A large number of football clubs, large, small and miniscule alike, took to Twitter, Facebook and so on to increase their visibility - and following - during the sport's global hiatus in the early days of the Corona virus pandemic, and have continued to do so. Some have been more successful than others, but most clubs' social media acccounts have seen increases in on-line traffic.
One of them is Dee Rangers, one of the oldest Sunday League sides in the north-west English city of Chester. They are also one of the longest-running Sunday League clubs in the region, having been formed sometime around 1970, and have seen their follower count on Twitter double over the past twelve months to more than a thousand. However, how many of those following Dee Rangers know anything of the club's history?
Well, if you are one of the throng following the Hoops, as they are otherwise known, fear not. Let us embark on an interesting trip down memory lane - one with which any number of Sunday League clubs will no doubt identify - with none other than current first-team player-manager Ryan Williams. Williams has been manager for the last eight years, having joined the club as a player back in 2002, but the club itself first saw the light of day as Stonebridge FC in 1970 (although Williams concedes as it may have been earlier, but club records only date from 1970) before they changed their name to The New Inn in 1976. Six years later, another name change saw the birth of Dee Rangers as we know it.
There was a good reason behind the name change to Dee Rangers, as Williams explains.
"In early 1982, the 'four fathers' of Dee Rangers met in a Handbridge [local suburb of Chester] pub for a chat about setting up a new team. Pete Chaloner, and perhaps another two out of the group, was playing for The New Inn, but was aware that the club was on its last legs and was in debt to the tune of £80 - a fair amount in the early 80s and which is roughly £240 in today's money.
"Back then, there were 4 divisions of 12 teams and a waiting list for any potential new teams. The easiest way to get into the Chester & District Sunday League was to join an existing team, or, as in this case, take one over! Pete, Kerry Driver, Paul Spruce, Bev Tilling & Phil Thacker decided to come together and clear the debt, thus assuming control of The New Inn FC. They completed the season under that name wearing their yellow kit.
"When the 1982-83 season started, they had appealed to Cheshire FA and the league to change the club's name and had purchased a brand new - this is questionable given they paid virtually nothing for it - all sky-blue kit. Dee Rangers was born."
A few years later, the club adopted a blue and white hooped kit in the style of QPR, and these have been the club colours ever since, and the shirt, naturally enough, became the source of the team's nickname - the Hoops.
In the early 1990s, one of the Dee Rangers players, Jon Wainright, who had joined the club when he was fifteen years old and went on to score more than 130 goals for the Hoops, produced a fanzine on a regular basis called The Onion Bag, and wrote about the club, the local area and real ale, which was rather popular amongst the playing staff at the time, a fine tradition which continues to this day. Wainwright, who was the first player inducted into the Dee Rangers Hall of Fame, sold copies of the fanzine at Chester City games, and the venture proved so successful that the club were able to buy a new set of kit from the proceeds. (Wainwright was the youngest player to appear for the Hoops until forward Norbert Lepucki made his debut, also aged 15, some while back.)
The club spent many years playing at Chester's Coronation Fields in the city's Hoole Park, but are currently elsewhere. Williams: "We currently play at Limewood fields in Hoole, Chester while we await or 3rd return to our spiritual home on Hoole Park otherwise known as Coronation Fields (Hoop Park we like to call it). The changing rooms are currently being renovated and our absence is now in its 5th season after some....attacks on the copper piping declared the locally famous William Brown Building [unusable]. It is council owned; we have never owned our own pitch."
The club celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary as Dee Rangers back in 2017, and did so in typical Hoops fashion, bringing out its own real ale in time for the anniversary bash, which was held at Chester's Deva Stadium - where else? After all, the team is named after the river which runs through Cheshire's county town, and the stadium is named in honour of Deva Victrix, the original Roman fort which later became the town, and then the city, of Chester.
Rangers currently runs two teams; their first, or open-age, team currently plays in Section B of the Chester & District Sunday League, whilst their Veterans team, founded in 2013, competes in the Chester & Wirral Saturday League Veterans Division. Bev Tilling, one of the club's founders and its first goalkeeper, still makes the occasional cameo appearance in goal for the Veterans, and lines up alongside first-team striker Andrew Fowlie's father.
Not that the first team have been seeing much action over the past year or so, unfortunately; the manager said that "last season was null and void; we only managed to complete 4 league games due to the weather and COVID. But, amazingly, we qualified for two cup semi-finals and a quarter-final, all of which were voided.
"This season, we currently sit in mid-table, but again have only played a handful of games. We're once again in a semi-final and a quarter-final, and we are drawn in both games against higher-division opposition. The last cup game we played was a classic. We went through on penalties after a fantastic 3:3 game against Tarvin - real headline stuff, full of drama."
Perhaps Rangers will soon get the chance to take to the field and add to what is a pretty meagre collection of trophies: two, to be exact. They won Section C of the Chester & District Sunday League back in 1989, and had to wait thirty years for their next honour, the 2018-19 Chester Mini League, a competition which came about because the league found itself with an odd number of teams and decided to split it in two. They have finished as runners-up in various league competitions down the years - "Always the bridesmaid, I'm afraid", says Williams.
Continuity plays a large part of the club's ethos, as the manager explains. "We have had five first team managers since Pete [Chaloner] started the team in 1982 - of which I am the current one and the third longest serving, creeping up on second place as I approach a decade in the job. I still play now but generally only get a handful of appearances. I've had an injury over the past couple of years that I've never recovered from.
"I'm entering my ninth year as a players and eighth as player-manager. And, of course, I get to turn out for the Vets now - if my wife lets me have two days at the weekend", he laughs.
And now, the club are planning to take their ethos a stage further with the set up of another team, as Williams explains: "With so many of our current first team now having children under 6, I have recently stopped coaching a Under-16 team and have been talked into setting up a Mini-Kickers' style Mini-Dee to coach the foundations of movement and football - of course my son will win MOTM every week.."
Williams and everybody else connected with the club still keep in touch with their former players, including the club's 'four fathers', as he explains. "Each year we hold an annual Legends Day where the veterans and players from yesteryear take on the current crop - all in memory of a fallen friend taken well too soon: we raise money for Clatterbridge Cancer Charity in memory of Tom Arnold. Chal [Pete Chaloner] and the gang are still in touch with me; they came to Legends Day two years ago and we got them into the squad pictures (see below photo). We aim to somehow complete the 2021 Legends Day between the two squads - dates of course will be very touch and go [because of the effects of the Corona virus]."
The Hoops and their manager have plans for the near future, which do not start and finish with Legends Day - "Both squads are set to continue, and hopefully the Mini-Dee will get off the ground when it is safe to do so" - but they haven't sat still over the past year or so. Far from it, as WIlliams told PFB.
"During lockdown, we have tried to be as active as possible - we've had keepie-uppie competitions, video challenges, and plenty of Zoom quizzes. We created a Christmas jumper and sold it to raise money for the homeless." Featured on the Christmas jumper was none other than Hooley, a cartoon mascot which, Williams said, "appeared in random places during the '90s and made a return this gone year for the limited-edition jumper."
"The virus and lockdowns have taught me and the club committee (mostly me and my miserable brother, who is club captain) that people do want to stay involved and want to be a part of something, we are planning on some new and interesting ways of keeping players and past players involved as life returns to normal.
"Hosting pub quizzes, bringing back the annual golf tournament that hasn't been seen since before I took over, a WAGs night - because, truth be told, they are putting up with a lot of moody lads not playing football right now - and a few more things including the development of our social media use. We have even started a YouTube Channel, so content will hopefully become more engaging for those not with us every week for whatever reason."
Right now, the club has also been taking part here and there in Twitter polls and recently undertook a virtual pub crawl of their old (and new) haunts in Chester. (Whether Hooley made an appearance during said pub crawl has not been documented.) The last twelve months or so have formed one of the most interesting periods in modern-day football history, if not always for the right reasons, and one of the most innovative for a great many clubs, not least Dee Rangers, a club which has seen two name changes and two new set-ups since its original creation as Stonebridge FC back in 1970, if not earlier. The Hoops will celebrate the club's fortieth anniversary under the name of Dee Rangers next year, and will, one hopes, continue to develop and innovate well into the future. What they will do to commemorate their forthcoming milestone remains to be seen, but you can be fairly sure that there will not be a dry glass left in the house. Just as it should be.
GOALKEEPERS: 1 Joe YORK; Hayden BAINS
DEFENDERS: 2 Dr. Andy ROWNTREE; 17 Nathan HICKSON; Sam RUSSELL; Jason LUCAS; Alex BELL; Andrew GRAVES; James ELLAMS; Oli LEADBETTER; Jake SHAW
MIDFIELDERS: 6 Dewi ADAMSON; 8 Jordan WILLIAMS (CAPT.); 10 Craig DAVIES: 11 Liam JONES; 20 Gary WILSON; Dan TATE; Craig ROGERS; Kev GARDNER
FORWARDS: 7 Nik HORABIN; 9 Andy HARRISON; 21 Adam WILSON; 23 Ryan WILLIAMS; Andrew FOWLIE; Norbert LEPUCKI; Alex WEBSTER; Ben SACHE
13 MAN OF THE MATCH - Reserved for the MOTM to wear to the pub
MANAGER: Ryan Williams
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Dee Rangers' Ryan Williams for his immense assistance with the above article. All photos/images were supplied by Dee Rangers.