Saturday, 24 November 2007

Remembering Harry 'Houdini' McNally's Reign as Manager

The late Harry McNally is incredibly well-thought of by Chester City fans the world over, as he did tremendously well with a limited budget in his seven years at the helm. When he became manager in July 1985, McNally inherited a side that had finished bottom of the Football League a year before and had needed an excellent run under Mick Speight to avoid a similar fate in 1984-85.

Despite's Speight's success, McNally was appointed in his place amid protests from supporters. He was to soon silence his doubters as Chester finished runners-up in Division Four, only their second promotion since joining the Football League in 1931. Despite having to contend with the loss of key players Andy Holden and the prolific Stuart Rimmer through injury, Chester sealed promotion with three games still to play after an outstanding campaign.

After comfortably guiding Chester to safety in 1986-87 and 1987-88, McNally enjoyed his most successful season with the club in 1988-89. He led the Blues to 8th position in Division Three (now League One), missing out on a play-off spot by just four points. Unfortunately the following season saw Chester struggle home in 16th place, amid growing uncertainty over the club's future as it became clear they would be leaving their cherished Sealand Road home.

Chester spent the 1990-91 season exiled more than 40 miles away at Moss Rose Macclesfield, operating on tiny crowds and a limited budget in comparison to most of their Third Division rivals. McNally guided Chester to safety before the end of the season in 19th place. During the season McNally offered to resign after a heavy drinking session at the club's Christmas party ended with him hospitalised, but the club rejected the offer and he repaid them by keeping the club up.

With Chester rock bottom of the table and feeling the effects of being homeless, there were calls for McNally to resign after a woeful 5-2 home defeat by fellow strugglers Darlington in January 1992. But he stood firm and got the best out of his side. An incredible late season run saw Chester pull themselves out of the mire, with an outstanding 1-0 win at promotion chasing Stoke City on April 25, 1992 effectively securing survival. At the end of the season, The Sun named McNally as their manager of the year for his achievements on a shoe-string budget.
McNally brought the club home to Chester in the newly renamed Division Two with optimism growing for what lay ahead, but unfortunately age was to catch up on many of his side. A 3-0 win over Burnley in the first Football League match at the Deva Stadium was the only win in the opening 12 games of the 1992-93 season and McNally was sacked. His sacking was criticised by many pundits, who felt his achievements through the Macclesfield years had not been properly recognised by the club.

Everyone who knew Harry McNally has a favourite story about him. Players who played under him often speak with affection about a number of the bizarre incidents he was involved in, such as jumping in a bath containing no cold water when raging at how Chester had thrown the points away in a 4-4 draw with Bury in 1987.

Earlier that year, McNally had astounded spectators during a Freight Rover Trophy tie away at Chester's arch-rivals Wrexham. Frustrated as Chester trailed 1-0 with time ticking away, he hauled an injured Colin Woodthorpe to his feet, just moments before he helped Chester grab a priceless equaliser. Chester went on to win 3-1 and McNally had helped Chester beat their rivals for the third time in 12 months.

McNally was always a fan of hard men and one of the reasons for his success at Chester was the physical strength of the side. Harry suffered a broken foot when playing in a friendly match on Chester's pre-season tour of Scotland in 1992. He admitted afterwards he knew the opposition player was going to catch him and injure him, but didn't want to pull out of the challenge because it would not set the right example to his players!

Surprisingly, McNally didn't manage another club, but frequently offered his services as a scout to other clubs (including Tranmere Rovers and Preston North End), and did some hospitality work at Chester after his sacking. McNally was one of the biggest critics of Terry Smith's ownership of the club, and resigned after only a few days as a consultant at the club in 2000.
McNally died from a heart attack in Chester on December 12, 2004, aged 68. While he had no surviving close relatives, several notable footballing figures attended his funeral.

Chester City Football Club have now re-named a stand to honour their former manager, known as the Harry McNally Terrace. This was opened on December 26, 2006 by current chairman Stephen Vaughan with a plaque also presented the same day on behalf of the fans by Chester City Supporters' Trust.

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