James Chester will go down as one of the most important signings that the club has ever made.
Words: Dan Bardell | @danbardell
“Number one, Brad Guzan.”
“Number seven, Leandro Bacuna.”
“Number sixteen, Joleon Lescott…”
This was a stereotypical script for any Aston Villa home game during the second half of the 2015/16 season. Things got so bad that the players had actually requested that the matchday squad stopped being read out when the players entered the field.
The fanbase had become so sick of the horror that had unfolded infront of their eyes that season, that they had taken to booing their own – something I have never agreed with – but in this instance, it was hard to take a different stance. There were players who had visibly downed tools. The club had been a catastrophe all season. We were down and out.
Hindsight tells you that the 2016-17 season was a catastrophe for all kinds of different reasons. When you look back now at the money thrown away – it is no wonder that the club nearly ceased to exist.
That reckless summer, we obtained nine players. For many, we paid a premium, being the big fish in the English Football League pond. Until today – only one remained. James Chester.
Signed for around £8,000,000, he was rescued from a nightmare season under Tony Pulis at West Brom. Pulis had shoehorned his fellow Welshman in, and mainly at left-back when he did pick him – a position we all know does not suit the player. I understand that this was a difficult juncture in the Manchester United graduate’s career, and it was obvious that he was delighted to arrive at Villa Park.
I’m not going to lie. Anyone that follows me on social media, or has listened to me on ‘The Villa View’ or ‘The Athletic’, will know that I adore James Chester. I have even named a pet rabbit after him. I’m dreading telling the little fella the news when I get home.
The reason I started with the tale of the players getting booed in our relegation year is because we all remember that feeling of resentment. That feeling that some players really did not care about what they were a part of. We were a laughing stock and nights like Tuesday’s win against Leicester fell lightyears away.
James Chester was part of a new wave of players coming in that wanted to be there. He was one of the only players signed that summer to take a step down in terms of League status to join us. A player that was probably too good for the Sky Bet Championship that had always given his all wherever he had been. An impressive trainer and professional, that others could absorb positive traits from.
What a signing he turned out to be.
Our best signing in that maiden season in the second tier, Chester had a knack for getting himself into the right place at the right time. It was a mixed season overall for the club, but I never tired of seeing him cover just-off the near post and deal with incoming crosses. Captain for the majority of the season, he was an instant hit. The polar opposite of the kind of defender we had grown used to watching. A man that took responsibility, and a man that led by example.
2017-18 was more of the same. The biggest compliment to be paid to him is that he had a footballing legend playing alongside him and was still probably our best defender that season.
Ironically, post-season, we feared losing him to Stoke, as our board struggled to keep the lights on at B6. We didn’t and the next season is the one that ultimately led us to where we are today with James.
Steve Bruce, who had previously worked with Chester at Hull City, saw fit to leave us short of centre-backs in the ultimately successful 2018-19 promotion campaign. It shouldn’t have been this way. This reckless act led to James Chester playing through the pain barrier to guarantee Aston Villa had an experienced defensive middleman to call upon. He even managed to chip in with five goals.
His season was over by Christmas.
“I’ve damaged my body indefinitely. It’s something I’m going to have to manage for the rest of my career”
“I felt it was my duty, as such, to continue being the only centre-half.” Chester discussed at the end of the season.
Fleeting appearances in the cups have given us the chance as fans to show our appreciation to him. The ovation he received as he left the pitch against a youthful Liverpool side was as tender a moment as you will see on a football pitch. This is a man that is held in high regard by all at the club, and therein lies the reason he was allowed to leave.
I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of what I actually think of the move, as this piece should focus on Chester as a man and wax lyrical about what he has done for the club.
I understand if this was any other player, he absolutely would not have been allowed to leave. Smith would have liked to have five centre-backs to choose from, especially now we utilise a three centre-back system.
Such is the esteem Chester is held in, he was allowed to depart on loan to Stoke. This gives him guaranteed playing time and puts him in contention to go to the European Championships in the summer with Wales. He has not represented his country since 2018, and the move goes a long way to proving his long term fitness.
There is a part of me that wishes we hadn’t been so gracious as a club; he has occupying the bench in recent weeks and is one defensive injury away from being back in the side. We are also a Mings injury (god forbid), away from lacking any real experience or leadership in the back three.
The potential opportunity to see him lifting a trophy in March with Grealish again would have been excellent as well. He deserves these kind of moments for all that he has done.
From what I hear, he leaves with a heavy heart, but the player quite simply wants to play football week-in, week-out again. He genuinely loves the club, and I understand it was a heart wrenching decision to leave.
I hope that he can prove his fitness. The club have the option to give him another year, but realistically I don’t think we will see him in a Aston Villa shirt again, and that saddens me.
I hope I’m wrong.
Several high-profile players have left Aston Villa in my time, many have disappointed me. In more recent times, we haven’t really ever sold anyone I cared about that much. The more recent past has seen me more upset about loan players not returning, ala Snodgrass, Tuanzebe and Abraham.
James Chester was the catalyst of change. As a man and player he helped to make us all fall in love with the team again. For that he will go down as a club icon, a modern day hero.
The departure is bittersweet, like an amicable break up. I’m happy that he’s going to get the football he deserves, and give him a superior shot at creating wonderful memories with his country. I’m just gutted he isn’t going to be doing his Rolls Royce impressions in claret and blue anymore.
There will be a void in the dressing room, that’s for sure. You cannot overplay the respect held for him by all at Bodymoor Heath. He has made a massive impact on everyone. The way John Terry posted on social media about him when they were centre-back partners tells you everything you need to know. This was a guy that just “got it” both on and off the pitch.
As signings go, he’s been an excellent one.
I’m off to tell Chester the rabbit the bad news.