Within the Deva Stadium cathedral of football, the congregation could only watch with disappointment and believe they were attending a funeral service for Chester City's Football League career. As the home supporters filed away after the final whistle that dark saturday afternoon in May, they paid their final respects and kissed goodbye to the concluding chapter of Chester City's sixty nine year association with the Football League. A status that looks like becoming evidently more and more difficult to regain as time goes by.
By the Chester City manager's own admission, the club had failed in what could have been deemed to be one of the greatest escape acts of all time. Ian Atkins was brought in on a life support mission to revive the clubs fortunes. His leadership skills swept through the club like a massive breath of fresh air and he really did give us a fighting chance after a first half that had it continued, may have delivered the earliest relegation in footballing history. "There is a lot of feeling about what went on in the first part of the season," he said in the quiet sanctuary of his office an hour after the final whistle had confirmed the darkest hour in his managerial career. In every club from Ross County to Exeter City there are dramas unfolding, no more so during the final football league season at Chester City.
"It was a different game and Peterborough did well on the day," Atkins added. "I can't knock the players and I feel for the supporters. We've done brilliantly to give ourselves a chance." He set the club's pulse racing from rapid to weak by masterminding an incredibly entertaining demolition job over Mansfield Town. But then Chester were to struggle to find any competitiveness against Brighton and Hove Albion, who's hefty victory over the blues could have been responsible for placing one of the final nails in the Chester coffin.
But for the triumphant insults of the visiting Peterborough fans the atmosphere would have been funeral like from the near five thousand crowd that packed inside the tiny, cramped Deva breeze blocks to witness the most hurtful act of vandalism to ever be initiated at Chester City. The barbarous destruction of the football club who nurtured Ian Rush into the game, who once upon a time made it to the heady heights of the League Cup Semi Finals was there for all to see throughout that final football league campaign. But on that final day of the 1999/2000 season, Chester City Football Club was left hanging on to a thin threaded lifeline. They had one final chance to evade that much feared relegation into non-league obscurity by beating Barry Fry's Peterborough United.
But the game was effectively placed beyond them just after the hour, when on sixty four minutes Peterborough substitute Richie Hanlon's goal shook the deva foundations that finally collapsed with the after shock of the news that Shrewsbury Town had won in Exeter. Chester struggled to make any impression on the Peterborough defence. The visitors looked more and more threatening as City became more tense, Hanlon collected the ball 30 yards out and with virtually his first touch, since being sent on as a substitute just a minute earlier, he rifled the ball home off the post. With the Conference trap door opening beneath them Chester fought hard to repair the damage and Mark Tyler did well to keep out a Hemmings free kick and Beckett was a hair's thickness away from connecting with substitute Darren Wright's subtle lob. But it wasn't Chester's day. It wasn't their season. The game was up and the fans knew it.
Chester fans have suffered more disappointments than most since the club joined the League in 1931, but none, no matter how bad can ever be compared to this. A day that had promised so much delivered severe heart breaking pain that, for many true blues, proved too much and the tears flowed. Chester Chronicle's Ian Bedford summed up the feeling quite well, opening his match report the following Friday by describing the blow as being so indescribably large that it could have registered on the Richter scale.
Peterborough manager Barry Fry was clearly distrought after the game, his thoughts and memories of relegation well documented in his personal autobiography, 'Big Fry'. Fry is commonly known as one of the most engaging and entertaining characters in English football, a man who knows the game inside and out and a man who has seen it all in football, success and failure. However, he never enjoys witnessing relegation, and his side, Peterborough United have relegated two sides in successions, firstly Scarborough and now Chester City. In his book Fry said: "The Chester game had deep significance in that they were fighting for their lives and in the lead up to it I decided to take a gamble and held a private practise match at Cambridge solely for the benefit of goalkeeper Tyler."
Fry continued: "Although he started off shakily in this private game, conceding two early goals, Mark showed me enough to justify his selection and there in no doubt that my picking him, and his subsequent fine display in the 1-0 win at Chester, was a massive boost to everybody as we looked forward to the play offs. My gamble had paid off big time, but for Chester there was no such luck. For the second season in succession we were to send a team tumbling into the Conference on the last day, having brought about Scarborough's demise a year previously. There is no joy in that. The place is like a morgue. All you see around you are fans crying and players on the pitch with their heads in their hands and when you go into the boardroom for a drink there are no hellos and goodbyes from people who are simply overcome with grief. You just pour yourself a glass of something, knock it back and get out of there. There is no consoling anybody."
Fry really did look distraught as he departed from the Deva glum. As Chester look likely to struggle through their second Conference campaign, it remains to be seen if the damage of the Terry Smith regime is Irreparable.