RAFFLEGATE: '˜James Higgins' didn't go to Hungary to see the Spireites '“ but one fan did
Mark Barton believes he's the only Chesterfield fan in the club's history to support them on foreign soil.
The Spireite took it upon himself to travel to Hungary a fortnight ago and arrive unannounced at the club’s ‘behind closed doors’ friendly against Cypriot side Apollon Limassol.
Sadly his presence at the stadium 20km outside Budapest was overshadowed by a no-show by club raffle winner James Higgins, who it later turned out was a figment of a club employee’s imagination.
And it’s quite possible that they would have got away with inventing the pre-season tour competition winner, had it not been for that pesky Mr Barton.
Although supporters were not invited to travel by Chesterfield FC, no were they explicity excluded and Mark was determined not to miss a chance to see his team in European action.
“As a fan you want to go and see your team play in Europe,” he said.
“When you’re a Chesterfield fan you know that’s not going to be through the Europa League or Champions League, so a pre-season friendly would be the only chance.
“When the club announced they were going somewhere and gave the date, I was really up for going.”
Details from the club were sketchy, at best.
The location of the tour remained unannounced until the last minute, despite raffle tickets being sold for a chance to join the team on their travels.
Mark managed to find out, however, and booked his flights to Hungary.
He spoke to some of his Spireite supporting friends but they couldn’t make the trip at such short notice or didn’t want to face the risk of going all that way and not seeing the game.
“I thought that even if I didn’t get into the stadium, at least I would have a trip to a nice European destination,” he said.
On 9th July, the day they club few out to Budapest, an article on the club website mentioned that the game was ‘behind closed doors’ but with his travel plans in place, Mark wasn’t going to let it hamper his chances of seeing the Spireites in Europe.
Upon arrival on the continent the Chesterfield supporter hired a car and on the day of the game against Apollon, made his way to the Telki ground, deep in the Hungarian countryside.
He was prepared to use subterfuge to avoid being kept out of the ground.
“I had decided to play the role of a bemused hotel guest, just wandering around the hotel complex who had discovered a game,” said Mark, who practised ‘beszélek angolul sem’ – the Hungarian for ‘I speak no English’ in case he was challenged.
He even took a change of clothes and a cap as a disguise, to make a second attempt at entry should his first be unsuccessful.
Waiting in his car until just before the game kicked off, Mark slipped into the ground and sat down just in time to see the first goal go in.
Sitting in the corner of a stand, he witnessed a thrilling game that ended 4-3 to Apollon.
“I don’t think I was noticed,” he said.
“It was a great game, fantastic to watch, especially the first half.
“The score was 3-2 after about 25 minutes, it was really entertaining and competitive.
“I realised Skybet were taking bets on the game, it was a proper official friendly and both sides treated it as such.”
At full-time, Mark was able to celebrate a truly unique feat, although he would have preferred to share the experience.
“I think I’m the only Chesterfield fan in 150 years of history to see them play outside the United Kingdom.
“Last year they played behind closed doors in Portugal in some sort of training ground match but no one went to that.
“They’ve only played in Scotland before, never overseas.
“It’s a unique claim to fame I suppose but a sad one, my fellow fans should have been able to go, it would have been nice to be in a big well behaved group, enjoying such a unique occasion in the glorious sunshine.
“It was a bit annoying that the club put up flags by the side of the pitch, almost as if it would look like fans were there, for the cameras.
“But the fans weren’t invited, it was awkward for fans to go. They didn’t announce the date of the match or the kick-off, I had to find that out myself.”
Officially, there should only have been one supporter in the ground, and it wasn’t Mark Barton.
James Higgins was announced on the club website as the winner of their pre-season tour raffle, although that was later deleted from the club website.
While the team were out in Hungary, another announcement appeared, explaining that Higgins had taken ill and couldn’t travel with the team.
Mark was sceptical and played a part in bringing the truth – that Higgins didn’t exist – to light.
‘Rafflegate’ as it became known, exploded into the national news and caused real embarrassment for the Spireites.
In the wake of the scandal, the club apologised and commercial manager Kevin Fitzgerald departed.
“I knew James Higgins was made up but thought I might be doing everyone a favour by going and trying to spot him,” said Barton.
“There were maybe 15 watching it in totoal and he couldn’t have been any of them.
“The story broke the next day that he was ill but I thought that sounded made up, perhaps because I was there.
“I was in McDonalds in Budapest and I read the story that he was ill and thought who are they kidding? It’s ridiculous.
“I thought it was about time the club were held accountable for it, so I drew director Ashley Carson’s attention to it and he said he would investigate, and to be fair he was true to his word.
“He took swift action and deserves some credit for that.”
Mark is among those Chesterfield fans feeling aggrieved about recent events at the Proact.
He believes the club have a lot of work to do to win back the affection of disenfranchised supporters.
“In my 46 years of watching Chesterfield we fans have never been treated as badly.
“They need to learn lessons and quickly, looking at why so few raffle tickets were sold and the internal processes and decision making that followed.
“In principle it was a good idea, if planned properly and other fans willing to pay could have come along too for the game, but under this regime this was never likely to happen.
“There really does need to be a long hard look at the culture that has developed at this club that has allowed such a shocking incident to happen.
“Fans are everything at a football club, they are not just consumers of a product, they are the key part of it.
“The Derbyshire Times recently wrote an article about our summer of discontent and have asked telling questions of the club and how it’s being run that the fans want answering.
“Sorry seems to be the hardest word was the sentiment and we got no apology, instead this farce with the Derbyshire Times still remaining banned, as though the club thinks this will make the problems go away.
“We should be celebrating our 150th anniversary year. We were promised a prestigious preseason friendly, we’ve ended up with Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester City U21s next week, I’ll be staying at home for that one, which will kill me as I was 14 the last time I did that when the first team had a home game.
“I go to the majority of away games and only miss matches through unavoidable work commitments, holidays, weddings and the like, never because I can’t be bothered to go.
“I won’t be alone there are many of us that have had enough and wish to make a stand, by the same token we don’t want to damage the club we love and create an us and them situation, we just want it back to being the one we recognise.”
Unlike others, Mark is optimistic that the seemingly widening gulf between those in charge and those in the stands can be bridged.
“There’s got to be two-way dialogue between the club and the fans,” he told the Derbyshire Times.
“Ashley Carson asked me to meet up for a coffee and we did.
“I think he genuinely wants to move things forward and improve things between the club and the fans.
“You look at the Sheffield Wednesday game and the open day, the turn outs were very poor compared with previous years.
“We need to make a stand but having said that, Ashley is trying to make some dialogue. Will it work? Time will tell.”