Result: Ashton United 2-1 Stratford Town (FA Trophy Second Round)
Venue: Hurst Cross (Saturday 14th November 2015, 3pm)
With my original choice of Denton Town vs Eagle Sports falling by the wayside early on this wet Saturday morning, I was still left with a number of fixtures to choose from. The standout fixture, for me, was this very game (as if you hadn’t guessed) mostly due to the chance to see two sides from differing parts of the country, but who compete at the same level go head to head. Obviously, the main factor early on was would it actually beat the weather?
Ashton confirmed to the affirmative on twitter as Hurst Cross passed its pitch inspection and I set off through the wet late Manchester morning for the big Trophy tie of the day.
After arriving into Deansgate, I took the walk over to Manchester Victoria for the short hop over to Ashton-under-Lyne. With the rain coming down ever more steadily, I decided that the best course of action was to wait out most of the time in the town centre, keeping within reach of alternates. Horribly, this meant visiting Ashton’s establishments, beginning with the Engine Room.
The Engine Room is one of those Wetherspoon’s-esque bars that actually undercut ‘Spoon’s prices for a single Desperado’s at just £3.05 per bottle. Not bad at all, so this kept me company as I took a seat at the window booth and watched as the rain continued to fall ever heavier around the Tameside area.
After the depressing music had filled my head and forced me to move on, I was originally planning on heading for the Bowling Green pub, when I came across the Ash Tree, the town’s actual Wetherspoon’s, which I’d not seen advertised prior to my arrival. It was packed in here with all and sundry, so who am I to go against the flow? In I went and two further Desperado’s were ordered on the 2 for £5 offer, which always serves me well!
By the time I’d finished up a rather uneventful travail through Ashton, it was time to brave the weather and head up to the Hurst area of the town. Despite having been before, I couldn’t really remember the way particularly, so got a bit lost (surprise, surprise). So, after a needless extra 10 minutes in the rain, I eventually came upon Hurst Cross right in front of me and, after crossing the road, entered the clubhouse resembling something of a drowned rat.
After a quick stop in here to catch some warmth from the bitter cold biting through the air in the hills, it was back outside to head for the turnstiles, where I handed in my £10 entrance fee and was through and into Hurst Cross itself.
After purchasing a programme from the booth that greets you as soon as you exit the turnstile structure, I was immediately struck by the, slightly worrying, sight of the near corner being taped off during the warm-ups as to protect the area. Never a good sign, but I hoped it was more precautionary than anything else.
Before kick-off, I stood in the covered area around the tea hutch and awaited the arrival of the teams to the field of play. They duly came out into the unwelcoming environment of the Ashton weather early and undertook the quickest handshake I’ve ever witnessed, before taking part in a minute’s silence for those lost in the horrific, despicable events in Paris the evening prior to the game….
Founded in 1878 as Hurst FC, the club were already calling Hurst Cross their home by 1880, making the ground one of the oldest in the world. Hurst first entered the FA Cup in 1883, becoming the first Manchester club to play a home FA Cup tie as they beat Turton. In 1885, Hurst beat Newton Heath (now Manchester United, of course) to win the Manchester Senior Cup.
After originally competing in the Ashton & District League, Hurst joined the Manchester League in 1909 after a short period of inactivity. After finishing joint top in their inaugural season, 1910, they lost out to Salford United in a title play-off. They did win it in 1912, though, before going on to join the Lancashire Combination the next year.
After joining the Cheshire League in 1923, the club signed Dixie Dean just prior to WWII, but this ended his involvement with Hurst. After the end of the war, in 1947, Hurst changed their name to Ashton United in 1947, rejoining the Lancashire Combination later that year. The next decade brought numerous silverware to the club, with 4 Manchester Challenge Cups and a Manchester Intermediate Cup arriving at Hurst Cross.
After floodlights were installed in 1953, Ashton entertained Wigan Athletic to inaugurate them and during 1954-’55, Ashton hosted the first official FA approved competition under lights, the Lancashire & Cheshire Floodlit Cup, which was eventually won by Hyde United.
After Alan Ball made his debut for the club in 1960, the club won the Lancs Combination Division 2 in 1961, before moving to the Midland League in 1964. After a brief spell, they returned from whence they came in 1966 before joining the Cheshire County League in 1968 and remaining there up until its merger to create the North West Counties League.
In 1988, the Second Division of the NWCFL was won and four years later, so was Division 1, earning Ashton a place in the Northern Premier League. Ashton remained in Division 1 until 2002, when they achieved promotion to the Premier Division as Gareth Morris scored the fastest ever FA Cup goal that same year, timed at four seconds!
2003 saw Ashton complete a hat-trick of Manchester Premier Cup wins and in 2004, Ashton grabbed the last place in the newly created Conference North. Their stay lasted just one season, though, and they returned to the NPL Premier where they remain to this day. After the Marcus Hallows saga almost forced the club into liquidation, they bounced back to win the 2011 NPL League Challenge Cup.
The last two seasons have seen Ashton punch above their weight (no offence intended) to reach the play-offs. Their first in 2014 saw them beat FC United in the semis with a dramatic late goal (in a game I attended), before they lost out on penalties in the final to AFC Fylde, before last season saw the Robins bow out in the semi-finals, again on penalties.
As the game began, I immediately went for the usual lap of the ground, with the intention of getting it out of the way as soon as possible! After heading round the back of the near end goal, which is joined by a small covered area amongst the terracing, I waded through a puddle that more resembled a small lake, over to the far side where a covered terrace was to provide my shelter for most of the first period, alongside the travelling Stratford fans and their flag.
Not much happened during the first half-hour as both sides approached the conditions with trepidation and chances were at a premium. Despite this, both teams managed to play some decent stuff considering. t was hard to concentrate on the game and my camera soon gave up due to the weather, and had to be temporarily retired as I headed behind the far end goal, which is almost a mirror image to the one opposite. Thus, as I was inspecting my broken down equipment, this happened:
GOAL! Ashton had taken the lead down the far end, with the Ashton support taking shelter in the “bike-shed” stand saying it was a good finish. That’s all I had to go on about the goal until afterwards, when I discovered it was Jeff King who’d broken the deadlock, turning in the box before drilling past the Stratford GK.
On this note, and with my fingers beginning to seize up, I headed back round the ground to the tea hut, braving the now inland sea-like water behind the goal the away side were defending, before reaching it just as Stratford drew level. This time I saw it, as a bit of a scramble ended at the feet of Edwin Ahenkorah, who expertly fired into the top corner to the delight of the Stratford official in front of me. Chips (£1.60) were ordered, but not before the lady serving suggested I should have some gloves, on account of my now reddened hands.
Back to the game, and The Robins got forward in numbers, King’s cross evading all before falling to the impressive Joel Melia (who I remember being massively excited by at Barnoldswick on the opening day of last season). Melia whipped in a wickedly dangerous ball that evaded one defender, but not the unfortunate #5, whose attempted sliding clearance sliced into the net. 2-1 and thankfully, it was time for a warm.
The second half got underway with me still sitting in the social club and wondering if I really wanted to head back out. Eventually, I channelled my inner Captain Scott and headed out into the bracing cold for “some time”. I based myself in the many flags” main stand for the whole of the second period and despite there being no further strikes, there was lots of action that certainly kept the radio commentator behind me entertained, along with an older statesman in the stand asking what the tower was on the hill.
“It’s an old beacon that would be lit if there was an invasion and it’d be passed around the country” came the reply. (this isn’t strictly the case, it’s a commemorative tower for a royal marriage, though there may have been one earlier). The reply, well, was a case of “Well, that escalated quickly”!
Both ‘keepers were forced into early saves, before Paul Phillips in the home goal pulled off a wonderful double stop to keep his side ahead. Melia then had a pair of difficult chances to end the tie as a contest, but he couldn’t take either, but it mattered little as Ashton progressed through to the third round and I exited Hurst Cross as “Rockin’ Robin” reverberated around the streets surrounding the ground.
So, afterwards it l downhill. No, not because everything went wrong, but because it literally is all downhill back to the town and within 15 minutes I was in the waiting room at Ashton station thanking the train schedule that, although I’d just missed a train service by one minute, I only had 10 to wait for the next one. Soon, I was back in Manchester and back at Deansgate, struck by just how much the temperature differentiated between the two places!
Tip: if you go to Ashton in late Autumn/Winter, take gloves….
Game: 7- Very decent considering the conditions in which the tie was played.
Ground: 8- I really like Hurst Cross, a real old-style, traditional ground
Fans: 6- Though, it’s probably an unfair rating, considering the weather.
Programme: 8- A really good production, well worth the £2 price.
Food: 7- Decent offering, cheap too.
Value For Money: 7- All in all, a full day out for £25. Not too bad at all.