IT is if not the most famous, the most debated, football pitch in Wales and now it has even made headlines in the New York Times. 

For over a week Chester City’s Deva Stadium has been at the centre of an international border dispute with the English club insisting it is surprised to learn that 120m x 90m of pristine Flintshire grass is subject to Welsh regulations, with Welsh authorities – and even residents – asking why shouldn’t it be? 

The issue came to light as Chester FC, a regular fixture for almost 70 years in the English Football League’s lower division when known as Chester City, hosted two games, each attended by more than 2,000 fans, over the festive period. 

Impressive attendances for the National League North, the sixth tier of the English pyramid. But they had attracted attention as sport in Wales has had to be played behind closed doors due to enhanced Covid restrictions to counter the threat of the Omicron variant and which were introduced from December 26, one of the most popular days for attending sporting events. 

READ MORE: Rugby chief backs restrictions despite festive derby

There has been much suspicion on either side of the line that divides the north east from England’s north west as to why Flintshire council and North Wales Police had now warned the club playing matches with fans in attendance is a breach of Welsh Covid regulations. 

The result however has meant the club from the English border city had opted to postpone its fixture with Brackley Town, that had been scheduled for today, as it described the situation over which regulations apply to its pitch – if not the exact location of the pitch itself – as “unresolved”. 

Fortunately a resolution has now arisen as yesterday Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford announced regulations which have prevented fans from attending outdoor sporting events are to be lifted from Friday, January 21

Crisis averted for fan-owned Chester which feared a prolonged period of games behind doors could threaten its future. Relief too for sporting clubs across Wales, including Chester's long-time rivals Wrexham, one of five Welsh clubs that play in the English pyramid. All have had to play home games behind closed doors to comply with Welsh laws.

Welsh football’s Cymru Premier, and the north and south leagues immediately below it, had opted to suspend their season rather than play behind closed doors and while community sport could continue with crowds capped at just 50 treasurers in clubhouses across Wales had also feared for their survival. 

The National Wales: Cardiff City host Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship, on the final weekend in Wales that sports fixtures must be played behind closed doors Picture: Huw Evans AgencyCardiff City host Blackburn Rovers in the English Championship, on the final weekend in Wales that sports fixtures must be played behind closed doors Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Though there is optimism that Wales and the UK is emerging from the shadow of Covid, or at least vaccinations and medical advances are making living with Covid more than a phrase, there is a possibility restrictions could be reimposed. And as for Chester the issue of which rules its ground is subject to still haven’t been definitively answered. 

“Is this stadium in England or Wales? The team needs to know,” stated the New York Times in its headline and as the paper’s “chief soccer correspondent” Rory Smith discovered the issue isn’t even as simple as that. 

READ MORE: Discovering the English town with a Welsh identity

When the Deva Stadium was built on Chester's outskirts 30 years ago it was an acknowledged quirk that the border either ran along the touchline or that one goal was in Wales but pre-devolution, beyond trivia, it didn’t seem to matter. 

Just to be safe however the 13-times Welsh Cup finalists, with the last of their three wins having come in 1970, built the main stand and offices on the English side of the border, which apparently runs, through the changing rooms. 

But as the border became a contended issue this week the New York Times saw it as another example of how the pandemic has illustrated the changing nature of the once heavily centralised British state. 

 

“It was not the first time that the divergent approaches to the pandemic adopted by the four nations that make up the United Kingdom have caused borders that had long been seen as theoretical, even after Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland established their own parliaments in 1999, to take on a much more solid, more concrete form,” Smith informed readers of the old gray lady. 

“Over the last two years, though, the borders that thread between England, Wales and Scotland have become hugely significant,” said the paper explaining that different regulations have been in place in homes and businesses that are just yards from each other. 

“Travel between constituent nations has variously been discouraged or outlawed, with the police effectively preventing freedom of movement within Britain itself.” 

In October 2020 Wales prevented travel from areas of England, with high Covid rates, which was described as the first hard border between the two countries in 800 years.  

The National Wales: Google Maps show nearly the entire Deva Stadium to be on the Welsh side of the borderGoogle Maps show nearly the entire Deva Stadium to be on the Welsh side of the border

Chester FC also found itself having to adapt to Welsh Covid regulations at the time as its plans for a drive through cinema needed to be staged in its car park, in England, to ensure it stayed the right side of the line. 

READ MORE: The border town where traders feel they'd be better off in England

But the most recent intervention from Welsh authorities has again highlighted potential tensions as Chester’s volunteer chairman Andrew Morris highlighted in Smith’s report: “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’.” 

The United Kingdom can probably withstand the administrative conundrum of a football pitch that encroaches on Wesh turf but perhaps the club felt the heat from a social media storm. 

Among those arguing the respective cases in the sort of vociferous fashion normally associated with football fans were the Conservative Welsh Secretary and his Labour shadow. 

 

While Simon Hart holds a role seen as representing Wales at the UK cabinet he took up the cause of the English football club while Labour’s Jo Stevens appeared to side with the Labour Welsh Government. 

Hart said he didn’t understand how Chester should be subject to Welsh rules when so much of its administration is with English authorities and its matches are policed by the Cheshire force rather than North Wales Police. 

The National Wales: Chester, who've won the Welsh Cup on three occasions, celebrate scoring a goal at the Deva Stadium, FlintshireChester, who've won the Welsh Cup on three occasions, celebrate scoring a goal at the Deva Stadium, Flintshire

Labour’s Stevens said it was untrue to say the club hadn’t received financial support from the Welsh Government, accessed via Flintshire council, though according to the New York Times the club feared accepting further support, for lost revenue due to behind doors games, could have have jeopardised its position with English football administrators. 

READ MORE: UK Parliament temporarily cedes control of English counties to Wales

Gavin Price, a Welsh expert in international relations with a focus on sport, said, in an international context, negotiating different borders and jurisdictions isn’t uncommon, and described it as “mind boggling” that Chester FC’s dispute with the Welsh Government has been featured in the New York Times. 

While objectivity and cool heads are often cast aside in the passionate world of football for Price, in line with comments made by first minister Drakeford, the answer is rather mundane 

On Twitter he said the rules in place need to be respected but said “reasonable dialogue is key”.

While there is now no need for urgent talks it may be remembering the need for practical and workable solutions will be key the next time a row over “the borders that thread between England, Wales and Scotland” blows up to “become hugely significant”. 

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.