PAUL CARDEN will never ever forget what he described as Chester’s ‘crazy’ first season back in non-league.

With controversial American owner Terry Smith steering the Blues wheel, it was never going to be an easy ride after the agony of losing their place in the Football League just months earlier.

The Blues reached the FA Trophy semi-finals in 2001, made it to the third round of the FA Cup only to be knocked out at Blackburn but ended the season with silverware after lifting the Nationwide Conference Trophy after a penalty shoot-out win at Kingstonian.

“Considering everything that was going on off the pitch, we had a great season and Graham Barrow has to take a lot of credit for that,” said Carden, who is now boss at Northern Premier League outfit, Warrington Town.

“Graham, Joe Hinnigan and Paul Beesley protected the players from a lot because with Terry Smith in charge, they were crazy times.

“I remember a game at Easington Colliery and it poured down all day. It was the game where he watched the match from the roof of one of the stands while we stayed down in Canvey before the first semi final there and we all had a roast dinner that night.

“Terry left the table and Carl Ruffer took all his roast potatoes and dumped all his sprouts on Terry’s plate.

“He must have had 40 sprouts on his plate but ate them all when he came back and never said a thing.”

Chester lost that first leg 2-0 in Essex on a pitch that looked more like the beach across the road than something you’d attempt to play football on.

“They’s poured tonnes of sand on the pitch and I don’t know why because they were a great team and played us off the pitch - as they did at The Deva a week later on what was a bowling green of a pitch.”

Canvey also won 2-0 in the second leg before going on to beat Forest Green Rovers in front of 10,000 fans in the final at Villa Park.

“I remember going down there and players like Steve Tilson and Jeff Minton were playing for them,” added Carden. “I thought you’re too good to be playing at this level but I suppose the club were paying good money at the time.

“We really didn’t do ourselves justice in both games but it had been a long season. I think I played around 50 games. We reached the Trophy semi-finals, gave Blackburn a real run for the money in the third round of the FA Cup and won the Conference Trophy at the end of the season.

“Graham had done a great job keeping everyone together that season but it wasn’t long before the team started to break up.”

That 2001 semi-final appearance was the furthest Chester - both the old team and new - has reached over the years but they’ll be favourites to make it into the draw for the third round on Monday.

Concord Rangers - the other team based in Canvey Island - will look to make home advantage count when they face Bath City tomorrow.

There’s an intriguing tie at Ebbsfleet with the hosts welcoming a King’s Lynn Town team that could replace them in the National League next season.

Holders AFC Fylde, who gave Sheffield United a fright before going down 2-1 in the third round of the FA Cup last week, have a home tie against Southport.

Dagenham and Redbridge, with former Macclesfield boss Daryl McMahon now in charge, have a tough tie at Notts County while Halifax will clock up the miles with their trip to Torquay United.

Yeovil Town, who will fancy getting their hands on the trophy they lifted in 2002, host Hampton & Richmond while two-time winners Kingstonian are at home to Leamington.

National League leaders Barrow are at home to FC United after their 2-0 first round win over Atherton Collieries on Tuesday while Darlington host Harrogate.

Other ties: AFC Hornchurch v Aveley; Chelmsford City v Salisbury; Dorking Wanderers v Stockport County; Eastleigh v Matlock Town; Farsley Celtic v Barnet; Halesowen Town v Maidenhead United.