When discussing the greatest manager in Chester ’s history then there is usually one name that stands out from the rest – Harry McNally.
Achieving the remarkable on a shoestring during bleak times at the Blues in the late 1980s, the legend of McNally was only made greater by his charisma and penchant for a glass of red – something which has been the foundation for many a tale from those lucky enough to play under him.
And that legend is remembered week in, week out in the present day thanks to the existence of the Harry McNally Terrace at the Swansway Chester Stadium. The man was as much a part of the club as the wolf on the club’s crest.
But there is one name which is often forgotten, and one which a whole generation of Blues fans may know little of – Ken Roberts.
The first manager to win promotion with a Chester side in the Football League when he led them to the Third Division at the end of the 1974-75 season after a fourth-placed finish in Division Four.
But his crowning glory was perhaps his side’s run to the semi-final of the League Cup during that same season, where they defeated the mighty 1970s Leeds United and a strong Newcastle United side before eventually being beaten in the dying minutes of the second leg against Aston Villa, denying Chester their first ever appearance at Wembley. Nobody has ever come closer to leading the Blues out at the famous stadium.
Legendary names such as Grenville Millington, Derek Draper and Trevor Storton all played under Roberts, who played for Aston Villa during the 1950s, during his stint at Chester, which began in 1968 and came to an end in 1976.
Now 81, widowed and living in Whittington, Shropshire, the football mind of Roberts is as sharp as it ever was, and his memories of those glorious years in charge of the Blues are just as vivid for the man from Rhosymedre, Wrexham, who took Chester to his heart.
“I was 32 when I took the job. I’d had to give up at Villa as I’d done my knee,” Roberts recalled.
“The Chester job had come up and as it happened the Wrexham chairman at the time came to my house that very day and said you can have your job back. I told them I was going to Chester the following day, which didn’t go down very well.
“I went to Reg Rowlands [Chester chairman at the time] and I got the job and that was it. Peter Hauser had gone and they hadn’t won a game for a long time. There were 28 pros and I got rid of 21 of them – I only kept seven.
“The chairman said, ‘what have you done?’ I told him that the reason that Peter Hauser got the sack was that these lads had got him the sack. I said that they weren’t going to do me, and they went. I started again with the likes of Tarby [Alan Tarbuck], big Ian Edwards, Billy Dearden, Andy Provan – good players and good lads.
“It was important for me to have the lads on side. We went down to Swansea for a game early on and when we got there, in the hotel we were staying they were having a party that night and I was think ‘bloody hell, I’ve got a problem here!’ So I said to the lads that I had spoken to the landlady and she was happy for them to go in and sit down – as long as they behaved themselves.
“I told them that I would buy them two drinks. Terry Carling was the first. I remember going to Terry and he asked me for a coke. I said, ‘if you were at the Lache you would have had a pint of bitter or pint of Guinness. I said he could have whatever he wanted. He said he wanted a Guinness.
“We had a great night and we ended up winning 5-0 the following day. But I needed those lads. I needed help and I needed them to go with me and it worked from there.”
Roberts steadied the ship at Chester and the Blues were consistent in his first two years in charge, improving year on year before finishing as high as fifth in Division Four at the end of the 1970/71 season.
But Roberts, not unlike those to have taken the Blues hotseat before or after him, was held back by the financial dire straits the club found itself in.
But a strong relationship with his chairman Rowlands and club secretary Stan Gandy ensured that Roberts was able to keep Chester on an even keel, although he had to wave goodbye to some of his top talent along the way.
Said Roberts: “Reg was only a little fella and used to smoke cigars and he was a tremendous bloke. I used to go to Widnes to the college and Bobby Charlton and Jackie Charlton were there and they asked me if I could go along and talk about the Fourth Division, so I went along.
“It was excellent and good for me. I told them that chairman, secretary and manager relationship was the most important thing. I said if you don’t get that right then they are all wanting your bloody job!
“But we were always struggling financially. We needed money at the time and Stan Gandy was telling me we needed about £30,000.
“Well, we had Billy Dearden playing for us and he had been tremendous. But I knew we needed to sell players to make money so I was heading down to London for the managers’ meeting.
“Arthur Rowley hadn’t long gone to Southend United and I saw John Harris there who was managing Sheffield United at the time.
“Now John had played and managed Chester. I asked him if he had any young players available. ‘Why?’, he asked. I told him that Arthur was after Dearden and I needed new players. Without hesitating John Harris said, ‘I’ll take him’. I ended up getting £10,000 for him.
“I still hadn’t told Bill and he was living in Oldham at the time. I said I was coming to pick him up and told him to dress smart. ‘Where are we going?’ he said. I told him, ‘never mind that, I’m on my way’. I told him he was going to Sheffield United and I told him I didn’t want him to say a word – I told him I would do a deal for him.
“Going over the Pennines I could hear virtually hear Bill’s mind working. It was when the Green Shield stamps were about. You used to get loads of them with your petrol and I used to get loads of them with all the miles I did. I used to stick them in the glove box.
“Bill said, ‘how do I come off with this? What do I get out of this move?’
“I told him if it wasn’t for me he would be signal man at Crewe Station. But I told him, ‘I have thought about you, Bill. You go in that glove box and your cut is in there’. All these Green Shield stamps fell out on his lap. He wasn’t impressed.
“In the end he had a great deal at Sheffield United. We were all done but I walked back in and said to John to book Bill and his family a holiday in Spain. He said, ‘no problem’, and he went ahead and did it. He ended up being a great player for Sheffield United.”
The constant battle to balance the books saw times of struggle for Roberts and his side on the field, and after a losses to Colchester United and Brentford in the early part of the 1973/74 season, Roberts offered his resignation.
But instead of accepting, the board moved to bring in coach Brian Green alongside Roberts.
The astute Green – who took over as boss of the Australian national side after leaving Chester in 1975 – had been coaching in Kuwait and his arrival provided a welcome boost to both Roberts and the Blues.
The following season would be arguably the greatest in the club’s history.
“I went to the chairman and said I needed some help so I went and got Brian Green to come in and he did really well for me,” said Roberts.
“Things took a turn for the better and we put a hell of a side together for that League Cup season.”
Wins over Walsall, Blackpool and Preston North End put them into round four and pitted little old Chester against the might of Leeds United, the finest team in the land at the time, and the class of Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles. Chester won 3-0 in front of close on 19,000 fans at Sealand Road thanks to a John James brace and one from Storton.
Grabbing the national headlines for their exploits, Chester weren’t done yet and they saw off Newcastle United, drawing 0-0 at St James’ Park before James struck to seal another famous win in the replay.
Two games from Wembley, Chester drew Aston Villa in the two-legged semi-final, and a 2-2 draw at Sealand Road set them up for an almighty battle at Villa Park in front of over 47,000 fans – 7,000 of them from the walled city.
But there was to be no fairytale for Chester as Brian Little struck at the death to earn a 3-2 win for Ron Saunders’s side. It was heartache for the Blues.
“We absolutely bloody murdered them at Villa Park. We should have won that game,” recalled Roberts.
“Derek Draper wasn’t fit so I had to play Gary Moore up front. Gary did well but we missed Derek. Derek and Trevor Storton were two of the best I had. Trevor Storton was unbelievable for me. What a player he was.
“In the fourth round it was the full Leeds side, they had Bremner, Giles and the lot of them.
“That Leeds team was the top team. They were tremendous. But we had no fear and the lads were unbelievable. We treated every game down to earth and just got on with it, we just did what we had to do.
“We were so close to Wembley. We lost at Villa with the last kick of the game. I walked in that changing room after the match and Gren Millington and the lads were all crying their eyes out. I said, ‘hey, you’ve nothing to be upset about, you’ve been tremendous and you’ve made a lot of people very proud’. I had a lump in my throat, I was so pleased with them, they’d given me everything that they had and I couldn’t have asked for more. I was ever so proud of them.”
Chester ended up capping a memorable season with promotion to the Third Division after edging out Lincoln City on goal difference.
But two years later Roberts would be making the decision to leave Chester after a poor run of results, something he regrets to this day.
“I think about Chester very often,” he said. “I always want Chester to win, I’m desperate for them to win. Even though I’m from Wrexham I always want Chester to win. The club became part of me because of everything I went through with the fans. It was a wonderful time in my life.
“People still stop me to have a chat about it – it never goes away.
“I am convinced that if I would have stayed that things would have been different, even now. I believe that if I would have stayed we would never have gone down all those years ago and things would have changed.
“I’d had enough. I recommended that Reg Matthewson get the job as I’d given him the coaches job with me.
“I went to Malta for a holiday and when I came back they had decided to sack Reg and Alan Oakes had been given the job. I said, ‘I’m off’.
“It wasn’t right to leave and it was stupid of me to leave. Call it a mental block but I shouldn’t have left when I did, but you do these things and you have to live with your decisions.
“I went to Oswestry but I couldn’t cope with the non-league side of things – it just wasn’t the same for me. I look at Chester and Wrexham in non-league now and it’s hard to take.”
His brief spell at Oswestry would be the last managerial post he would hold, and he was out of football for a number of years before former Chester City boss Kevin Ratcliffe got in touch with him to join his backroom team at Shrewsbury Town in 1999, primarily as a scout.
It was a move that would see him play a helping hand in unearthing two future gems.
Said Roberts: “Kevin Ratcliffe was at Shrewsbury and I was managing the tennis centre in Wrexham at the time. He came and said, ‘I’ve got the job at Shrewsbury, what will it take you to come with me?’ But I was settled and I told him no way – on your bike.
“But I ended up going, though, because it’s football and it’s what you do. Football is your first love and you do it.
“I never got on with the chairman there but the game had changed a hell of a lot since I had last been a part of it. It went through that spell where it turned on its head and I thought I was better out of it.
“Nowadays I turn the telly on and the football will be on and I’ll end up switching over and watching the golf. I just can’t get into it at all anymore.”
His time at the Shrews would last two years, but his mark made on the club would last far longer thanks to his keen eye for a player.
“I signed Joe Hart,” said Roberts. “Him and Dave Edwards, I saw them playing at the King’s School – Shropshire were playing Cheshire. I went to have a look and saw them and they were great.
“I said to them, ‘look, you’re wasting your time here, come with me to Shrewsbury’, and they both came. They have done ever so well.
“Joe was tremendous as a kid. I used to go and watch them at Lilleshall. I used to keep at Joe to get of his line while Dave Edwards would be on the end of everything. He had good lungs and run and run. They’ve had fine careers.”
Roberts lost his wife, Betty, six years ago, but his son Kevin and two grandaughters live close by, while former players and football colleagues ensure that he is usually talking football at some point in the week.
But he admits his love for the game has waned somewhat in recent years, although his cherished memories are something he holds dear as he rifles through a treasure trove of a shoebox filled with pictures of him playing for Villa and standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the late Sir Alf Ramsey, as well as newspaper clippings from his exploits with Chester, including his manager of the month award from December 1974.
“I get this out every now and again just to have a look and it always raises a smile. It really was a magical time for me,” said Roberts, a keen golfer.
“I’m almost 82 now and those lads who played for me are in the 60s and 70s and some aren’t here at all anymore, sadly.
“A few years back me and a few of the Villa players from the FA Cup team that won it in the late 50s (1957) went to Villa Park. They brought out the League Cup teams and then it was us, we were last out because we were the only ones to win the FA Cup who were still alive.
“Well, Jimmy Dugdale used to be this strong centre-half, he was in a wheelchair and had no legs. Then there was Les Smith who had a hole in his throat and Peter Aldis who was sitting at the table just knocking it with a fork – he’d gone.
“I cried my eyes out. I remembered playing with all these lads and remember them how they were, strong, fit lads who were superb footballers. Seeing them like that really affected me.
“But that’s the thing with football. Those lads will always be in their 20s and playing football, the same for those lads I managed. Time almost stands still in football and the memories last a lifetime. Nobody can take those away. It’s what it’s all about.
“Those times at Chester, it feels like yesterday. I wish I could have got them to Wembley but it wasn’t to be.”