James Chester has left on a free transfer, joining Stoke City. A true Villan, and a hero at the same time. Aston Villa fans will miss him.
Words: Andrew Maddox | @MaddoxJourno
To be heroic is to be courageous enough to die for something”
This quote from Criss Jami’s book ‘Venus In Arms’ cannot be used to sum up too many players from Aston Villa’s recent past.
Over the last five years, Villa fans have had to put up with too many players who were unwilling to put in the commitment expected of a Villan. From Jores Okore refusing to start games on the bench and Brad Guzan preferring to play kick-ups with gum during an FA Cup match to Pierluigi Gollini refusing to work under an English goalkeeping coach and Ross McCormack and his infamous electric gates.
However, the signing of one man singlehandedly began to turn the culture of laziness and disdain for the badge around. That man was James Chester.
Signed from West Bromwich Albion by Roberto Di Matteo for £8 million following Villa’s relegation, he was expected to bring an added level of Championship experience to Villa’s squad. He managed far more than that in his two and a half seasons as a regular starter, however.
Firstly, there was his remarkable consistency. The Welsh defender was a stalwart under Steve Bruce especially, playing every minute of football from his arrival in August 2016 to his dismissal in Bruce’s last match against Preston North End in October 2018. This amounted to 101 consecutive matches with no injuries and no disciplinary issues until the end. No player in the squad could match his record, not even the goalkeepers.
Secondly, his mightily impressive stats. Captain Fantastic averaged 1.3 tackles, 1.3 interceptions, 7.2 clearances and just under one block per match while in a Villa shirt. He even had a surprising eye for goal, popping up with ten strikes in claret and blue. For comparison that is the same amount of goals scored by Scott Hogan and Ross McCormack who cost a combined £23 million.
However, the biggest impact is something that cannot be measured by numbers. It’s something that you won’t see Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher obsess over on Monday Night Football and it’s a legacy that will stick around long after Chezzy is gone. That is of course his attitude.
Chester instilled a ‘never say die’ attitude in the players that simply didn’t exist before he arrived. Much of the dressing room had recently experienced a disgraceful relegation and even the new recruits were brought into a club in upheaval. A new owner and boardroom had come in and the team slumped to a late defeat at Hillsborough in their first game of the season.
The Welshman’s influence was felt immediately with his debut coinciding with a 3-0 win over Rotherham. However, he truly started to work his magic after the arrival of his former boss Steve Bruce in October 2016. After some disappointing performances from then captain Tommy Elphick, Chester was given the armband and the entire culture of the squad changed. Barring the odd dissident, the squad became a far more professional and committed unit.
The new captain struck up a popular partnership with Nathan Baker for the rest of that season before forming a rock-solid backline alongside John Terry in 2017-18. However, it can certainly be argued that Chester’s biggest psychological contribution came the following season when his numbers were at his worst.
Chester had a typically strong start to the 2019-20 season, bagging the opener in Villa’s 3-2 win over Wigan Athletic at Villa Park. However, he quickly picked up a knee injury that affected his performances. Chester could’ve easily asked for a few games rest in order to recover, but instead he chose to receive injections to carry on playing through the injury. He held a leaky defence together by himself as Axel Tuanzebe and Mile Jedinak rotated in and out as his partner. This worked up until January where the injury became inflamed and he couldn’t carry on.
It was during this period where despite playing his worst football in a Villa shirt, his professionalism and enthusiasm shone through and rubbed off on the other players. The most notable benefactor was Chester’s replacement as captain, a certain Jack Grealish. The local boy was dejected about his move to Tottenham falling through at the last minute and slumped around the pitch for the first few games of the season. However, within a month a beaming Grealish was signing a new contract and kicking into gear.
Once Grealish had recovered from his own injury in March 2019 and was handed Chester’s armband, he sparked the club back into life as Villa embarked on a record-breaking promotion. As the players walked up the Wembley steps in May to receive the Play Off trophy, Grealish called his predecessor up to lift the trophy with him. This highlighted the respect the squad continued to hold for Chester, despite him not taking to the pitch for four months.
The captain summed himself up perfectly that day. After being asked about his injury by a Sky reporter, Chester simply shrugged and told them “I’m a professional”.
Even while remaining in the stands for the first half of the 2019-20 season, Chester continued to inspire those around him to keep high spirits amid difficult times. Both Tyrone Mings and John McGinn played through fitness issues in the early part of the season with the former holding the defence together in the same manner as Chester had prior to his arrival.
It was notable that once Chester left for Stoke on loan in January, the spirit and resolve of the squad faded. This influence is precisely why Dean Smith was so reluctant to let the Welshman leave last season despite him not playing for a year and why he will be missed so dearly by the players and fans alike.
James Chester will always be remembered for having the courage to face the prospect of killing his own career just because the team needed him. He will always be remembered as a true hero by the fans, but his influence will be felt long after his departure.