Chas Sumner knows the quiz question in all its forms. There was the one that asked: “Which club has an international border running along the halfway line of its stadium?” Or this one: “Which soccer team gets changed in one country but plays in another?” Or: “Where can you take a corner in England, but score a goal in Wales?”
The answer to all three, Sumner knew, was Chester F.C., a one-time stalwart of English soccer’s professional divisions but currently residing in its sixth tier. Chester F.C., the team Sumner served as official historian for, had played at a stadium which crossed the line that separated England from Wales for 30 years.
It was not something that seemed particularly important to anyone. The stadium’s location was nothing more than a minor claim to fame and occasional inconvenience: two countries sometimes meant paperwork for two local authorities. Other than that, Sumner said, “nobody even knew exactly where the border was.”
This was true up to Friday when Chester F.C. It was then that it discovered that it was occupying contested territory. Summoned to a meeting with both local councils — Flintshire, in Wales, and Cheshire West, in England — and North Wales Police, Chester’s executives were presented with a letter accusing them of breaking Welsh coronavirus protocols.
Chester had performed twice at home in the New Year period and attracted more than 2,000 supporters. This was in line with England’s rules, where lawmakers have not imposed new restrictions on public gatherings as the Omicron variant has taken root. However, it was against the laws of Wales, where stricter regulations were introduced on Dec. 26 that restricted outdoor events to 50 people.
Chester didn’t believe that those changes were applicable to its case. “It is an English club that plays in a stadium that covers both England and Wales,” said Andrew Morris, Chester’s volunteer chairman. “We play in the English league, we’re registered to the English Football Association, the land the stadium is built on is owned by an English council. We’re subject to English governance and English policing.”
In fact, the stadium was built to clearly reflect that status. “Normally, the main stand of a stadium is built facing away from the sun,” said Mark Howell, a former board member and still a volunteer at the club. “At Chester, it is right in your eyes, because they constructed the stadium to make sure the front door is in England.”
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The Welsh authorities didn’t notice. “Chester Football Club’s stadium is in Wales,” a government representative said last week. “Therefore Welsh regulations apply.”
Chester responded by postponing the match it had scheduled for this weekend. It sought legal advice on how to get out of this impasse.
It wasn’t the first time that divergent approaches to the pandemic taken by the four countries that make up the United Kingdom resulted in borders that were long considered to be theoretical, even after Wales and Northern Ireland established their own parliaments back in 1999.
“The border never used to matter very much,” said Howell, the Chester board member. “The stadium was built before devolution, so nobody even thought of it. It was not even something that anyone thought about afterward. There were differences — people in Welsh post codes could get free prescriptions on the health service, and people in English ones could not — but it was not an issue.”
It turns out that even trivia questions about Chester were incorrect. The border does not run along Deva Stadium’s halfway line or cut through the field. It runs through the parking lot, and cleaves the club’s offices.
The borders connecting England, Wales, and Scotland have been incredibly important over the past two years. They have sometimes been divided into different zones, with different rules for different parts of the population as each country enters lockdown or exits. Travel between the constituent countries has been banned or restricted, and freedom of movement within Britain has been effectively blocked by the police.
The fluidity that has existed for a long time between the English leagues and the Welsh leagues in soccer has also been a problem. The four Welsh teams that play in the English league system — Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham — are continuing to play home games, but are prevented by law from doing so in front of crowds of more than 50. However, fans are allowed to attend games on the road. Cardiff, for instance, is expected to bring several thousand supporters to its F.A. match. Cup game at Liverpool next year.
The New Saints — a team based in the town of Oswestry, a few miles inside the English border, but competing in the Welsh Premier League — has at the same time been subject to Welsh restrictions. “Legally we might be able to play,” said Ian Williams, the club’s chief operating officer. “But we are affiliated to the Welsh Football Association, so we choose to fall in line with all of the other clubs in our league.”
It is Chester’s case, though, that is perhaps the most complex. Morris stated that there has been no indication that the Welsh government would change its stance. “They are insistent we fall under Welsh law,” he said.
Chester was offered payment by Wales in exchange for making up lost ticket sales. However the club was advised that accepting these payments could lead to it losing its registration with English F.A. Morris is hopeful that the Welsh regulations will change over the next few weeks to allow fans to attend and end the impasse. But he conceded that if they remain in place for another month it could “tip the club over the edge” into financial crisis.
These consequences could go even further. Sumner said that he worries that “the way football is organized between the two countries now comes into question.”
“It is a strange fight to pick,” he said. “Nobody cared about the border before. Now this has opened a can of worms, and it could cause a lot of damage.”
Morris has been aware of that, too. He has felt, at times this week, as if “the United Kingdom might start falling apart because a sixth division football match could not take place.” In talks with the local authorities, he has raised the idea of moving the border so that it encompasses all of the stadium, putting an end to Chester’s geographical curiosity.
“That’s not on the table,” he acknowledged. “I understand why. The border runs through villages and down to fields. They don’t want to get drawn into horse trading.”
He is more hopeful that an accord with the Welsh government can be found, one that crystallizes Chester’s status as an English team that just happens to have part of its “stadium footprint” in Wales. It may cost Chester its fame, but it would be the best solution. The club that has lived happily in both England & Wales feels forced to choose one.
Source: NY Times