James Chester almost switched from Aston Villa to Stoke City a year and a half before he finally did so – having played through the pain barrier and put his career on the line to help win promotion to the Premier League in the mean time.
The 31-year-old centre-back was a £5m transfer target for Stoke back in the summer of 2018 when Gary Rowett was trying to rebuild the squad he inherited after relegation from the Premier League.
Villa were in a financial crisis after losing to Fulham in the Championship play-off final and, although captain Chester didn’t want to leave, it was made clear to him that it might take his departure to pretty much save the club.
Then manager Steve Bruce, however, was prepared to borrow time to try to keep his star man.
“Steve was really honest at the time and good with me,” said Chester in a candid interview with The Athletic.
“He said that a bid had come in and that although it wasn’t enough at that time, the club needed to raise £9m to stay afloat the next month.
“Leaving was not something that I wanted to do at the time but I understood the situation the football club was in.
”It was a strange time because, although I didn’t want to leave, it would have meant, on a personal note, that I had more years on a contract. I told Steve that. He asked me to hang fire for a couple of days because he was aware that a takeover was close.”
A takeover did then pull Villa from the brink and when Chester became Dean Smith’s only available centre-back heading into the winter, he was prepared to make a knee injury worse to play on.
The situation was eased in the January transfer window and Villa went on to win promotion – and Chester faced a year on the sidelines recovering until he ultimately joined Stoke back in the Championship on loan in January.
He has since joined Stoke on a permanent deal after coming to the end of his contract.
“Around December (2019), when results weren’t going well. I felt I was ready to play,” he said.
“It was disappointing not to get in. The gaffer spoke to me after the FA Cup game with Fulham and said that I was the best player on the pitch.
“He said that if anything was to happen, then I would be the next in line. Leaving was the toughest decision I made in my career. Not in terms of the club I was joining; just the sentiment I had for Villa.
“Even when I was making the decision to leave, the gaffer told me how important I was to him and the football club. But he understood the decision I was making.
“I felt that it was the best way of having my career in my own hands to show myself and the rest of the people that I can still do this.”