THEY may as well have fitted a revolving door at ASHTON UNITED’s Hurst Cross ground this season.
Joint-managers Steve Halford and Paul Phillips were lured to Stalybridge Celtic in September after a successful 3-year spell with the Robins. One player after another then followed their former bosses to Bower Fold while plenty more came and went as Ashton’s new joint-managers, Jody Banim and Will Haining, rebuilt the squad.
The managerial rookies have steadied the ship, though, winning 3 out of 4 before Saturday’s trip to Matlock to revive hopes of reaching the play-offs for a 4th straight year. Those hopes were dealt a blow as Ashton lost 3-0 in Derbyshire, leaving them 13th in the Evo-Stik Premier, 10 points off the top five with 7 games left.
But they are still in the Integro League Cup and have a quarter-final tie at Bamber Bridge tonight so the rejuvenated Robins could still end a turbulent season with some silverware.
“The target is to finish as high as we can in the league,” vice-chairman Steve Hobson told Beyond the Big Two. “It’s not beyond us to get into the play-offs but it’s probably a bridge too far now.
“But we’re in the quarter-finals of the League Cup so I’d like us to win that. If we get through we’ve got Buxton at home in the semis so there is a chance for us to win it.”
Ashton have reached the final just once before, beating Northwich Victoria 1-0 at Witton Albion’s Wincham Park in 2011, with current Trafford striker Aaron Burns scoring a late winner.
The Robins beat the Vics again in this season’s competition, along with Warrington Town and Farsley Celtic, who are 2nd in the Evo-Stik North. Bamber Bridge won 2-0 at home to Farsley last Saturday to go 11th in the table, just below Hyde United.
But Ashton thumped Skelmersdale 10-1 last Tuesday, with Banim and Haining benefiting from finally having a settled side. Although a poor start to their reign saw the Robins slide down the table, they’ve now stopped the rot and are laying the foundations for next season.
“They’ve got the contacts and abilities to bring in the right kind of players, but that didn’t happen overnight,” Hobson explained. “We had a bit of a wobble in September, October time and we went out of the other Cups at the first hurdle, which affects your finances.
“But this season’s been like a pre-season for next year. The management team have brought in the kind of players they want to bring in. We haven’t got the financial clout to tempt players away from the club they’re already at so we’ve had to live with the fact we’ve had quite a few loan players in. Fortunately, those players have been excellent. They’ve been young lads who have run their heart out and fitted in well with our club ethos.”
The arrival of Max Cartwright and Simon Woodford has helped to shore up Ashton’s defence.
Cartwright is on loan from Stockport County and their boss Jim Gannon has admitted he could bring the 21-year-old back into his first-team squad for their last few games.
Woodford made a permanent move from Curzon Ashton while Benito Lowe has joined on dual-registration terms from the Nash. The Robins also have keeper Luke Pilling on loan from Tranmere, as well as winger Lee Knight (Oldham Athletic) and striker Jack Dyche (Scunthorpe).
“Whether we’ll retain them next year, we won’t know till the close-season,” said Hobson. “But the management team have got a nucleus of about 10 players for next season. We may lose a few but they’ve got irons in the fire where lads have said ‘yeah, we’d like to come to Ashton from next year’. It bodes well for the future. It’s looking promising so we’re quite optimistic.”
Making good use of the loan market shows that Banim and Haining have now got to grips with life at Ashton, whose average attendance is now the 2nd-lowest in non-league’s 3rd tier.
“Blyth are getting 600 every week and Stourbridge’s average gate is about 1,000, but ours is 170!” said Hobson. “Compared to them we’re a little club in terms of our finances, but not in terms of how we manage things. That’s why it’s important to us that we’ve got a management team who ‘get’ what it’s about.
“There’s no point coming to Ashton as a manager and thinking you’ll be splashing the cash because we ain’t got it. We’re not a board that will put the club at risk just to have a good team for one season. We will give the manager every bit of help we possibly can, within our budget. And if it ain’t there, he ain’t getting it.
“The lads we’ve got at the moment have bought into that, just like Steve and Phillo did before them. They don’t come knocking on the chairman’s door every 2 minutes saying I want money for this, I want for money for that. It’s not there so they’re not getting it.”
But if Banim and Haining can lead Ashton to League Cup glory this season, it will make it easier to lure players to Hurst Cross this summer. While they may not be able to offer as much money as their league rivals, they can offer the chance to be part of a successful team – and not many clubs can offer that.