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Chester FC: Welcome to the Armchair Derby – where, sadly, your attendance is not encouraged

Unwanted bubble restrictions and TV coverage have turned off hundreds of Blues fans, says The Chronicle's Head of Sport        

Robert Parry-Jones Police presence at last year's cross border derby match at the Racecourse
Bubble restrictions and a heavy police presence have put many Chester FC fans off this weekend's derby

Harry McNally once said you must be prepared to ‘die for the cause’ when you’re playing for Chester FC in a derby against the club’s closest and most bitter rivals, Wrexham.

He was exaggerating slightly – or at least I think he was – but the quote has still gone down in Blues folklore, a soundbite which summed up just how much cross-border duels meant to McNally.

You can be sure the legendary former Chester manager would have a few choice words to say about the state of the fixture in 2016, not all of them printable.

That's because, due to the combined factors of the hugely unpopular 'bubble' restrictions and live TV coverage, the Blues are expected to take about 600 fans to this Saturday's Racecourse game , one of Chester's lowest away-day derby followings for some time.

It's a drop of 300 from last season's figure of 930, and an even bigger drop from the pre-bubble days when the Blues would routinely take between 1,500 and 2,000 fans to the Racecourse.

Rob Stratford Wrexham FC v Chester FC: Chester FC fans celebrating after the second goal
Chester FC fans were out in force at the Racecourse in 2013, but their away following has dipped since then for derby matches

Hundreds of fans have clearly decided it will be much less hassle to watch the game from the comfort of their armchair at home. But can you blame them?

In short, no.

It's no wonder this will be more of an 'Armchair Derby' – or 'Pub Derby', if you prefer – than one where the majority of Blues fans will be there in person to see the action live. Attendance here is for the hardcore few hundred, something no longer seen as compulsory under the current set of circumstances.

If you've been living on Mars for the last three years and don't know already, the bubble restrictions see away supporters transported to and from the ground in a police-escorted convoy of coaches, otherwise known as a ‘bubble’. The much-criticised system – designed to reduce crowd trouble – has been in place since 2013 and The Chronicle has highlighted the fans' opposition to it on numerous occasions.

The measures – introduced by the North Wales and Cheshire police forces, in conjunction with both clubs – are viewed by the authorities as successful as they do effectively stamp out the possibility of any aggro (there were no arrests when the sides last met in March). But they are seen as unnecessarily heavy-handed by fans, with supporters objecting to being painted as potential trouble-makers when of course the vast majority are nothing of the sort.

“I’m a football fan, not a criminal,” wrote one Chester supporter on the online forum Deva Chat this week, perfectly summing up the general feeling.

The Football Supporters’ Federation agree and have called the bubble policy 'Draconian' while North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones says fans of both clubs have been subjected to the restrictions for 'too long'.

IAN COOPER
Chester's players thank the fans for their support last season

Mr Jones thinks lessons can be learned from Merseyside Police, who decided no bubble was needed when 1,526 Chester fans travelled to Tranmere Rovers on another big derby date last season, at 3pm on a Saturday, when there were ‘several small outbreaks of disorder’ but nothing more.

But despite all the anti-bubble lobbying, we're still stuck with it.

So where do we go from here? Will this be the norm now? Will 600 be considered a decent following for derby days at the Racecourse, a ground which once housed almost 30,000 fans for a cross-border clash (it was in 1936 – and Chester won, by the way).

Is there any chance of these restrictions being lifted in the near future?

Something of an olive branch has been extended.

In a joint statement at the start of the season, the authorities said: “Two well contested and incident-free fixtures will see these arrangements reviewed. All parties are committed to working towards returning these fixtures to ‘normality’ with standard kick off times and independent travel.”

So the message is simple: behave, and we’ll burst the bubble. We can only hope this is not a hollow promise and, for fans of both Chester and Wrexham, the feeling remains that these restrictions were a step too far in the first place.

A glance around the rows of empty seats in the Glyndwr University Stand on Saturday will underline that feeling. It will show just how much life has been sapped out of this historic fixture, one which was first played in 1888 – and I'd be surprised if that one kicked off at 12.15pm (a decision more down to TV than the police on this occasion).

It doesn't feel right that there will be more Chester fans watching on TV than from inside the Racecourse, but this is what it's come to.

Let's just hope the presence of the BT Sport cameras inspires the Blues, as was the case in 2014 when Ben Heneghan served up one of Chester's greatest derby moments of recent years.

As for the bubble, the day it's burst once and for all can’t come soon enough. I’m sure Harry McNally would agree.

Are you fed up with bubble matches or in favour of them? Leave your views in the comments section below or email chester.sport@cheshirenews.co.uk and we’ll publish your responses.

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