An English Soccer Team’s Existential Crisis: Is It Really in Wales?

Chas Sumner has heard the quiz question in all its guises. There was the one who asked: “What club has an international border along the halfway line of its stadium?” Or this one: “What soccer team changes in one country but plays in another?” Or: “Where can you take a corner in England, but score a goal in Wales?”

Sumner knew that the answer to all three was Chester FC, a former stronghold of English professional football divisions but currently residing in their sixth tier. For 30 years Chester, the team for which he served as official historian, had played in a stadium that straddled the largely nominal line that separated England from Wales.

Not that it seemed particularly important to anyone. The stadium’s location was nothing more than a minor claim to fame and a few inconveniences: two countries sometimes meant paperwork for two local authorities. Other than that, Sumner said, “nobody knew exactly where the border was.”

That held until last Friday, when Chester FC suddenly found they were occupying disputed territory. Called to a meeting with the two local councils, Flintshire, in Wales, and Cheshire West, in England, and North Wales Police, the Chester executives received a letter accusing them of breaking Wales’ coronavirus protocols.

Chester had played twice at home over the New Year period, drawing crowds of over 2,000 fans. That was in line with rules in England, where lawmakers stopped short of imposing new restrictions on public gatherings even as the Omicron variant had been put in place, but contravened laws in Wales, where the government introduced stricter regulations on December 26. . which limited crowds at outdoor events to no more than 50 people.

Chester didn’t think those changes applied to him. “It’s an English club playing in a stadium that covers both England and Wales,” said Andrew Morris, volunteer chairman of Chester. “We play in the English league, we are registered with the English Football Association, the land the stadium is built on is owned by an English council. We are subject to the English government and the English police.”

The stadium itself, in fact, was designed to make that status very clear. “Normally the main stand of a stadium is built with its back to the sun,” said Mark Howell, a former board member and still a volunteer at the club. “In Chester, it’s right in your eyes, because they built the stadium to make sure the front door is in England.”

For the Welsh authorities, that made no difference. “The Chester Football Club stadium is in Wales,” a government representative said last week. “So the Welsh regulations apply.”

In response, Chester postponed his match scheduled for this weekend as he sought legal advice on how to break the deadlock.

It was not the first time that the divergent approaches to the pandemic taken by the four nations that make up the UK have led to borders that had long been seen as theoretical, even after Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland established their own parliaments. in 1999. to take a much more solid, more concrete form.

“The border never used to matter much,” said Howell, a Chester board member. “The stadium was built before the return, so no one thought of it. And even afterward, it wasn’t something anyone thought about. There were differences: people with Welsh postcodes could get free prescriptions from the health service and people with English postcodes couldn’t, but it wasn’t a problem.

Turns out even the Chester trivia questions were wrong. In fact, the border does not run along the halfway line at the Deva stadium or across the field. Go through the parking lot and through the club offices.

However, in the last two years, the borders linking England, Wales and Scotland have become enormously significant. The peoples that encompass them have, at times, found different rules for different parts of their populations as one country goes into lockdown and another comes out. Travel between constituent nations has been variously discouraged or prohibited, with police effectively impeding freedom of movement within Britain itself.

In football too, the fluidity that has long existed between the English and Welsh leagues has presented a problem. The four Welsh teams that play in the English league system (Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham) continue to play home games, but are prevented by law from doing so in front of crowds of over 50. Fans are, however, However, they are allowed to attend their away games: Cardiff, for example, is expected to arrive with several thousand supporters 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 inside the English border, but competing in the Welsh Premier League, have at the same time been subject to Welsh restrictions. “Legally we could play,” said Ian Williams, the club’s director of operations. “But we are affiliated with the Football Association of Wales, so we choose to align ourselves with all the other clubs in our league.”

However, the Chester case is perhaps the most complex. There has been no sign so far that the Welsh government will change its stance, Morris said. “They insist that we fall under Welsh law,” he said.

Wales have offered payments to Chester to make up for lost ticket sales, but the club have been told accepting them could jeopardize their registration with the English FA. end the stalemate. But he admitted that if they remain in place for another month, it could “push the club over the edge” towards a financial crisis.

The consequences could even go further than that. Sumner said he is concerned that “the way football is organized between the two countries is now being called into question.”

“It’s a strange fight to pick,” he said. “Nobody cared about the border before. Now this has opened a can of worms and could do a lot of damage.”

Morris has also been aware of that. He has felt, at times this week, as if “the UK could start to unravel because a sixth-tier football match couldn’t take place.” In talks with local authorities, he has floated the idea of ​​moving the border to encompass the entire stadium, ending Chester’s geographical curiosity.

“That’s not on the table,” he acknowledged. “I understand why. The border runs through towns and fields all the way. They don’t want to be lured into the horse trade.”

He is more hopeful that a deal can be found with the Welsh government, one that will crystallize Chester’s status as an English team that just so happens to have part of its “stadium footprint” in Wales. It might cost Chester his fame, but it would be the sensible solution. The club that has happily existed in both England and Wales now feels it has no choice but to choose one or the other.

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