Dealings of a Duo – Johnson & Morley’s impressive Chester recruitment

You can go back as recently as three months ago, to recall one of Chester FC’s lowest moments as a football club in its eight year history. Manager Marcus Bignot, plunged into the depths of hell, asked to do God’s work, by keeping the Blues in the National League on a budget as minuscule as his faint hopes of doing so, sacked in the car park of Chester’s Under-19s League Cup Semi-Final win over Boreham Wood, a game that the 43-year-old voluntarily attended, having already been informed of his end-of-season departure, just a few weeks prior.

So how, after relegation and reliance on the superb financial support of football fans across the country to stay afloat, are Blues supporters now dreaming of promotion back to the National League just one season on from the worst in its history?

Known for their tough-talking approach, but winning mentality, culminating in a hugely successful three promotions in four seasons with Salford City, former-Ammies joint-bosses, Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson, have taken Bignot’s position at the helm, and haven’t taken long in justifying their want of doing so. Having departed the National League North champions in May, the duo wasted little time in declaring their interest in the role, and joined the club just a week later.

Clearing out most of last season’s squad, ultimately drawing a line under its disappointment, Morley & Johnson have introduced Derek Egan as the club’s first-team coach, Carl Garner and Neil Hart as scouts, fourteen new additions, tying up the immediate futures of Gary Roberts and Nathan Brown amongst others, in the process.

Of those fourteen, ten are experienced under the tutelage of the pairing, whether it be at previous clubs Ramsbottom United or, of course, the Ammies. With an exciting, ambitious proven success of a management duo making the vital decisions, one would feel inclined to trust their judgement, in this respect, as it is these new faces that have contributed to their overriding success, over the years.

With these additions a statement of promotion-challenging intent, here is a fact file for each, some new, some old, as these men aim to cement their place in Chester folklore, at just the first time of asking.

MATTY HUGHES

POSITION: Forward

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Skelmersdale United, Fleetwood Town, Chester x2, AFC Fylde, Chorley.

Heavily experienced at sixth tier level, Matty Hughes is a name known well amongst banks of the Chester faithful. The 26-year-old featured at the Deva Stadium during two different loan spells from Fleetwood Town, across 2014 and ’15, scoring four in eight during the first, but failing to strike it lucky across seventeen appearances during the second. Hughes’ best period came at the age of just 20, securing his first semi-professional move to Skelmersdale United, from Golborne Sports, notching up fifty appearances and netting twenty times throughout. Hughes contributed to AFC Fylde’s promotion from this division, featuring for competitive rivals Chorley most recently.

STEVEN HOWSON

POSITION: Defender

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Prestwich Heys, Radcliffe Borough, Bunbury Force, Ramsbottom United, Salford City, Curzon Ashton, Southport.

The first vastly experienced name under Johnson and Morley to be signed, Howson brings a winning mentality, and reliability to a set of supporters that need it desperately. Having featured under the bosses at Ramsbottom and Salford, his best spell came with the Ammies, as he lead the Manchester outfit to two successive promotions, to the National League North, on the cusp of a third just a year later. Howson departed for Curzon Ashton the following season, then moving away to Southport in the same, before reuniting with the Chester bosses for the start of this campaign. Having proven himself to the duo at two clubs, one can only imagine he has the capabilities to do it at a third.

GRANT SHENTON

POSITION: Goalkeeper

PREVIOUS CLUBS: FC United of Manchester, Ramsbottom United, Stalybridge Celtic.

Initially on a loan deal, 27-year-old Shenton first joined up with joint-bosses Morley and Johnson at Ramsbottom, in 2011, from FC United, helping The Rams to two promotions in his time at the Riverside Stadium. Chester’s current number one, Shenton will play an integral role in the Blues setup, trusted by the management duo, having looked impressive in pre-season.

JOHN PRITCHARD

POSITION: Defender

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Oldham Athletic, FC United of Manchester, Trafford, Ramsbottom United, Ashton United.

Still just a youngster, 22-year-old Pritchard joins the Blues having won promotion to the National League North, most recently, with Ashton United last season. The Manchester-born defender has spent his career, solely, in the North-West, having trained at Manchester United before making his first professional bow with Oldham Athletic. Following his release in 2014, Pritchard spent the remainder of his career, so far, as a semi-professional, but having won the Northern Premier League playoffs just last season, the defender caught the eye of Johnson and Morley, and will now hope to go one better.

JON MORAN

POSITION: Defender

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Crewe Alexandra, Nantwich Town, Forest Green Rovers, Altrincham, Halesowen Town, Weston Super Mare.

At the age of just 21, former-Crewe and Forest Green central defender Jon Moran is already a highly-rated prospect. His impressive spell at Nantwich Town forced Forest Green to move for the youngster, although he was never able to break into the first-team, spending short periods on loan at Halesowen Town, as well as fellow sixth-tier clubs, Weston Super-Mare and Altrincham. Moran has shown at Nantwich that he can impress in non-league, as the youthful defender prepares to make his first permanent first-team bow at Step Two.

SCOTT BURTON

POSITION: Midfielder

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Runcorn Town, Ramsbottom United, Salford City.

Perhaps one of Chester’s most decorated signings throughout non-league, Scott Burton has experienced no shortage of success throughout his career, thus far. The talented midfielder impressed during his 14-15 spell with Ramsbottom United before moving to Salford, racking up 126 appearances and two league titles in his time with the Ammies. This coming season will be Burton’s fifth under Johnson and Morley, as he kicks off life at his third club with the management duo. Impressive in each of the previous four, Blues fans can look forward to the performances of an ever-reliant midfield success.

GARY STOPFORTH

POSITION: Midfielder

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Clitheroe, Kendal Town, AFC Fylde, Ramsbottom United, Salford City, Stockport County, Colne.

Next in a long line of Johnson and Morley’s trusted talents comes Gary Stopforth, a vastly experienced 31-year-old at non-league level. Having racked up time at Clitheroe, Kendal Town and, most recently, eighth-tier Colne, Burnley-born Stopforth has represented Chester’s duo at the helm, similarly to Burton and Howson, at both Ramsbottom and Salford. Taking away his youth careers with Lancashire rivals Burnley and Blackburn Rovers, the midfielder’s highest level of play came in his 16-17 spell at National League North Stockport County, meaning his switch to the Blues this Summer will mark his second appearance at Step Two, and first under the pairing.

DAN MOONEY

POSITION: Forward

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Fleetwood Town, Bamber Bridge, Chorley.

Chester’s first loan signing of the Summer, Mooney spent time on loan at Bamber Bridge and Chorley last season, whom he, reassuringly, helped to the National League North Playoff Final. At just 19 years of age, the winger is highly rated in the development setup at League One Fleetwood Town, and adds international experience, having been capped four times for Wales’ Under 19s squad. In fact, Mooney previously featured for his parent club against the Blues during 2016, in an FA Youth Cup First Round clash with Calum McIntyre’s Under 18s, the Academy Seals emerging 1-0 victors that night. Although the loan is set to end in January, the Blues have the option to extend until the end of the season, should they wish.

GEORGE GREEN

POSITION: Midfielder

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Everton, Tranmere Rovers, Oldham Athletic, Ossett Albion, Burnley, Kilmarnock, Salford City, Viking, Nuneaton Borough.

At just 22-years-old, attacking midfielder George Green has certainly been around the block already. Dubbed ‘the next Paul Gascoigne’, having represented England at three youth levels, Green impressed during a mammoth eight-year youth spell with Bradford City, prompting Premier League Everton to sign the youngster for a fee in the region of £300,000, with the potential to increase to £2,000,000. Failing to break into the first team, the Dewsbury-born talent fulfilled a short loan with local side Tranmere, before making moves to Oldham, Ossett Albion, and then Burnley. Despite not featuring at senior level during his time with the Clarets, Green made three League One appearances at Boundary Park with Oldham, but, unfortunately, would voluntarily agree to a termination of contract. Following short spells in Scotland and Norway, Green finally settled at Nuneaton last season, racking up fourteen appearances and scoring twice, prompting the Blues to pay a four-figure fee for the attacking prospect. Green’s development has been halted by his off-pitch battles with mental health, but the youngster has worked extremely well and hard to overcome these struggles, as he aims to get his career back on track with the Seals, having impressed Morley and Johnson in a loan spell with Salford last year. With the opportunity to endure a full season of senior football, for the first time in his career, a sleeping giant in the shape of George Green is ready to be awoken, with talent spanning much farther than Step Six of the football league pyramid. Make no mistake, this is a massive coup for the club.

SIMON GRAND

POSITION: Defender

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Rochdale, Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Morecambe, Fleetwood Town, Southport, AFC Telford United, Barrow, Salford City, AFC Fylde.

At 34-years-old having secured nearly a decade of experience throughout the Football League, centre-half Simon Grand arrives at the Deva as Johnson and Morley’s most experienced addition. Most recently, the veteran defender helped Barrow to promotion from the National League North in 2015, earning a place in the league’s ‘Team of the Season’ of that year, led Salford City to the 2017 Playoff Final, on the cusp of repeating his feat with the Bluebirds, and guided AFC Fylde to the playoffs a step higher, just last season, having racked up 35 appearances in a solid campaign with the Coasters. Understandably, the Blues fought off competition from other clubs, including Wrexham, for the commanding defender, and Grand’s addition will add quality, experience and a winning mentality to a defence that, previously, was in dire need of some.

THEO ROBERTS

POSITION: Goalkeeper

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Wigan Athletic, Atherton Collieries, AFC Fylde.

Roberts joins the club as backup for Grant Shenton, as the Blues’ youngest permanent signing of the Summer. The youngster was released by Wigan having spent the season at both Atherton Collieries and National League AFC Fylde in separate loan spells, and is expected to be loaned out shortly by Morley and Johnson, as the ‘keeper seeks experience before competing to become #1 between the sticks.

ANTHONY DUDLEY

POSITION: Forward

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Bury, Guiseley x2, Macclesfield Town, Salford City.

Another youngster but this time with a proven goalscoring record at sixth-tier level, Anthony Dudley joins the Blues on a season-long loan from Salford City. Having spent a four-year spell at Bury, spanning his youth and senior career, the Manchester-born striker made nine appearances for the Football League outfit, failing to score but impressing during two separate loan spells with Guiseley, amassing sixteen appearances and seven goals for The Lions between 2015 and ’16, before leaving on loan for Macclesfield Town in 2017, netting four times for the Silkmen. The 21-year-old’s most prolific season came just last season, as Johnson and Morley snapped up the youngster for Salford City, upon the expiry of his contract with the Shakers. He accumulated twelve goals in thirty-seven league appearances for the Ammies, lifting the National League North title in the process, and now follows the management duo to the Deva Stadium, in a bid to replicate this success.

DANNY LIVESEY

POSITION: Defender

PREVIOUS CLUBS: Bolton Wanderers, Notts County, Rochdale, Blackpool, Carlisle United, Wrexham, Barrow, Salford City.

At the time of writing, Chester’s most recent signing is, once again, a name familiar to that of Johnson and Morley. Danny Livesey also joins the Blues on a season-long loan deal from Salford City, similarly helping the Ammies in their promotion to the National League, appearing nine times during such. At 33-years-old, Livesey brings no shortage of experience to a backline bursting with a plentiful amount as it is. His most notable spell came at Carlisle United, where the defender spent a decade with the Cumbrian outfit, amassing 287 appearances, promotion to League One and success in the Football League Trophy, then named the ‘Johnstone’s Paint Trophy’. After spending a spell on loan with cross-border rivals Wrexham in the latter stages of his time at Brunton Park, Livesey moved to Barrow, winning the Conference North title in his debut offing, and the Bluebirds’ captaincy, the following season. Accumulating well over 400 appearances across both Football League and National League levels, the veteran defender boasts three league titles in his career, two at this level, as himself and former teammate Simon Grand link up for another season together.

The word ‘camaraderie’ springs to mind when scanning over the Blues’ summer additions. Matty Hughes being a name familiar on the lips of Blues’ supporters, whilst the likes of Simon Grand, Scott Burton and Danny Livesey, amongst numerous others, reunite with bosses Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley. It was unlikely to envisage the success-driven squad the club could have built when awarded a slender budget of as little as £250,000 to play with, but the duo at the helm have gone above and beyond to prove that it is within their locker, to gather such a vast array of talent, before the Blues kick off against Spennymoor on August 4, with little resources to do so. It must be noted, of course, that these players need time on the pitch to prove their worth, and appear good value for the excitement, and buzz they have generated. But, for now, Chester’s support is alleviated, and relaxed in the sense that they finally have full faith in the top, that their loyalty is rewarded once more. Here’s to a sterling season to come!

What are your thoughts Chester fans? Let us know in the comments below!