“I am here to save the club,” the former Chichester assistant manager Andy Bell joked from the sidelines at a game in 2018. It was no laughing matter, though, as the club had been locked out of their clubhouse by the council and were on the verge of bankruptcy.
There was £40,000 worth of debt and a real fear the club would be declared bankrupt, which would have resulted in demotion. Disaster was avoided when the arrears were paid off, a management committee put in place and Bell arrived as chairman. Within a year Chichester had been promoted to the eighth tier as champions and are now preparing for an FA Cup second‑round tie at Tranmere on Sunday.
“We’re making history: it could be for the furthest we’ve ever gone or for the biggest defeat the club have ever had,” Bell ponders in Chichester’s clubhouse. “It’s five divisions at the end of the day. Looking at it from Tranmere’s point of view, they’re playing a team five leagues below them, with a chance of going through and getting Man United in possibly a £1m game and we’re that close to it as well.”
The last time the club got beyond the qualifiers was in 1960, when they lost 11-0 in the first round to Bristol City. Their progress beyond that stage this time was guaranteed in the form of a bye, because of the demise of Bury, who were expelled from the Football League in August. Chichester decided to donate a four-figure sum to help Shakers fans in their quest to bring the club back.
“You get to start thinking about their fans: three, four, five thousand people who no longer have a football club to go and support and we don’t even get 300. Bury fans have lost their club; we almost lost our club 18 months ago. It resonates with us as a club, it resonates with this area because Portsmouth weren’t far away from that stage, so we just said we needed to make a gesture.”
The money going into the coffers at Oakland Park will guarantee Chichester’s future and increase their growing influence in the community, aided by securing the lease on the ground. Attendances over the last season have increased fourfold from a time when they were not hitting three figures. A 3G pitch will replace the grass one, allowing it to become a valuable asset to the area and meaning greater use by children. There is hope a women’s team will return and Bell is keen on adding a disability side and one for seniors.
For the manager, Miles Rutherford, and his side Prenton Park is the latest destination in a journey that started on 10 August against Erith Town in the extra-preliminary round. Chichester are the only team still in the competition from that stage and the first team to achieve such progress in 70 years. There has been a real push to engage local youths under Bell, summed up by their having 47 mascots for the FA Cup triumph against Enfield.
The Tranmere game is being shown on BT Sport, netting Chichester a further £75,000, not bad for a club whose matchday meat raffle is key to fundraising. Preparations will be as professional as possible; the players are kitted out in new tracksuits and will train at St George’s Park the day before the game. Around 400 fans will be in the away end, with Bell hoping they will include some from Bury.
Bell, who works alongside the club secretary, Wayne Dalton, is keen to heap praise on the coaching staff, whose work has aided the Cup run, including a few shocks along the way. Rutherford is assisted by Danny Potter, Darin Kilpatrick and Graeme Gee, a quartet who have turned their fortunes around in recent times. Many of the team are familiar to one another, having played together at college and university.
“Players want to play for them – they’re good at getting characters in,” Bell says. “You know players are the right characters the minute they sign because they get given a hand-me-down tracksuit, they have a freezing shower, they’re not getting paid anywhere near what they can at another club but the pitch is in good condition and the atmosphere is good. The area needs a step four football side. They come here and play here as our coaches and managers are brilliant – they create an atmosphere in which people want to play.”
Chichester were given their bye more than a month ago, so have had plenty of time to wait for their moment in the limelight. “People say we’ve got a chance and secretly I think we’re going to win 3-2 but realistically we could be on the end of a hiding on national TV,” Bell says. Regardless of the result, Chichester’s place in history is guaranteed and they have made plenty of friends along the way, both in their own city and in a small corner of Lancashire.