Saturday 29 August 2020

Ashton Athletic vs. Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds

After FIVE MONTHS of not watching a football match in person, I’m delighted to say that I’m back on the groundhopping bandwagon – but rather than spread my own brand of disease throughout the public transportation network, I decided to keep my first trip as local as possible. This is why I’m at Brocstedes Park to see North West Counties League Premier Division Ashton Athletic play Cheshire League side, Greenalls Padgate St Oswalds in a pre-season friendly.

If you recall from my last groundhop at Athletic’s rivals, Ashton Town on the 14th March, I was planning on coming to Brocstedes on that day but the game was postponed due to the developing pandemic. As it turned out, the following 10 days saw the country placed on lockdown and football at all levels wasn’t played for months – even now still, the professional game is being held behind closed doors. That was initially the plan for non-league too, but as these clubs’ entire income is based on what comes from the gate, sense prevailed and the authorities gave the go-ahead for limited capacities to be let in. As most clubs below the National Leagues have ground capacities of more than a thousand and a couple of hundred (at most) coming through the gate, it really isn’t difficult to upkeep social distancing measures.

During the pandemic, in the strive to keep up a fitness regime of sorts, I took up walking like many others; I had many a great day (and still do), walking to the local country park, spotting wildlife, getting pissed on rum-and-coke, etc. As Brocstedes Park is roughly four miles from where I live, I decided to make more of a day of it by walking to-and-from the ground, naturally with a pub stop on the way.

After an epic 45-minute ramble, I stop for a pint break at The Park in Bryn; a Marston's-owned pub, it's quite cosy inside (not always the case with Marston's – they sold The Swan and Railway 18 months ago, a notable pub in Wigan town centre as it sits opposite the mainline train station, after many years of genuinely not knowing what to do with it. After a refurb and a reimagining of the beer selection, it’s doing better now). In The Park today, there are social distancing markers everywhere, staff wearing face shields, me wearing a snazzy light-grey cardigan…so let battle commence. After a quick peruse of their taps, I plump for a pint of their own-brand Smooth to cleanse the palette. You always know what you're getting with a Marston's Smooth, it does a job; the James Milner of mass-produced bitter.

Most of the walk to the ground from there (just over a mile) is done in complete shock after seeing an advert for festive menu bookings. How is it (almost) September already? We've lost a year through all this – normally, I’m moaning about Christmas advertisements at this time of year, but it all hits home just how much time has gone, so I’m too stunned to moan about it. Still, it was a nice walk to the ground; it’s all country lanes and farms, occasionally bleeding into motorway bridges – Brocstedes Park itself sits in the middle of a group of farms who make it quite clear what they are with ornate signage on their gates, and sheep roaming around provide a big clue too.

Whilst it’s great the club have a home to call their own, it isn’t exactly ideal for the foot traveller or and/or those who want to have a few jars – the nearest bus stop is a good mile away. With land difficult to come by at the best of times, it just goes to show how difficult it is for non-league sides to find an ideal location that suits the club in terms of building a facility that will attract and develop players, but also to build the supporter base that provides the finances for them to push on.

Founded in 1968, Ashton Athletic started life in the Wigan Sunday League, moving up through the divisions and winning various cup competitions – a later switch to Saturday football in the Warrington League brought similar successes. After developing a ground at Brocstedes Park, the club joined the Lancashire Combination, later becoming founder members of the North West Counties League when the LC combined with the Cheshire League in 1982. Non-League football was changed, becoming more organised in a sense – which meant money was needed to bring clubs and their grounds up to a set standard. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much money knocking about to be spent on Brocstedes, so in 1986, Ashton were effectively relegated to the second tier of the Manchester League.

At the turn of the millennium, the club embarked on a youth development policy, forming part of
their ten-year plan to improve the club and its facilities. This helped them to gain access to several grants made available from the Football Foundation and Wigan Council; the main pitch got a new drainage system, a second pitch was acquired and improved, new changing facilities and a clubhouse was built. All these enhancements allowed the club to regain their membership to the NWCFL in 2006 – additional improvements to the ground since then have seen more seating installed. Their second season in Division One of the league saw a third-place finish, which was enough to gain them a promotion to the top tier of the North West Counties. A level they have remained at ever since.

In more recent times, the club have had three great runs in the FA Cup – winning three ties to reach the Second Qualifying Round in 2016, where a crowd of 479 saw the visit of FC Halifax Town, who ran out 5-0 winners. Ashton went one better a year later, facing another Step 2 side in the shape of Chorley, again at home. A record crowd of 610 packed into Brocstedes as the visitors squeezed into the final Qualifying Round – winning 1-0, the match streamed live on the BBC Sport website. In 2018, the club reached the Second Qualifying Round again, being drawn away to York City – although they suffered another 5-0 defeat to yet another National League North side, they nevertheless learned a lot from playing such a prestigious club in front of a crowd of more than a thousand.

These three huge shots of income have undoubtedly further helped to develop the club; aiding their push to get in the Northern Premier League – they were lying in 5th in the NWCFL’s Premier Division when football at these levels was abandoned last season, and hopes remain high that they can get there sooner rather than later. Their youth development philosophy has continued; they currently have a wide array of teams; from Under-7s, right through to Under-18s and even a Development Squad (‘Reserves’ in old money) – not necessarily something that’s common at this level of football. They’re certainly making great strides to become Wigan Borough’s second-best producer of youth footballers, anyway (after Wigan Athletic, obviously!)

There are full social distancing measures and a one-way system in place in the clubhouse; a nice, roomy facility that’s well-set to make concessions for this ‘new normal’. With a choice of Coors or Tetley’s Smooth on tap, it isn’t really a choice – it’s another smooth bitter for me. I got here just after 2:15 pm, expecting there to be quite a few here at the first public game they’ve held since March – there’s a couple of others in the clubhouse and a small crowd outside, but not as many as I’d have hoped. I’m not complaining – it at least lessens the chances of me getting COVID – but it would have been great for the club to get more £4 entries on the gate. 

As much as I'm revelling being back in a clubhouse, drinking my Tetley’s and watching Cash In The Attic on one of the big tellies, there was a game to watch! I walk out to the side of the pitch for the kick-off, before moving to the larger of the two stands midway through the half – this structure has three rows and covers most of one half of the pitch. The other stand is tiny and lies right in the corner – I’ve no idea, but I suspect this was put there to abide by ground grading rules for 'number of seats'!

Today’s visitors, from Padgate in Warrington, play in the Premier Division of the Cheshire League – two tiers below Ashton. It’s no surprise then, that the home side look the much stronger team – they’re quicker to the ball, spending much of the first 20 minutes probing down their opponents’ side (why does everything I write seem to be an enthusiasm these days?) Despite the dominance, it takes ‘The Yellows’ 23 minutes to score the opening goal  a well-placed finish from the edge of the area. The floodgates were open; just a minute later, Ashton swarm up Greenalls half again, winning a penalty that was slotted home with ease.

By the time I get my second pint of Tetley’s and take my seat in the stand, the temperature has dropped and there’s a cutting breeze in the air – my decision to wear a snazzy cardigan is looking increasingly idiotic by the minute. Half-an-hour in, Ashton add a third through a close-range finish – the dejected Greenalls players must have felt even more put out by the sound of two kids singing ‘three-nil, three-nil’ in their angelic tones. At least these players get to run about and keep warm, not be freezing like some people who have come out, ill-dressed for the weather.

After slipping in a fourth just before half-time (another close-range finish), Ashton don’t let off at the start of the second; scoring the pick of the goals early on. Some careful, intricate play down the right-hand side (where I'm sat) eventually sees the ball crossed in and headed home. Not long later, it's six; a shot inside the area is saved by the keeper, but it falls back to the striker who lays it across to a teammate to roll in. Greenalls do get one back – a break sees them 2-on-1, the ball played across and side-footed in. It was a decent finish as it came to him quite quickly – Ashton respond by netting another from close-range.

The main issue with Greenalls (as highlighted by one of two blokes with high-quality digital cameras sat below me – definitely groundhoppers!), is that they keep playing the ball out from the back every time they have a goal-kick. This recent rule change that allows for defenders to stay in the penalty area for a goal-kick (so they can receive it short) has been interesting to watch – while it undoubtedly allows for the play to be built up from the back, it does lead to the other team pressing you into mistakes – I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a team who plays in the 11th tier of English football to constantly keep doing this. I understand the need to learn and improve, but at least belt it long once in a while when you're under pressure, lads!

Ashton add two more; the eighth is a well-placed finish, across the goal and in the corner, whereas the ninth is a result of a ball being slipped through the defence (claims for offside not given) and the striker places it in the corner. There was even a chance for a tenth; the keeper making a save and the ball just-about cleared before the referee blew the whistle to end the match – two minutes early, by my clock! Fair play to Ashton for not letting up and keeping on putting pressure on their opponents. While there was an obvious gap in quality, it will do them no harm to sharpen their attacking play with the season approaching. If all teams play out from the back, they’ll be champions by March.

So as I’m walking back to civilisation, I’m left to reflect on this ‘new way’ of watching football; sanitising your hands, one-way systems, keeping your distance from people – what new way? The only thing that’s new here is my new-found passion for walking; something that I’m hoping to continue for a few more groundhops in the coming months. Well, until Christmas, anyway – the only season when I'm properly dressed for the weather!

Ashton Athletic 9

Greenalls Padgate St. Oswalds 1


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