WITH the start of the 2016-17 Evo-Stik Premier season fast approaching, Nathan Salt takes a look at Ashton United’s chances ahead of the new campaign.
They have the smallest home attendances in the league and the FA has just banned their star striker for four years after gambling. Not exactly ideal foundations to build on.
But, Ashton United are a club that, despite adversity, always seem to rally together and mount a challenge season after season in this league.
Season after season it’s play-off heartache for United; whether it was their bitter rivals Curzon Ashton edging them out on penalties or last season’s conquerors Salford City – both teams went on to secure promotion to the National League North.
Management duo Steve Halford and Paul Phillips made it clear when they sat down with Quays last season they are ambitious – and that ambition has turned the club around.
Nobody could say they aren’t consistent in terms of league finishes: fifth in 2013-14, third in 2014-15 and fourth in 2015-16.
With just one automatic spot it is never easy and even at this level of football, money is talking more than ever before.
Back to back promotions for Salford City has aided them massively, AFC Fylde – who beat the Robins in the 2013-14 play-off final have recently become a full-time club and cup runs for the likes of Blyth Spartans allows them to sign the calibre of player needed to challenge at the top.
They may not have the best attendances, the biggest budget, the best players or the best luck in the play-offs but team spirit – as Leicester, Iceland, Hungary and many other have shown in recent years – can defy all the odds.
First five league games:
- Frickley Athletic (A) – Saturday August 13
- Nantwich Town (H) – Tuesday August 16
- Hednesford Town (H) – Saturday August 20
- Blyth Spartans (A) – Tuesday August 23
- Ilkeston (A) – Saturday August 27
Jack Dorney (from Chorley, free): Born in Ashton-under-Lyne it’s a homecoming of sorts for Dorney. The midfielder had been on dual registration in recent seasons with Chorley and Trafford but went back to the former in January on individual terms. Yet another midfield option adding strength and depth for the club.
Tunji Moses [from Salford City, free): The son of former FC United of Manchester midfielder Remi Moses has real pedigree. Promoted with Salford City last season from this league, and a Conference North title winner with Hyde back in 2012, the former Stockport County man should add composure and quality on the ball in the centre of midfield alongside a no-nonsense Gary Gee.
Jody Banim (out of retirement, free): Banim, 38, really is at the end of his career but has been coaxed out of retirement to provide cover up front if injuries occur. Naturally, the signing of Payne, McMahon and Gaskell will limit time on the pitch but Banim will assume a coaching role when he isn’t crossing the white line. Was at Radcliffe Borough last season after a previous spell in Thailand but is back in Tameside for 2016-17.
Adam Mather (from Bradford Park Avenue, free):The former Chorley and Bradford Park Avenue left-back has struggled with injuries in recent seasons – a key reason in why he was released by Chorley. The 28-year-old will now look to kick on and nail down a starting spot ahead of Liam Brownhill. Competition in the full-back areas will be fierce this season at Hurst Cross.
Grant Shenton (from Ramsbottom United, free): Shenton is one of the best goalkeepers in the Evo-Stik Premier Division, that much is common knowledge. Now 25, Shenton made over 200 appearances for Ramsbottom and will look to consolidate his place ahead of join-manager Phillips this term. He turned down approaches higher up the football pyramid to join the Robins.
Richard Smith (from Radcliffe Borough, free): Midfielder Smith is among those making the switch from Borough this summer and is another energetic midfield option. With lots of competition in that area of the pitch, Smith will have to take the chances he is given to stay in the team.
Jamie Forbes (from Radcliffe Borough, free): “He’s a very good defender, he’s strong, got pace and is good in the air,” was how Borough boss Danny Johnson described Forbes when he joined last summer. The right-back, who can also play at centre-back, will provide real quality down the right this term for the Robins.
Lee Gaskell (from Darlington 1883, free): The striker is the most recent signing at the time of writing and along with Shenton is probably the coup of the summer. The former Ramsbottom United and Darlington 1883 striker has scored goals wherever he has been – notching over 100 across two spells at United.
Sam McMahon [from Radcliffe Borough, free): The 22-year-old still has plenty to learn but pace and enthusiasm can dazzle ageing defenders at this level. The pitches are no carpet but with experienced forwards to learn from, expect McMahon to improve his clinical strike rate in a bid to keep up with Payne and Gaskell.
Ryan Crowther (from Altrincham, free): Having been applying his trade in the top tier of non-league football for the past few seasons, Crowther will provide some much needed quality on the wing. Struggling to get minutes at Moss Lane, Crowther will certainly see more match action this term at Hurst Cross.
Shelton Payne (unattached, free): “My heart’s just not really in playing football anymore,” were the words of Payne almost one year ago after a month at Ramsbottom United. Well, the experienced forward will add goals to an Ashton side that is desperately trying to plug the gap left by Pilkington.
Rhys Nevins (from Ramsbottom United, free): A former Jamaican youth international, Nevins returned to semi-professional football with New Mills following a three year break. A personal trainer in his other line of work, there won’t be many fitter this season at the club than Nevins.
Adam Morning (from Colne FC, free): The former Salford City and Droylsden forward is well travelled. Drawing on plenty of experiences Morning turned out for Ashton and Colne last season but has joined Ashton solely for 2016-17.
Grant Shenton: The signing of Shenton all but indicates that joint-manager Paul Phillips, who has made over 200 career appearances, will be on the pitch less and less this term. The Ramsbottom United keeper was in demand amongst a number of National League North clubs and therefore the keeper is a major coup for the Robins. With Shenton in goal, much like when Phillips was, they will earn points simply from the number of shut-outs they can grind out. A solid goalkeeper sets the tone for the rest of the side and if Shenton has a good year then Ashton will too.
Ryan Crowther: Having been playing in the National League last season in what was Altrincham’s relegation campaign, Crowther has stepped down two divisions. His quality on the ball and from wide positions can hurt teams in the Evo-Stik Premier (provided the pitches are playable). United look light up top so there is pressure on Crowther to seize games and be the creative spark.
Lee Gaskell: With Pilkington no longer involved, there is a real expectation on Gaskell to get the goals this season. It won’t be easy for him to replicate the golden boot form he had in 2013-14 but with Darlington 1883 fans disappointed to see him leave, United fans have great expectations of their new man.
There have been plenty of signings to suggest that United will have yet another successful campaign but it arguably goes above transfers.
Halford and Phillips – who will be more active and regular in the dugout rather than between the sticks – are excellent at their craft and have completely changed the culture at the club since taking charge.
Pilkington is a blow; the multiple award winner at the end of last season was among the most feared attackers in the division but Gaskell and Payne will certainly provide plenty of goals between them.
Once again a title charge may prove elusive such is the club’s format of making a slow start to a season but a play-off challenge is once again likely.
Play-off defeats leave scars, but also leave lessons to learn from. Curzon was painful, Salford was fairly expected, but 2016-17 is a page that is still to be written…
By Nathan Salt