Promotion reflections: Chichester City – the team who achieve things they’re not supposed to

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Away teams aren’t supposed to win play-off finals 5-0. But then, teams straight out of the county league aren’t supposed to reach the second round of the FA Cup or take to step four of the non-league game without a hint of going back down.

Those unwritten rules apply to most clubs, but Chichester City are not most clubs. They’re different; they love being underdogs, proving people wrong, defying convention.

They must do – how else would you explain how a club with a budget much, much smaller than many others in the Isthmian south east division have just won promotion out of it?

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The 2024-25 campaign will see them – quite possibly with a similarly tiny budget – trying to defy the odds and prove doubters wrong at step three, hopefully in the Isthmian premier but possibly in the Southern premier. And you just know they’ll shake up a few of the big boys... and love every minute.

Chichester City with their play-off trophy after clinching promotion to step three | Picture: Neil HolmesChichester City with their play-off trophy after clinching promotion to step three | Picture: Neil Holmes
Chichester City with their play-off trophy after clinching promotion to step three | Picture: Neil Holmes

It was a strange season for City. A successful one, and of course a very sad one.

Around the end of January, they were drifting – struggling for form on their new 3G pitch and looking like they’d end in mid-table.

Then something clicked. They tweaked their approach so they were less at risk of giving away cheap possession in their own half. Clean sheets followed – and brought wins. And the wins kept on coming.

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A 1-1 draw with Merstham under the Oaklands lights seemed unremarkable at the time, but was the first of 13 games unbeaten – and 11 of those were wins. Nine games in a row in that run brought shut-outs.

In March it became heartbreakingly evident that Miles Rutherford’s assistant Graeme Gee didn’t have long to live, as he revealed publicly in an interview in this newspaper. It was devastating for his family and for his Chi City family.

It affected and upset the players, of course it did, but it inspired them too.

They were ‘Playing For Gee’ – that became the motto and you knew that when they celebrated goals and wins that he was in their thoughts.

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After the play-off final win, defenders Rob Hutchings and Ryan Davidson spoke of the ongoing influence of ‘Gee’er’ – and joked that he’d put a force field around their goal for the play-off semi-final win at Ramsgate.

When City clinched promotion by blowing away Bridges 5-0 last Friday night, Graeme was the first person most thought about, and the players and staff held an emotional tribute to him in the centre circle.

As the celebrations continued, coaches Darin Killpartrick and Danny Potter both highlighted much-missed Graeme’s role as the reflected on the club’s achievement and looked forward to a new challenge.

Killpartrick told us he had the highest praise for the City players – and for Three Bridges.

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Killpartrick, for whom promotion was clinched on his birthday, said the players had kept on surprising him and the rest of the backroom team, saying he always viewed the start of a season as the start of a bid for survival – before you could think about mid-table, promotion or anything else.

He said he’d told his colleagues to forget the play-offs about three months but the players went on a ‘relentless’ run.

Killpartrick also praised what Jamie Crellin had done to get Bridges to the final – and said the all-Sussex match showed how strong Sussex football and its coaching network was right now.

Asked whether Chi would tackle step three head-on, he replied: “We’ll have to – I know what’s coming.”

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The former Rocks coach dedicated the promotion win to Graeme Gee, his late mother Elizabeth – and others connected to him and to the club who’d passed away along the way.

He said of the squad: “In all the years I’ve been involved in non-league football, I’ve never met a bunch of lads like this in my life – ever, ever. If my son turns out to be like these players, I’ll be a happy faither.”

Coach Potter said the hard work lying ahead of management and staff would now begin in earnest.

Potter joined Chi City’s staff when Miles Rutherford and Graeme Gee were appointed as manager and assistant back in 2015.

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He described Friday evening – when goals from Josh Clack, Joe Clarke (2), Lloyd Rowlatt and Connor Cody earned promotion with a bit to spare – as ‘overwhelming’.

Potter said the management had told the players some years ago they wanted to get them to step three of non-league – whether as players noving up with other clubs or as a unit with Chi City. And now they’d done it.

He recalled how belief had grown as the season had gone on and said Tuesday’s semi-final win at Ramsgate – who’d finished 20 points ahead of City – was probably the biggest step towards achieving the prize.

He also praised Three Bridges and their manager Crellin and said they were unfortunate to miss out on promotion.

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Potter spoke about Graeme, who had died just 22 days before promotion was clinched, and said his influence was still very much being felt in the dressing room and would be for a long time to come.

And the coach’s message to the chairman Andy Bell? “I think he’s going to have a bit of a headache,” he joked.

Potter said he was looking forward to playing Bognor in a league game rather than just friendlies.

Eventually on Friday – or it might have been the early hours of Saturday – the celebrations died down and City’s players, staff and loyal, colourful fans headed back home. But they did so already itching for the next step on a remarkable journey.

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