Images by Carl Ennis Photography
MANY things can be said about what is happening at Ashton United’s Hurst Cross ground – one thing they cannot be accused of is a lack of effort.
“I’ve been here since 9am,” said one staff member as The Correspondent arrived for their home match against Tameside rivals Hyde United.
“And I was here until 7pm yesterday.” When you think that day was a Sunday, it shows the hard work being put in.
To the outsider, Ashton United are the club that made an offer to sign Manchester City’s Erling Haaland. The one whose fortunes are documented in co-owner Jonathan Sayer’s book Nowhere To Run.
But there is much, much more goes into what goes on.
As the 641 fans streamed into Hurst Cross – which must be the only non-league stadium to feature advertising hoardings from The Goes Wrong Show, Mischief and Penn and Teller, down to the author’s line of work – as many things have not changed as have.
Take the jovial, ‘he’s a Curzon fan’ from one matchgoer. The substitution of an official was roundly booed too.
Take the lad sighing, ‘There’s the first ball gone,’ as he walked along after a shot flew over the back of a stand.
You could tell it was a decent crowd too as one fan shouted: “Hope you’ve got enough chips, look at the queue!”
However, things are on the up – on the pitch and off it. The renovated Cross Bar, which is popular with supporters wanting to either toast a win or cry into their beer following a loss, would not be out of place in city centre Manchester.
Community engagement through the AUITC group, which adorns the back of players’ shirts, is growing.
And as announcer Matt Clayton’s excitable tones booming out shows, Steve Cunningham’s side is not doing badly either.
“I think more people know about Ashton United, definitely,” he told The Correspondent.
“Geographically, where we are in Tameside, it’s fantastic having so many football clubs but it means we’re all fighting for the same fans.
“Anything we’ve done has been done in an effort to boost attendances but while we might not have the biggest number of fans, at the last two away games, at warring ton Rylands and Whitby Town, we made more noise than them combined.
“There’s not a lot of them but they’re bloody noisy.
“Jonathan’s book is unreal. It’s interesting as someone looking in from the outside will see it differently to how I saw it.
“Remembering that season made me come out in cold sweats. I remember when we got locked out of the changing rooms, I remember when someone went made about socks.
“But the publicity it’s brought is great. When you’ve a non-league football club chairman on Sky Sports New at prime-time breakfast, it’s fantastic.
“Away from that, we work through Ashton United In The Community with a local food bank – it helps 120-130 families a week now.
“We have Hurst Fest and we’re trying to engrain ourselves in the community we’re in. Hopefully it pays dividends with people coming through the door here.
“But the main thing in driving attendances is it’s got to be good stuff on the pitch. What Steve’s doing in the opening stages of the season, it’ll grow.”
The latest step on Ashton United’s journey was not without its bumps. Antoine Makoli’s classy opener for Hyde United was following by Cunningham barking at players from the touchline, ordering some to ‘F***ing up your game.’
But turn it around they did as Kielen Adams, something of a fan hero, struck a fine equaliser before referee Andrew Daniels – who in the words of one irate Hyde fan as he left the pitch was a ‘f***ing disgrace’ – ruled Bradley Roscoe handballed in his penalty area and Alex Byrne struck home the winning penalty.
As jubilant Ashton United fans made their way along Surrey Street, including the seven or eight-strong singing section, who must have been hoarse after not stopping all game, Hyde players and officials cursed.
Their subs’ bench had already fallen victim to ref Daniels, who booked coach Martyn Coyne and assistant manager Gavin McCann for ‘entering the field of play too aggressively’ and substitute Adam Dawson for touching the ball before it went over the touchline with him yet to even come on.
The official had already provided some glee for Ashton United fans. As he left the pitch at half time, he drew out the 50/50 draw ticket, which it turned out was won by the supporters’ club.
Now with them standing joint-second in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, things are looking up in more ways than one.
Jonathan’s book, Nowhere To Run, is topping the best sellers’ chart while they still talk about the time they approached Manchester City’s megastar to ask if he fancied a game during last year’s World Cup.
But how did that come about? Matt takes up the tale.
“The Haaland thing? That was funny,” he added. “The honest answer on how it came about? A drunken conversation.
“A couple of us were in The Cross Bar and said, ’Wouldn’t it be funny if we turned around and said we tried to sign Haaland for the World Cup?’
“And then I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll out it out, why not?’
“I expected it to get a couple of thousand likes at most if I’m honest. Then it snowballed to 37 million impressions on Twitter in a week. I was everywhere.
“Jonathan ended up on radio in Melbourne, Norwegian TV, everywhere.
“We played Bamber Bridge that Saturday and there was probably about 50 extra on the gate and lots of people in Haaland masks.
“Anything we can do to boost the club and try and give it a more positive name.”