Welsh Covid restrictions: Chester FC border dispute has become a “real political football” says club Chairman
Chester FC has been was warned about playing further home matches with crowds in the stadium because it would be breaching current Welsh Covid restrictions.
The club’s Deva Stadium, built 30 years ago just off Bumpers Lane, lies within Wales, apart from the club offices and front car park which sit within England.
The dispute has become a “real political football” the club’s Chairman Andy Morris said, with “a number of politicians commenting, both negatively and for the club.”
It has been claimed the club breached Welsh Covid rules on 28 December 2021 when 2,075 fans attended the Deva Stadium to watch Chester draw 2-2 with AFC Fylde and 2 January 2022 when 2,116 fans watched Chester draw 1-1 with AFC Telford.
There is no limit on the number of spectators who can attend sports events in England, but Covid restrictions brought in by the Welsh government on Boxing Day has seen a cap 50 people, plus players, allowed to attend a sporting event in Wales.
The National League North outfit was summoned to a meeting with North Wales Police and Flintshire County Council – who it pays rates to – last week and a letter was presented outlining the contravention of Welsh Covid regulations.
Speaking to BBC Radio Wales this morning, Chester FC Chairman, Andy Morris said: “It’s been an age-old quiz question about playing in two countries, I think the question and the joke have unfortunately become a real issue for us at the moment.”
“In terms of geography, the proportion of the stadium footprint is in Wales, clearly, that does cover the pitch.”
“But importantly, from our perspective, the only entrance to the site is in England… its the only way you can get into stadium physically.”
“The front door is in England, and it’s on that basis that we’ve always been registered with an English registered office and that falls under English control or until the last few weeks.”
He said the club was summoned to a meeting with Flintshire Council, Flintshire (North Wales Police) Constabulary and presented with a letter that they “believed we were in breach from our previous games that had taken place on the second of January.”
“From our perspective, we’re just asking for some absolute clarity.” Said Morris.
“We got issued a safety certificate last year while Covid was ongoing, that allowed us to play games behind closed doors.”
That was issued by Cheshire Council with Cheshire Police present.” Morris said.
He continued: “The game in question on January 2, where the alleged breach of Welsh law took place, was attended by Cheshire Police, they were present on the day when allegedly this criminal act happened.”
Morris said: “There are meetings arranged for today (Monday, January 10) with various Welsh Ministers, it’s become a real political football, unfortunately.”
“I feel we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric from both sides where in reality we’re really hoping for an outbreak of common sense that actually, this issue is an English one that can be dealt with on English law.” He said.
“In terms of discussions, Morris said: “I’m sure there’s a number going on behind closed doors that we’re not party to but from our side of things we just want to be treated in a fair way.”
He said: “Historically we’ve been advised that we aren’t eligible for any Welsh support, financial or otherwise, from a sporting perspective, because we’re an English club, and that’s fine.”
“I agree with that given our registration and everything from that side sits on the English side of the border but because a significant proportion of the footprint is in Wales, we seem to be getting the worst of both world.”
Asked about a £25,000 Coronavirus business support grant the club received from Flintshire Council, Morris said:
“That was a UK national support for the hospitality sector, that was nothing to do from the footballing side of things.
“Our bar areas are in Wales, and they’re licenced by Flintshire Council and it was Flintshire who administrated that funding support.”
“That’s why we went to Flintshire (council) for that because we couldn’t go via Cheshire (Cheshire West and Chester Council) because of the alcohol licence.”
Matchday information published on Chester FC’s website for the fixture against AFC Telford on January 2, shows that the club adjusted bar operations to reflect Welsh Covid restrictions introduced six days earlier.
From 26 December, licenced premises in Wales have had to implement table service and ensure there is physical distancing between individual households or groups of up to 6 people.
Chester FC’s website states: ‘Blues Bar, The bar will be open before the match. Table service only will be in operation with a maximum of six people per table. Please note that due to the need for social distancing, the capacity of the Blues Bar will be significantly reduced.”
No rules in relation to licenced premises were changed in England at this time.
Morris said: “We operate a bar as many clubs do, which in itself has missed out on valuable income during COVID, we have to go via Flintshire.”
“From a sporting perspective, a number of clubs from Wales received grants, a great example is Wrexham (AFC) who received £100,000 grant last year.”
“We were advised we weren’t eligible and we were only offered a loan by Sport England because we are too well run.”
“So again, there’s a real mixture in the way that we’re handled and managed.” He said.
On potential sanctions for breaching Welsh Covid rules, Morris said: “The consequences are huge, we’re a community-owned football club, a community interest organisation. If we’re told we have to play behind closed doors without spectators the entire future of this club is placed in doubt.
“The league (National League North) is continuing, so that won’t stop, it’s not a case like the League of Wales has found where it’s been paused for a period of time.”
“We’ll be expected to fulfil our fixtures and if we miss out on vital matchday income, then we’re in a serious issue that could see individuals losing their employment, potential football club could be at risk.” Morris said.
“We operate in a very similar way to a charity, if we’re told that we can’t have our main source of income while still engaging and playing football, we could see the closure of the club… just because we’re being used as a political football. He added.
Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford said the rules on banning fans from stadiums was more about how people behaved outside, how they arrive and leave.
Morris said if Drakeford ever does come to the stadium, he will see “there is one road in and one road out and it runs through Chester, it is the only way to get in and out.”
He said: “Our next league game is against Brackley Town on Saturday at home 3pm, strange enough we have got a youth cup game scheduled for Wednesday night, which are exempt from the COVID restrictions.”
“So it could be an absolute farce that we’re allowed to 2000 spectators on Wednesday night for a Youth Cup game because it’s a youth game, but we’re not allowed to have the first team game on Saturday at 3pm.” He said.
“We have had an awful lot of support which we are really grateful for, from individuals across football and across politics.”
Morris said: “I think a lot of people see this for what it is and it’s been fantastic to receive that support.”
“I think there’s a wider sort of nervousness around the restrictions and it becomes an English versus Welsh issue, which actually, in some ways this isn’t about English and Welsh.”
“We’re not saying here that there’s anything wrong with being classified as Welsh, if that’s the outcome, that’s what we’ve got to deal with.”
“But what we don’t like is that we’re two years into this pandemic, why is this being raised as an issue?” He said
Morris said: “We play two games in 2020 with the stadiums open when they weren’t allowed to in Wales, it wasn’t an issue then. And indeed, it hasn’t been so far until the Christmas period this year.”
“From my side of things what have really found difficult is that I’ve seen a number of politicians commenting, both negatively and for the club on social media and press releases, nobody has come and spoken to us.”
“The only conversation we had is with the two officers, Flintshire Constabulary and one for Flintshire Council, I’m surprised that all of these people seem able to give informed opinions via press secretaries or otherwise when actually we’ve not had one conversation dialogue to see our position.” He added.
A Welsh government spokesman said talks were held on Sunday and would continue on today.
“Throughout the pandemic we have followed scientific and public health advice to keep people safe. We have introduced additional restrictions on sporting events in Wales, which came into force on Boxing Day, to help control the rapid spread of the new omicron variant,” he added.
“Chester City’s stadium is in Wales and the club’s home games are therefore subject to the current Welsh coronavirus restrictions.”
“We have made a £3m budget available to support professional sports clubs and organisations affected by spectator restrictions. As a club based in Wales, Chester FC would be eligible for support.”
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