WITH the start of the 2015-16 Evo-Stik Premier season fast approaching, Nathan Salt takes a look at Ashton United’s chances ahead of the new campaign.
When it comes to the play-offs Ashton United are one of the unluckiest sides in English football.
Losing in the play-offs at home is mightily disappointing. Losing on penalties is even crueler. Losing to your arch-rivals as well? Well that is bordering on traumatic but that is exactly how last season drew to a close as Curzon Ashton secured a play-off final slot via penalties inside a packed Hurst Cross 108 days ago and ultimately promotion.
Unbeaten in 15 of the last 16 home games, the club’s form at Hurst Cross was one of the strongest in the division but misery on their travels, including against promotion rivals FC United of Manchester and Curzon Ashton, United once again found themselves in the lottery that is the play-offs.
Managerial duo Steve Halford and Paul Phillips have strengthened the side immeasurably to try and alleviate disappointment from the dressing room as Ashton prepare for another assault on the title.
Cavell Coo (from Salford City, free transfer): The full-back has left the ongoing ‘Class of 92’ revolution to rejoin United, a club he has previously been at. Will provide solid performances at full back should he be able to reacclimatise after a season at a lower division.
Joel Melia (from Barnoldswick Town, free transfer): Having featured largely in the 9th tier of English football, the signing of Melia is a risk albeit a calculated one by Halford and Phillips. The 20-year old winger scored eight times last term and has already spoken of his desire to match the heights of forwards Martin Pilkington and Godwin Abadaki this season.
Adam Morning (from Northwich Victoria, free transfer): The striker returns to Hurst Cross for his second spell after the much travelled forward has represented five teams since he first pulled on the United shirt. Having had 15 clubs already in his career, Morning is looking to gain some stability and is a proven goalscorer at this level.
Jordan Bove (from Oldham Athletic, one-month loan): Another one of the five striker signings, Bove has lots of potential but given the competition for places upfront it is questionable how much game time he will be given during his brief spell. He has six matches to showcase his talents and earn himself a loan extension at Hurst Cross.
Dylan Moth (from BK Sport, free transfer): The former Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers prospect has joined the club after a brief spell in Sweden. Fans could see Moth deployed as either a winger or centrally as an attacking midfielder and that versatility could help his cause for regular game time.
Kyle Jacobs (from Stockport County, free transfer): United have secured the services of a highly accomplished right-back who has been applying his trade in the Conference North for the past few seasons. With Football League experience also on his CV from appearances at Macclesfield Town, Oldham Athletic and Mansfield Town, Jacobs could prove a real asset to Ashton both on the pitch and in the dressing room.
Will Haining (from Macclesfield Town, free transfer): 32-year-old Haining will add Football League appearance like Jacobs having made over 250 appearances at that level. He has spent the last two seasons in the top tier of non-league football and the drop down by two divisions could be a masterstroke by Halford and Phillips should Haining adapt to the new level quickly.
Godwin Abadaki (from Northwich Victoria, free transfer): 21-year-old Nigerian Abadaki will bolster the club’s rather booming forward options for the season ahead. The versatile forward possesses a real turn of pace and along with Melia push for a starting spot flanking a central striker. Phillips tried to sign the striker last season only for him to want to finish the season with Northwich Victoria but finally the club have their man.
Billy Priestley (from Bradford Park Avenue, three-month loan): The Conference North centre-half will be a useful utility player for his brief spell for the club but has competition in that position to secure a regular spot.
Joe Connor (from Southport, free transfer): The Mancunian has picked up a label as a much travelled midfielder come centre-half having endured a less than memorable stint in the States with North Carolina based Charlotte Eagles Soccer Club in 2008. Since returning to England he has had spells with Stockport and more recently Southport in the Conference Premier.
Chris Sutherland (unattached): Sutherland has had a stuttering start to his career with a loan at Barrow following a brief spell with Oldham. Now 20 years old, Sutherland needs to kick on and prove his ability at Hurst Cross this season or risk fading into the darkness of players who were never able to realise their potential.
Sam Modlinsky (to Glossop North End, free transfer): The young keeper helped keep Paul Phillips on his toes and stepped in on occasion. Glossop North End will provide Modlinsky with the game time he is craving.
Ash Young (to Bangor City, free transfer): Sports science student Young has opted to take up a fresh challenge in the Welsh Premier League with Bangor City having made 98 appearances for United.
Mark Haslam (to Trafford, free transfer): A firm fans favourite, Haslam’s departure will come as a blow but when new signings are made others have to depart. Shrewd signing by Trafford this one.
Ben Deegan (to Trafford, free transfer): The second half of Trafford’s double raid on Ashton sees much travelled forward Ben Deegan move to Shawe View. Brought in to increase the club’s attacking options for the final nine games from Dave Pace’s Droylsden, Deegan scored just twice and struggled to suggest he was capable of making the step up from the division below.
Jack Higgins (to Stalybridge Celtic, free transfer): After two seasons at the club, vice captain and defensive stalwart Higgins has joined the club’s Tameside rivals Stalybridge Celtic. The 23-year old made 86 appearances for the Robins during his two year spell and his importance is highlighted in that he never missed a minute of playing action during his fruitful spell.
His departure will come as a blow to Steve Halford and Paul Phillips as Higgins’influential role last term was recognised as he made the Evo-Stik NPL Premier Division ‘Team of the Year’. The step up to Conference North with Stalybridge, however, proved too alluring and very few fans will begrudge him over the decision to move.
Greg Pearson – released
Martin Pilkington: Goals win games and Ashton seem to score an abundance with Pilkington in the side. A firm favourite amongst the fans, the news that he re-signed for this season was met with sheer relief. Both Pilkington and Dale Johnson will relish the competition brought by new signing Adam Morning but Pilkington’s form in pre-season should see him remain the club’s main man. With 16 goals last season – a season highlight will have been his hattrick at Barwell – Pilkington will feel he can hit 20+ goals this season with added competition threatening his bid to lead the line every week.
Gary Gee: A mainstay in United’s midfield since he joined the club at the start of last season from local rivals Mossley, Gee provides the grit and determination in the centre of the park. Having missed out in the play-offs for the past three seasons and even tweeted it makes him feel like hanging up his boots, Gee’s burning desire to gain promotion with United is unequivocally vital. Dependable, passionate and reliable from the spot, Gee is the all-round midfielder that Halford and Phillips will build a title chasing team around.
Paul Phillips: One half of the club’s managerial duo, Phillips provides the on-pitch instructions, organising the defence in front of him and is the intermediary between Steve Halford on the touchline and the rest of the squad. An experienced member of the side, Phillips brings experience to the ranks and will be crucial in helping bed in the raft of new signings.
No matter what anybody at Ashton tells you, last season still hurts and is unlikely to be something that re-signing players or managerial duo Paul Phillips and Steve Halford can block out.
The difficulty when predicting where a losing finalist from the previous year will finish in the new campaign lies largely in the assessment as to who will feature mostly this season.
With 10 new signings, a revitalised dressing room could suffer little hangover from defeat to Curzon and instead go one better than last season. I, however, feel it will be another season that ends in the play-offs with the new signings finding their feet – particularly some of the younger, exciting prospects such as Moth and Bove.
Holding on to both Johnson and Martin Pilkington could prove to be the best pieces of business Ashton manage all season given their unquestionable influence last season in front of goal.
Are they capable of winning the title? Most certainly however I just feel that given the away form the club showed last season it is a feat that could be just beyond them. Hurst Cross was a fortress for the club last season with enviable unbeaten runs developing over the course of the season but inconsistencies on the road and also against lesser teams ultimately saw them slip away from title winners FC United of Manchester.
Another promotion challenge is on the cards again but I expect another season of ‘so close yet so far (from the title)’…
By: Nathan Salt
*All signings and players out correct as of August 12*