REPUTATIONS sometimes count for very little in the cut-throat world of football management.

It had taken time but Kevin Ratcliffe had eventually won over the Chester City supporters. Then the Americans - Terry Smith and his father Gerald - rode into town 1999 and respect for Ratcliffe went totally out of the window.

Chester had just lost the opening game of the season - 2-0 at home to Barnet - and Smith senior passes Ratcliffe in the corridors of power upstairs at The Deva and says: “Have you seen Keith, the manager?”

He may have captained one of the best Everton teams ever, lifted trophies and home and abroad and been described as one of the best defenders in world football but Ratcliffe knew from day one it was never going to work out for him and the club’s controversial new owners.

Not that he knew anything different because the pressure had always been on, ever since he arrived at the club as right hand man to another former Everton defensive great, Mike Pejic, in 1994.

Things weren’t right from the off.

Chester had just got promoted under Graham Barrow. But he walked out and eventually took key players like Colin Greenall and Mark Leonard with him.

Life in Division Two wasn’t going to be easy. “We only had six players the day we came in - and one of them Chris Lightfoot wanted to go to Wigan to team up with Graham Barrow,” said Ratcliffe, who started the season in the back four.

“There was only a few weeks to go before the start of the season and we were bringing in loads of players on trial.

“Jason Burnham, Don Page, Gary Shelton and Andy Milner all arrived, David Pugh, who’d been a big player the season before, left and we lost our first seven matches.”

The knives were out pretty soon for Pejic and Ratcliffe bore the brunt out on the pitch.

“The fans thought I was on big wages but that was far from the truth while Pej tried too hard,” added Ratcliffe.

“He over-coached at times and never really knew when to stop.”

The Blues eventually stopped the rot with a 1-1 draw Bournemouth - look where they are now compared to Chester - when Lightfoot scored at Dean Court.

Optimism was high heading to Plymouth the following week where The Blues had been booked in to a holiday camp just out side Torquay. No ordinary holiday camp. A holiday camp with football training facilities.

I travelled with the team that weekend and Pejic and Ratcliffe’s faces when they took the players out for an afternoon training session, was classic.

There was a goalpost, not full size - just like the pitch. And where the penalty spot should have been there was a children’s slide.

“You put any of this in The Leader and.....” was Pejic’s retort.

“I remember it but it was just one thing after another,” added Ratcliffe. “It was always going to be a struggle. Most teams had 25k playing budgets. We had 12k.”

Pejic paid the price for a poor start and was sacked in January 1995. Ratcliffe seemed the obvious choice but chairman Mark Guterman wasn’t convinced he’d get the fans backing so appointed physio Derek Mann instead.

Mann, despite masterminding THAT 2-2 draw on Valentine’s Day at The Racecourse where nine-man Chester battled back from the brink, was out by April.

Ratcliffe was the only man for the job and The Leader’s headline the day he was appointed read: ‘GIVE IT TO KEVIN!’

Now all he had to do was get the fans onside and his first signing as manager 25 years ago was an absolute masterstroke.

“Cyrille Regis was 37 at the time but he’d still got great presence on the pitch and I felt he’d be perfect for us,” said Ratcliffe.

“He was playing for Wycombe and I rang Martin O’Neill, who was manager there at the time and we got on really well. We had a great relationship.

“I asked Martin if he was going to keep Cyrille on.

“Martin said he didn’t know so I asked him when he did make his mind up, could I be the first to know.

“Martin was good to his word and called me to say he’d just had Cyrille in his office and told him he was letting him go.

“I rang Cyrille straight away and he said: ‘How the hell do you know? I’ve only just been told myself’.”

Ratcliffe and Regis, who had clashed as players in top flight first division football during their Everton and West Brom days, met up to hammer out a deal.

“He wasn’t on a grand a game. Nowhere near that!” said Ratcliffe dispelling the rumours of the deal to lure Regis, who died aged 59 only two years ago, to Chester.

“I told him about training and that I didn’t want him in every day and to just look after himself and he agreed.

“He was brilliant but so down to earth. He still called me gaffer and I was younger than him!

“He was great for Chester and John Murphy learnt so much off Cyrille and so did a lot of players. Most of all the fans loved him too.

“I’d take him off a few minutes before each game and he’d get a standing ovation every time. Remember that one at Orient where virtually everyone got off their feet to applaud him off the pitch.”

Regis played his part in Ratcliffe’s revolution at The Deva while a 7-2 aggregate thrashing of ex-boss Barrow’s team of Blues’ old boys Wigan in the League Cup, certainly helped Ratcliffe’s cause in the 19995/96 campaign.

They didn’t reach the play-offs that season but did the next, playing attacking football with wingers and marauding full-backs.

Regis’ brief spell at Chester was over by then with a career-ending injury caused by ‘falling down a rabbit hole’ on one of the many training pitches the nomadic Blues ended up at.

“He did. He fell down a rabbit hole,” said Ratcliffe, who was now beginning to conjure up rabbits out of hat when it came to new signings.

Neil Fisher was a classy passer and using the scouting expertise of Chester great and former manager Ken Roberts, others followed but only after Ratcliffe convinced chairman Guterman too dig a bit deeper into his pockets.

“I told Ken I needed a left winger who scored goals and he found Kevin Noteman,” said Ratcliffe. I had a row with Guterman over signing Kev. He wanted £20 more a week and eventually he agreed to it.”

“We were getting a decent team together,” said the former Wales skipper. “Chris Priest came in, John Murphy was getting better thanks to all the tips he’d got from Cyrille. And with Eddie Bishop in the dressing room and Pej had made a great signing in bring Peter Jackson to the club. We had great camaraderie.

“We got the play-offs but never really performed in both games against Swansea.”

Despite the summer arrivals of Rod Thomas Gary Bennett - he scored 11 in the first 15 games - Chester’s season petered out and by the summer of 1998, the cash and everything else at the club seemed to be running dry.

Ratcliffe famously had to fork out £5,000 of his own money in order to get a home pre-season friendly with Tranmere Rovers.

“We turned up at the ground and were told that the game couldn’t go ahead because we hadn’t paid the water bill and they had shut off the water at the ground,” said Ratcliffe.

“I got the money but only after I was given assurances that I would get it back straight away.”

“Players were starting to get their wages paid late and you could see the signs that there was going to be trouble ahead.”

Ratcliffe was still wheeling and dealing, bringing in an unknown striker from Barnsley called Luke Beckett and left-sided player Alex Smith, who was superb in the 32 games he played that season.

“He was brilliant in training and just as good on matchdays,” added Ratcliffe, who was now adding accountancy to his skills by producing miracles with transfer deals.

Young midfielder Matt McKay moved to Everton for £250,000 in a deal that could have eventually made the club £750,000 while defenders Iain Jenkins and Julian Alsford headed north of the border to Dundee United in a combined £200,000 deal.

“We had to make a late switch on that as they’d valued Alford higher and Watford had a sell-on clause when we’d first got him here,” recalled Ratcliffe. “I remember taking Matt McKay to Blackburn where Howard Kendall wanted to put him in Everton’s reserves to have a look at him.

“The Everton lads wouldn’t pass to him and I’m thinking: ‘Come on Matty you’ve got to do something’. He then gores straight through the back of one of their players and I knew Howard would have liked that!”

The club had been placed into administration and money was needed to play the March wages so Smith was sold to Port Vale for £95,000 as the wheels were well and truly falling off.

Then a buyer came in and Ratcliffe sensed it was the beginning of the end as soon as he encountered the Smiths.

“Terry Smith didn’t want me there,” said Ratcliffe. “It was obvious he wanted to do it all himself and he did all he could to make things as uncomfortable as he possibly could for me. There was only one way that the club was heading and that was down and I’d made my mind up before the Barnet game.

“He said he wanted to bring players in but some were turning up for trials without boots. It was just impossible and there was no way I was going to stay.

“He handed me a written warning and I just screwed the piece of paper and threw it away.”

Ratcliffe did walk away with a healthy settlement after winning a court battle following his exit but he insists the club could have been a lot richer if things had gone in another direction.

“You look at Luke Beckett and John Murphy - two quality strikers who went for next to nothing. We could have made big money on those two players,” added Ratcliffe.

“And then there were the likes of Darren Moss and Martyn Lancaster - two lads who you could early have sold for £1m. Mossy was a great player. I gave him his debut and took him to Shrewsbury with me.”

It was while Ratcliffe was at Shrewsbury the following season that Chester went out of the Football League, losing 1-0 at home to Peterborough on the final day of the season.

He added: “It’s a shame what happened because I loved my time at Chester. They were good times.”