ONE thing Chester’s 2016/17 campaign could never be described as is boring!
The Blues lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous in a season that saw record-breaking runs (both good and bad), wonderful goals, red cards, derby drama and late winners, with Jon McCarthy’s side ultimately winding up in 19th spot, just two points above the drop zone.
Plenty of Blues’ fans are forgiven for wondering where did it all go so wrong? From having an outside chance of the play-offs in mid-December, the Blues took just 13 points from a possible 63 thereafter, and slumped to eight straight home defeats to end the campaign with a whimper.
McCarthy’s revamped side – who were attempting to recover from the summer loss of Ben Heneghan, Ross Hannah and John Rooney – began with a 3-0 defeat at Gateshead but turned things round in style just four days later with a 3-0 home thrashing of Dagenham and Redbridge, Elliott Durrell scoring a fantastic 20-yard volley.
Defeats at home to Maidstone and away at Barrow followed before August’s Player of the Month Durrell bagged an amazing 70-yard lobbed effort to snatch a valuable point at Boreham Wood, claiming the Blues’ Goal of The Season prize prior to his release on a free transfer last week.
A 4-0 victory over Sutton United – with strikes in the first and last 10 minutes from Blaine Hudson, Ryan Lloyd, Tom Shaw and Kane Richards – eased the nerves around the Deva, before Chester embarked on a superb run of form which – ultimately – kept them up, beginning with a valuable point at Aldershot, while 2-0 and 1-0 wins over Guiseley and Braintree followed.
Next up was a trip to bitter rivals Wrexham, live on BT Sport. What followed was one of the worst derbies in living memory with neither side mustering a shot on target, yet it was a better result for McCarthy than it was for his under-pressure counterpart Gary Mills.
The Blues’ upturn in form continued with a comprehensive 5-0 thrashing of Dover, with Durrell, James Alabi, Craig Mahon, Johnny Hunt and James Akintunde all on the scoresheet.
Tight 1-0 wins over North Ferriby and Torquay followed as goalkeeper Liam Roberts kept a record-equalling seventh consecutive league clean sheet for the Blues, a record which came to a halt in the 1-1 draw at York, Richards bagging an injury-time equaliser.
The Blues were dumped out of the FA Cup 1-0 at Southport, yet their unbeaten league run continued with draws at Macclesfield (0-0) and at home to Bromley (1-1) and Southport (2-2), their second meeting with former boss Steve Burr in the space of a month.
Tranmere Rovers away saw 1,200 Blues’ fans roar the team on at Prenton Park and they responded in style, coming from two-down to draw 2-2 as Ryan Astles netted a last-gasp leveller.
A terrific 3-0 victory at Eastleigh really stamped Chester’s authority on the top-half and a 3-0 win over North Ferriby soon followed, Alabi finding form with a second-half brace.
The powerful centre-forward has been in excellent form for long periods of the campaign, finishing with 17 goals from 42 appearances, and no doubt benefited from the arrival of Chris Iwelumo as assistant manager, who replaced Walsall-bound Ian Sharps in late November.
The Blues were involved in a thrilling FA Trophy first round replay against Witton Albion. After a feisty 1-1 draw in the first tie, Witton were awarded a penalty after just six seconds in the replay at the Deva and led until the 88th minute, when late goals from Alabi and Durrell dramatically turned the tie on it’s head. However, Forest Green proved too strong in the next round, running out 2-0 winners.
In the league, the 2-0 win over Aldershot promoted McCarthy’s men into seventh – just three points off the top five – before back-to-back defeats against Solihull Moors over the festive period dented confidence slightly.
Alabi went full-on ‘beast mode’ at Braintree as his powerhouse display in the second-half yielded two goals and three points, with McCarthy clearly delighted post-match to have ground out such a victory.
A fiery home derby clash with Wrexham followed, ending all-square after Alabi’s penalty quickly cancelled out the opening goal from pantomime villian Rooney, who was loudly booed at every opportunity by the crowd of 3,961. Chester were charged by the FA for failure to control their players in a 22-man post-match brawl, but successfully appealed against the sanction.
The Blues made the long trek to Dover knowing victory would haul them back to within three points of the play-offs. However, some questionable refereeing decisions relating to Dover match-winner Ricky Miller cost the Blues dear as they went down 3-1.
The loss at Dover felt like a real turning point as defeats against Dagenham (2-3), Gateshead (1-2) and Maidstone (2-4) followed, the latter Chester’s worst first-half display of the campaign as they trailed 4-0 after just 40 minutes.
Evan Horwood’s lob secured victory at Southport, the first of three consecutive 1-0 away wins with late goals from Durrell and Sam Hughes claiming the points at Bromley and Torquay respectively.
Talented defender Hughes was – for my money – Chester’s player of the season and the 20-year-old looks set to seal a well-deserved move to the Football League in the coming weeks. He’ll be sorely missed and a quality replacement must be sought.
Hughes became Chester’s youngest ever captain for the 3-2 home defeat against Tranmere, yet an enthralling derby was overshadowed by the tragic passing of Blues’ fan Garry Allen, who fell ill on the terraces and died suddenly.
Heartfelt tributes were paid to Mr Allen at the subsequent home match against Macclesfield and credit to the club for the way they conducted themselves during this period.
The 1-0 win at Plainmoor effectively sealed the Blues’ National League status, taking them to the 52-point mark. Yet the season then ended in truly miserable fashion with six consecutive losses, Alex Lynch keeping the 2-0 defeat at Forest Green to a respectable scoreline with a string of terrific saves.
Things got worse with a 5-2 thumping at Sutton United, with McCarthy forced to field questions about his own future, and the 2-0 defeat against Boreham Wood on the final day did little to appease the home faithful – who haven’t seen a home win in 2017.
Survival was a necessity but the way the season unravelled has left McCarthy with more questions than he has provided answers.