Chester's grounds for hope: Built in just 30 weeks, the Deva Stadium has allowed frustrated fans to welcome their team home from exile

IAN RUSH was unable to accept an invitation to cut the ribbons at the opening of his old club's new home yesterday, but Chester City expect a rush of a different kind when the Deva Stadium's turnstiles click into action for tonight's all-ticket inaugural match against Stockport County.

For Chester and their followers, the Coca-Cola Cup tie represents a homecoming many feared might never happen. In 1990, pounds 1.6m in debt and on the brink of bankruptcy, the club sold their ground of 84 years in Sealand Road for development as a retail park. They spent two years sharing with Macclesfield, 34 miles away, while the search for a site in the Roman city continued.

Chester's support, never substantial with the monoliths of Merseyside and Manchester nearby, dwindled to an average of 1,800 in exile; only Halifax, Scarborough and the now-defunct Maidstone, all a division lower, fared worse. And when 1992 arrived without a sod of turf turned, or a brick laid, it seemed improbable that the wasteland in Bumpers Lane on which the planners had settled would be ready this season, let alone this evening.

Work finally began on 28 January. Thirty weeks later, the Football League's newest venue is complete. The Deva Stadium, named after the Latin for Chester, holds 6,000 spectators and cost pounds 3m to build. The funding came from the sale of Sealand Road and in the form of a maximum grant, pounds 500,000, from the Football Trust. Lord Aberdare, the Trust's chairman, hailed it at the opening ceremony as 'the first newly-built stadium to incorporate all the safety requirements of the Taylor Report'.

From the outside there are similarities with Scunthorpe's Glanford Park (opened in 1988) and Walsall's Bescot Stadium (1990), the only clubs to move to new locations since Southend set up at Roots Hall in 1955. The ample parking area is a great advantage. Less impressive is the uniform blue 'meccano' effect of the steelwork on the back of the stands, which ironically makes it resemble something from a retail park.

Inside, all four sides are covered, although the original aim of an all-seater was revised after lower-division clubs were exempted from Taylor's blanket instruction. The two stands seat a total of 3,400 fans - with no supports of the kind which make viewing at Walsall and Scunthorpe frustrating - while the terraces behind the goals can accomodate a further 2,600.

The floodlights - four poles with eight bulbs perched on each - may be state-of-the-art, but they will do nothing for the art of locating an unfamiliar ground by spotting four pylons rising above the houses and factory roofs.

There are also specially designed areas for disabled supporters (fittingly, Chester's manager Harry McNally attended the ceremony on crutches and with a foot in plaster after a training injury), and a spacious press box (though a local radio man, finding his sightline obstructed by a protruding wall, observed wryly that 'it's a good job Chester don't play wingers').

The pitch, sown on May Day, is pristine; it is also in Wales. This may be virgin turf but the graffiti barely 50 yards down the road, which concerns the sexual proclivities of Wrexham fans, is a reminder of the old, parochial passions that will soon be vented within on the other side of the perimeter walls. Cestrians have responded positively to the prospect of resuming such rituals, three times more season-tickets having been sold than ever before.

Any site in the city was obviously preferable to having no club at all, which was a possibility until the sale of Sealand Road, yet in all but name the Deva Stadium lacks the character that gives football lovers a rush of adrenalin when they pass through the gates of a ground for the first time.

The older a stadium is, the more likely we are to feel affectionate about it, and those who designed the Deva can not have been expected to build in those lived-in, 'traditional' qualities which so endear, say, Hillsborough or Villa Park even to those who do not support Sheffield Wednesday or Aston Villa. Sadly, though, there is nothing - no small, distinctive detail save for the club's initials picked out in blue and white seats - that says 'Chester'.

Functionalism rules, and if this were to become the dominant trend in the rapidly changing architecture of football then the next volume of Simon Inglis's definitive work, The Football Grounds of Great Britain, would be slim indeed. Not that he was particularly kind about Chester's old place ('The overall effect is very dismal . . . The Stadium might be more accurately renamed The Tedium').

He should see it now. Less than a mile from the Deva Stadium, Sealand Road is still waiting for the bulldozers to come in. The grass is high and wild, like a safari park; the roof of the stand has been bought by Port Vale and ferried away; and trees grow on the old Popular Side. The floodlights still tower above the debris, rustier now but with the lamp holders leaning down towards the pitch, as if trying to get a better view of the action.

The only certainty about tonight's fixture is that someone, probably from Stockport, will home in on those pylons and wonder where the game is.

(Photographs omitted)

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