Paul, a Wrexham fan, also believes the heavy-handed policing has had a negative impact on the derby: "The fixture is blighted by the inability of the North Wales and Cheshire police forces to safely police a game that attracts around 6,000 at Wrexham, and less than 4,000 at Chester."
Recent years have seen a number of high-profile incidents inside the respective grounds – Wrexham's Racecourse and Chester's Deva Stadium – with individuals from both sides involved in mocking the deaths of rival supporters.
In 2013, a group of Wrexham fans produced a series of callous banners during the game, including a sign reading, "Come join Lunty in Hell", another reference to Chester fan Danny Lunt. A year later, at the 2014 derby, Chester fans racked up an unbelievable 30 years worth of collective banning orders in a single game. Their die-hard contingent – 'The 125s' – banged drums, chanted obscenities, and generally caused a commotion during a planned minute's silence commemorating the 80-year anniversary of the Gresford Mining Disaster, a tragedy that caused the deaths of 266 men in Wales.
During the game, this small group of Chester fans mocked the death of Scott Torrens, a prominent Wrexham supporter who passed away after suffering a seizure in 2013. It's difficult to comprehend how painful the chants of "Scotty's in a box" were for Torrens' brother, who was in attendance at the Deva Stadium; the same goes for the families of Lunt, Spencer, and any other fans whose death is used as terrace fodder at a football match.
At the sentencing, the magistrate condemned the actions of the Chester fans, describing their behaviour as "threatening, abusive and distressing to watch," as well as labelling them "a disgrace to the club." The courts may have a long history of unfairly demonising working-class football fans, but it was hard to disagree with them on this occasion.
It is tempting to use an old cliché and suggest that a small minority of idiots perpetuate the nastier elements of this derby. I spoke to individuals from both groups of fans, all of whom condemned the actions of both sides' over recent years.
Despite the rivalry, many fans see similarities between the two sides, especially their respective plummets down the football league: "The fortunes of both clubs have taken a similar path, in terms of their battles against asset-hungry directors who saw [financial] opportunities," suggests Wrexham supporter Paul. "This led to both clubs being relegated from the league, and forced them to take action and become fan-owned."
But there are also many differences. Aside from the economic disparity – Chester is considered more affluent – it seems some Wrexham fans channel their national identity into the rivalry, a view echoed by supporter Bryan: "Stories passed down through generations are re-written whenever Wrexham and Chester square up," he explained. "Many of us Wrexham fans aren't from the town and support the club as a way of expressing our Welshness; there's no better way of doing that than by beating our nearest English neighbours."
In truth, Wrexham's dislike of Chester seems easy to understand. As a town that's had it's industry brutalised and torn out by Margaret Thatcher, its residents can look 12 miles down the road and see affluent, picturesque Chester and become understandably frustrated. Football has an ability to channel pain and discontent into something visceral. Instead of directing feelings of hurt and resentment against the government, the closed mines, or castrated industry, some Wrexham fans channel their hatred towards Chester FC – and what the city represents.
The passion behind this rivalry has exposed some of the uglier aspects of the modern game. Nevertheless, derby days are still arguably the best thing about football. Without them, how much of a season really matters? You win, you lose, you draw, you get pissed, you finish mid-table again. Derbies are the matches that stick in the memory, restoring or shattering pride, bolstering or decimating morale, and offering one side bragging rights for months and sometimes years. They are built from the same grubby house bricks as personal rivalries: locality, financial disparity, the tribalistic concept that one place is 'better' than another – but there's something more.
Derbies give feelings of inadequacy and fear a name, a badge, and a shirt. In the case of Chester and Wrexham, the derby allows the Welsh to unite over a hatred of the English; it allows the dedicated fans of each club a night of tense, spectacular entertainment; in the case of a small minority, it lets them channel the unfair hand life has dealt into a banner or chant celebrating the death of a stranger – all in the name of fifth-tier football.
This year's first derby game saw Chester emerge victorious in a 3-2 thriller, an encounter that was relatively free of trouble. The second meeting of the two clubs, on 19 March, will once again be charged with both the best and the worst football has to offer.