Ashton United 3 Hyde United 0 (27th Feb 2016)
At face value, making a 400 mile round trip to watch a match in the 7th tier of English football isn’t the most sensible way to spend a Saturday afternoon. After all, judging by Ashton’s crowds, the lowest in the Northern Premier League, not many in Ashton-under-Lyne itself could be bothered to go and watch them play.
And to me that’s a shame, as like so many grounds in this part of the world, it not only has character, you can also imagine the place hosting considerably larger crowds with ease. Perhaps not the 7,824 that once squeezed in for a cup tie in the 1950s, but certainly crowds over 1000 could be there without the battle to find a spot with a view that often blights flatter modern grounds.
OK, maybe being lured by the prospect of proper steps of terracing with actually football league style crush barriers seems the mark of someone who is very easily pleased, but I much preferred Ashton’s Hurst Cross Ground to the modern but slightly sterile Tameside Stadium of Ashton’s near neighbours, Curzon Ashton, on the other side of town.
For a start the place had two elements that no modern ground has, namely a sloping pitch and an irregular shape caused by a constrained site. OK, nobody would purposefully build a ground that had one side of the pitch at the bottom of a slope, nor choose to have the end terraces shaped like a wedge of cheese, but I like such quirks. One end was considerably bigger than the other, an even had enough room at the back of the terrace for a group of small boys to play their own game of football, with the wall of a basic, to put it mildly, toilet block as a goal.
There was a fairly regulation cover terrace down one side, with the other holding a collection of buildings including the main stand and the club bar. The main stand is pretty small, holding only 250, and of those 250, perhaps 25 have a decent view thanks to it requiring five roof supports to hold it up. The welcoming warm club bar was excellent though.
In the club shop (also on that side, along with the tea bar and a toilet block fashioned out of a shipping container) we’d been told with disappointment that even for a local derby like this one (the two grounds are just four miles apart) anything over three hundred would be a bonus. As it turned out, the two of us who’d driven up from the south were very literally that bonus, with the crowd being announced as 302.
At first the game was a bit disappointing. Lots of effort. Not a lot of quality. Very few shots. In fact the first goal of the game was probably the first really good chance of the game, and that was a spot-kick. There were more balls being kicked out the ground than going near the goal, and I was beginning to feel I’d found out why the locals weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to go to games here.
The second half did get better, although it was Hyde – now called United and playing in red again (or yellow and black on this day) after Man City’s involvement is over – who dominated. That domination wasn’t counting for a great deal though. Ashton’s back line held firm against everything that was thrown at it, perhaps helped by Hyde’s leading scorer being out through suspension.
Inevitably, with Hyde pushing forward, gaps started to appear at the back. With 18 minutes left, one of these was exploited to the full, with a nice flick setting up a one on one, which was clinically finished to double the lead.
Hyde continued trying to push forward, but with a little less conviction, and it wasn’t too much of a surprise to see them picked off again. Another one on one. Another goal. 3-0 to the hosts was certainly very harsh on Hyde, but it almost got worse. Yet another one on one chance was set up in injury time, but this one went just wide. The home fans, including a drummer and rather strangely, one with a hand-operated air-raid siren, were delighted though. With even Curzon now playing in a higher division, local pride is very important, and Ashton United felt like a proper local club.