CAN there be such a thing as a ‘friendly’ between two derby rivals? We might have found out last week had the City-United game not been rained off in Beijing. There were plenty of pitches around Manchester that were playable and plenty of teams that would have welcomed them, if they had bothered to put local fans and local clubs before building their brand.
But no matter, there was another derby going on in Tameside last Tuesday and it was unlikely to be very friendly. The last time ASHTON UNITED and CURZON ASHTON met was in the Evo-Stik Premier play-off semi-finals in April 2015 and with so much at stake, it was also going to be a fraught contest.
Hosts Ashton took an early lead, only for Ryan Brooke to equalise with 10 minutes left, before each side finished the 90 minutes with 10 men as Brooke and Ashton centre-half Jay Gorton were sent off for an off-the-ball clash.
Curzon boss John Flanagan was also shown a red card for his protests and watched from the tunnel as his side took the game to penalties, winning 4-2 in the shoot-out. As Curzon celebrated on Ashton’s home turf, it all kicked off again. Ugly scenes, but gripping nonetheless.
You can understand why it irked Ashton. They’d be knocking at the door for promotion to the National League for three years and here come newly-promoted Curzon, the upstarts from across town, to dump them out of the play-offs.
The Nash went on to win the final too, sealing back-to-back promotions and a place in step two of the non-league ladder for the first time since being founded in 1963. It didn’t stop there for Curzon either as they secured a top-half finish in the National League North last term while Ashton remain in the Evo-Stik Premier after suffering play-off heartache for a third year running.
Plenty of the 2015 players have moved on but there was bound to be some bad blood when Curzon returned last Tuesday to continue their pre-season preparations. Hurst Cross is a proper football ground. After all, with Ashton moving there in 1879, it is one of the oldest continuously-used football grounds in the world.
You step out of the turnstile onto a standing terrace, perched high in the corner of the ground looking out towards Hartshead Pike. I took in the view for the opening exchanges beside winger Ryan Crowther, who has returned to Ashton from Altrincham, while listening to some Ashton juniors criticise every kick by the players who were out there. They would do, these guys are standing between themselves and football stardom (well, that’s how they see it anyway!)
Then the tackles started flying in. This was definitely not your average friendly, and there were places up for grabs for the first game of the season. Both sides have kept the bulk of last season’s squad as well as making several promising additions so people had a point to prove.
Ashton signed Grant Shenton with a view to letting joint-manager Paul Phillips move towards retirement but Phillips will have to start the season in goal after Shenton collided with Brooke on 28 minutes. The former Ramsbottom United keeper went off with what proved to be a fractured arm, although the clash was accidental.
Both Brooke and new Nash signing Paul Ennis then fired over before Rich Smith broke the deadlock for Ashton on 43 minutes. One of three new signings from Radcliffe Borough, Smith was a commanding presence at the back and went close from a couple of set-pieces before heading in off the bar from an Adam Morning corner.
There was still time for Ennis to level before the break, though, turning the ball into an empty net after sub Phillips had to rush out of goal. It was Ennis’ third goal of pre-season and he continued to look Curzon’s biggest threat in a quiet second half.
Having seen forward Matt Warburton being lured to new league rivals Salford City, some Curzon fans are concerned about where there goals are going to come from this season. Influential midfielder Alex Brown and veteran striker Mike Norton also moved on.
But with Flanagan having brought in the likes of Ennis, Iain Howard, Michael Potts and Jack Truelove, the Nash look to have done enough to ensure they won’t suffer from second-season syndrome in the National League North.
And although Ashton have lost talismanic striker Martin Pilkington to a betting ban, the addition of Shelton Payne, Rhys Nevins, Tunji Moses and Jack Dorney could see the Robins finally swoop into step two and make the Ashton rivalry a league derby again, not just a pre-season appetiser.
– Curzon start the season at home to Kidderminster this Saturday while Ashton’s opener is at Frickley on August 13.