Back from the brink: Chester taking express line to Football League
Neil Young, the railway worker-turned-Chester manager, tells James Lawton of his aim to build on two straight promotions
On the bizarrely unequal face of it, there is a managerial mismatch of shocking proportions at Barnet’s new ground this afternoon on the opening day of Conference action.
Edgar Davids, with his black goggles and streaming dreadlocks, is the swaggering traveller of the peaks of football, Ajax, Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Internazionale, Tottenham and, in the course of 74 appearances for the Netherlands, coach Louis van Gaal christened him the “Pitbull”. Pele named him in his list of the 100 greatest living footballers.
Neil Young, of Chester FC, grins puckishly when he considers the credentials of the man he faces, agrees that they have arrived from different worlds.
His own playing career ended at the age of 24, when he suffered his fifth dislocation of the shoulder in the service of Droylsden – a draining anticlimax after all the striving that followed his signing as a boy for Tranmere Rovers.
But then Young also says: “You are very lucky if you get one chance to prove that you can do something in the game that you love, which has dominated so much of your life, and however all this turns out I will have one great satisfaction.
“It is that I got the chance to do a few things that I considered right and if there has been quite a bit a pressure and expectation, I know I have been very lucky in being able to say I’ve had the chance to do something as a football manager and if I fall on my sword I can always say that I did it on my own terms.”
We are sitting in Chester’s main, sun-splashed stand of the bright blue-painted stadium at the back of a swathe of supermarkets and commercial buildings a mile or so from the old Roman city centre. Young squints as he milks the sunshine — and, markedly less so, the scale of his astonishing achievements over the last few years.
Chester are fan-owned and exuberant three years after rising from the dead. They were wound up and cast aside after years of ebbing hope and constant financial disaster. One former manager, Kevin Ratcliffe, of Everton and Wales, put his hand in his pocket to pay an electricity bill. The old ground was sold off for commercial development. Yet, just three years on, the stirrings are passionate now.
It helps that Young simply has not stopped winning since he decided to leave Colwyn Bay after moving them a tier up the English football pyramid.
He is currently on sabbatical from his job as a performance manager for Merseyrail Electrics. “I’m very grateful,” he says, “because after two years I was getting a little worn down, leaving the house around 7am and getting back after midnight.”
Now he can see a playing field that if not entirely level – Chester have a squad of 20, 17 signed part-time players and three on loan, on an average wage of £18,000 a year – gives him the chance to tighten his grip on a challenge which so far he has met with a series of knockout blows.
He says: “It’s tough when you come to a new season at a higher level – you love the guys who have got you there, and you understand the regard the fans hold them in, but when all is said and done you know you have to make a hard judgement. Can they take the next step? Obviously, it’s the toughest part of the job.”
When Young started at re-formed Chester in 2010 the club, having been originally assigned to a place in the North West Counties League, won an appeal for higher status and were moved up two leagues to the Northern Premier League, First Division North.The start was phenomenal. They raced into a 12-point lead, which was sufficient to carry them home eventually to the title on goal difference.
Progress was seamless. The Northern Premier League was carried by a whopping 17 points. Young conjured 100 points from 100 goals. Then he restocked and re-evaluated, agonised over those who might stay and those who had to go, and then delivered not only a place in the Conference Premier but a series of records: most wins (33), most points (107) most goals (103) and best goal difference (+71).
In the new challenge, one step from a return to the Football League, Young has kept a few familiar faces – notably goalkeeper John Danby and central defender and captain George Horan – but his scouting has been ferocious and helped by the recent sale of midfielder Antoni Sarcevic to one of League Two’s richer clubs, Fleetwood. The fee was £100,000 – small change up the football ladder, a widening of recruiting possibilities for the man who lives so easily with his hero status in the community where football was presumed dead, if not quite buried.
“It’s always going to be hard at this level, the money can only stretch so far, but it is wonderful to feel the enthusiasm around the place. People really care, and I’ve been fortunate. Gary Jones [Young’s assistant] has been with me for a while now, he’s a mate as well as a colleague, and each day we come to work we know that we have a lot of people behind us, willing us to do well. It is a very powerful incentive.”
A Birkenhead native, Young is a Liverpool fan currently bemused by events in a different culture, a different world. He cannot imagine Luis Suarez ever turning out for Liverpool again. “He’s a wonderful talent,” says Young, “but it seems to me the situation has gone too far. Brendan Rodgers is saying certain things, but at his level he has certain obligations. One of them is maybe to drive up the price.”
There is a little touch of wonder in Young when he considers his confrontation with Davids. “You have to remember I’ve never been a full-time professional player, so you have to draw on all the experiences that come your way. I’ve had my moments, though; when I was assistant manager with Rhyl United we played Roy Hodgson’s Norwegian team in a European tie, and we did all right – losing 3-1 on aggregate. There are other things to remember and I believe the thing I have learnt best down the years is that you have your players and you have to let them play. What you can control is the character of the team, the balance of it, and your job is to make sure you get that as right as you possibly can.
“My other job with the railway is also about looking at people and seeing how they are fitting in to what we are trying to do, which basically is creating the best possible conditions for good performance. I’ve tried to apply some of that to football. You look at someone in football like Sir Alex Ferguson and you know instantly that it was also his principle. Talent is one thing, and very important of course, but there is also the matter of being sure about the people you have doing the job. You want to know that when it matters most, their heads and their hearts are in the right place.”
Edgar Davids has never been short of self-belief, hence his idea of becoming the first midfielder to wear No 1 on his shirt. Still, he might be wise to listen out for the whistle of the Neil Young Express.
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