As a player, Kevin Ratcliffe saw his fair share of highs in football.
Appearing in over 450 games for Everton between 1980 and 1992 and wearing the captain’s armband for many of them, the Welshman won the Football League Championship twice and lifted both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup during what was a memorable period in Toffees history.
As the years wore on and his time at Goodison Park came to an end, Ratcliffe headed along the well trodden path into the lower leagues with brief stints at Cardiff City and Derby County before ending up at the Deva Stadium and Chester City in 1994.
Chester were in turmoil.
Only months before, the Blues had won promotion to Division Two under the stewardship of Graham Barrow but off-field issues relating to owners Morrison Shand saw Barrow resign from his position in protest and throw the club into disarray during the summer months.
The club was sold to businessman Mark Guterman eventually and former Stoke City man Mike Pejic was brought in to try and aid Chester’s cause on the pitch. Ratcliffe was employed as his right hand man.
But limited funds and a playing squad way out of their depth at Division Two level saw Chester emerge as cannon fodder during that season - a season that would prove to be Ratcliffe’s swan song as a player.
Pejic was dismissed and Derek Mann, club physio and youth development officer, was handed the reins in January 1995 but it was to prove a step too far for Mann, who passed away in 2007, as left his role as manager in April 1995 with Ratcliffe taking over for the final three games of the season. This was where his managerial rollercoaster would begin.
A thankless task
“Mike Pejic had a thankless task, really,” said Ratcliffe.
“He brought in players like Jason Burnham and Don Page, lads who were real workers but just not good enough for that level. They were all workers, though, and they always put in a shift, it was just that they weren’t up to the standard required. That was all we could afford, though.
“We turned up for the first day of training that season and we had about six players. It wasn’t anything I had experienced before. It was a real shambles and we just had to work with what we had.
“It was, as we expected, really tough for us but I learned from him. He was a man who knew a lot about the game. When he left I just felt at that time I wasn’t really ready for management so they hired Derek Mann, which was a surprise to say the least.
“He tried his best but he was out of his depth and it kind of fell to me after we had been relegated to try and restore some pride in the football club and just put the previous season behind us.”
Ratcliffe knew what he wanted from his squad and, as a rookie manager, knew that he had to hit the ground running and make an impression as quickly as possible.
“You’re first signings should always be your big ones,” said Ratcliffe.
“That is what makes a statement and sets the tone for the rest of your signings. I had known Cyrille Regis and knew what he could do and that he was nearing the end of his career but knew he could be a major player for us.
“It wasn’t the most popular of signings at the time, I remember. But he turned out to be a phenomenal player for us that year and was a real crowd favourite.
“But I was working with limited funds and some players who I would have like to have kept. People like Chris Lightfoot and Gary Hackett could have done a real job for us the following season but I needed to bring in my own players and to stamp my own mark on the team. The only way I could do that was to raise funds by getting rid of some players.”
Ratcliffe moved on some of the under performers from the previous campaign and brought in the likes of Neil Fisher from Bolton Wanderers, goalkeeper Billy Stewart from Northampton Town and defender Dave Rogers from Tranmere Rovers.
Chester began the 1995/96 season in superb form and were up around the automatic promotion places for the first half of the season before inconsistencies saw them fall away in the second half and slip out of the play-off places come the end of the season.
The mood, though, was far brighter heading into the second season under Ratcliffe’s stewardship and, with the help of players such as Stuart Rimmer, Kevin Noteman and Sam Aiston helped Chester achieved what they had missed out on the previous campaign as they made the end-of-season play-offs where they were beaten over two legs in a bad-tempered clash with Swansea City. The second-leg loss to the Swans at the Vetch Field denied Chester the chance to make their Wembley debut.
Off-field woes, late wages and legging it from hotels
But while Ratcliffe was doing his level best to make sure things were functioning well on the pitch, off it was a different matter.
Financial woes contined to dog Chester and chairman Guterman had to fend off a winding-up order brought by the Inland Revenue against the club in December 1997. Ratcliffe had already had to work under a transfer embargo during the 1996/97 season but kept Chester in the hunt for honours on the field with a threadbare squad.
“We were in really dire straits,” recalled Ratcliffe.
“The chairman at the time was spending money here, there and everywhere except the problem was that a lot of the time it wasn’t being spent on the football club.
“Wages were being missed and it was left to me or Bill Wingrove (then chief executive) to tell the players that they wouldn’t be getting paid. He (Guterman) was never around to do that when it should have been him telling them.
“They were lads who weren’t earning mega bucks and had mortgages to pay and bills going out the day after pay day. They were all doing their job on the pitch and weren’t even getting paid for it. We were all in the same boat.
“I remember times on away trips when we would be staying in a hotel and have had our meal and Bill (Wingrove) would say that we need to leave now. So we all rushed out and got onto the coach and left. It turns out we hadn’t been able to pay the bill for our stay there and then."
The sale of Iain Jenkins and Julian Alsford to Dundee United and Matt McKay’s move to Everton in 1998 saw around £750,000 brought into the club which was enough to stave off the threat of administration that had been looming ever larger over the Deva Stadium.
A promise broken and paying the water bill
After helping bring on three players that earned the club such a significant sum of money, Ratcliffe wanted assurances that such problems wouldn't rear their head again in the future. He was given such assurances but they turned out to be just empty words. Despite the problems, Chester finished the 1997/98 season in 14th position.
“I told them that I don’t want any of this nonsense again and that the club needed to spend within its means and be run professionally,” said Ratcliffe.
“I was told that it was all fine and that things would change. They didn’t, though, and six months later things were as bad as they ever had been. Wages weren’t being paid and we were back to square one.”
If ever Ratcliffe needed a reminder as to just how bad Chester’s financial woes were it was when he had to fork out £5,000 of his own money in order to get a home pre-season friendly with Tranmere Rovers on in July 1998.
“We turned up at the ground and were told that the game couldn’t go ahead because we hadn’t paid the water bill and they had shut off the water at the ground,” he recalled.
“No toilets, nothing. We wouldn’t have been able to have a crowd in there and the players couldn’t even have had a shower. The club had no money.
“I went to the bank and managed to withdraw £5,000 so that we could pay the bill and get the game on. I wasn’t daft enough just to hand over the money and had assurances that I would get it straight back but it was just where we were at as a club.”
Ratcliffe once again worked miracles on a shoestring and guided Chester to a mid-table finish in 1998/99 against all the odds. However, his biggest battle was yet to come.
The arrival of Smith and the beginning of the end
In 1999 Chester were eventually sold. Gone was Guterman and in came Terry Smith, an American businessman and former American Football coach who had spoken enthusiastically about his plans for the club when attending the launch of the Independent Supporters Association (ISA) launch prior to the season start.
Backed by his father Gerald, Smith sealed a deal for the club prior to the start of the 1999/2000 season and promised an influx of foreign players and First Division football in three years. But Ratcliffe knew something wasn’t right straightaway.
“He didn’t like me and he didn’t want me there,” said Ratcliffe.
“He wanted to do it all himself and he did all he could to make things as uncomfortable as he possibly could for me.
“He didn’t have a clue about football or how to run a football club. As soon as I met him and heard his plans I knew that there was only one way that the club was heading and that was down.
“I’d made my decision to leave a couple of weeks beforehand. I just couldn’t work with him, it was impossible.
“Before I left, though, I made sure that the players had some kind of contract in place with the club because I could see what he was like. All but one signed a deal with the club which helped secure their futures a bit. After that I left.
“I had sealed a deal for Dave Hughes, a centre back from Aston Villa. He was a great player and had agreed to take a massive cut in wages to come down and join us at Chester. It was all agreed.
“But as soon as I knew I was going I felt I owed it to him to tell him the situation at Chester. He turned it down and I eventually signed him when I went to Shrewsbury. I eventually sold him to Cardiff City for almost £500,000.”
After Ratcliffe’s departure from the club Smith took control of team affairs and, predictably, failed miserably before conceding defeat and appointing Ian Atkins as director of football.
A sad sight but not unexpected
But the damage was done and Chester were relegated from the Football League at the end of the 1999/2000 season. Ratcliffe’s prediction had come true.
“I was sad to see a club that I held so dear go down but it was no surprise,” said Ratcliffe, who took over at Shrewsbury Town in 1999 before leaving the club in 2003 following their relegation from the Football League.
“I had so many fond memories of my time at Chester and never regretted a second of it. There were some wonderful people involved at that football club, some who are still involved today. The likes of Barrie and Pam (Hipkiss), those people are the lifeblood of football clubs like Chester. They couldn’t survive without those kind of people.”
Shrewsbury would prove to be the last stop in management for Ratcliffe.
A manager with a strong pedigree in the lower reaches of the Football League, Ratcliffe’s services were still very much in demand when jobs came up, but the former Wales international had become disillusioned with the way that the game was heading and took the decision to step away from management entirely, instead focusing his attention on working as a media pundit.
Quitting management for good
“I could see that the game was changing and I didn’t like it,” said Ratcliffe.
“Players were becoming more and more difficult to deal with and they were being handed way too much power. They were becoming more powerful than the managers at their clubs and that is something that can never happen.
“The money was changing the game and you couldn’t hurt them. Where you used to fine them £30 or £40 for something, it meant nothing to them and you could assert authority the way you used to. It changed how you approached things and I didn’t like that side of it. I’d played under people like Howard Kendall and you always respected your manager. I found that was lacking as time wore on.
“I decided to step away from it and I haven’t missed it to be honest. I was able to stay involved in football and be around football people doing my media duties and it satisfied that need to be around the game for me.”
Having gone through such a rollercoaster of emotions at Chester, you would forgive Ratcliffe for looking back negatively on his time with the Blues, fighting fire after fire and always being stymied in his efforts to take the club forward. But the opposite is true.
“We were a family there at Chester,” he said.
“There were a lot of bad times but we always pulled together and pulled through. It was a real football club with a real heart and soul to it who had excellent fans and volunteers who made it all work.
“I didn’t achieve what I wanted to there for various reasons but I’d like to think I did a good job.
“I don’t look back on it with any regrets. It was a memorable time in my life and a club that I am still fond of.
“I know a lot of people say it but they are one of my teams and I always look for the results every week. They are a National League club now but hopefully they can get back to the Football League one day and finally do it as a well run club from top to bottom. The fans deserve that.”