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Official Review by Ian Worsley, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
People are familiar with the glamourous world of English professional football, and the multi-millionaires who play the game at the highest level, but the football pyramid has depth..in every sense of the word.
The EvoStick Northern Premier League sits at level 7 of the English structure and is made up of 24 semi-professional teams based in the northern part of England. The league’s most famous participants are undoubtedly Wigan Athletic, who were NPL champions in 1971, and went on to gain promotion to the English Premier League in 2005, as well as win the English FA Cup in 2013.
Ashton United were founded in 1878, and moved to their current location of Hurst Cross in 1880. It is thought to be one of the longest constantly used football stadiums in the world.
A number of well-known footballers have played for Ashton over their long history, and the two most notable names are Alan Ball and Dixie Dean. Dean scored 349 goals in 399 games for Everton, and would finish his career at Ashton, making two appearances just before the outbreak of World War II. Alan Ball began his illustrious career at Hurst Cross, playing seven games for the club in 1960–61, before being snapped up by then top-tier Blackpool. Just five years later, Ball was the youngest member of England's 1966 FIFA World Cup winning team.
Hurst Cross is an extremely unassuming stadium nestled in between rows of traditional Northern terraced housing in Ashton-under-Lyne, around nine miles from Manchester city centre. It is easily missed from the main roads, with only the façade of the main stand visible in the gaps between the houses. The sole entrance is on the southwest corner of the ground, which is operated by a friendly man in an Ashton United blazer and tie. This is just one of many small touches which reminded me what I loved about football as a child.
The two ends of the stadium behind the goals are uncovered terracing, something which in my youth was commonplace, but is no longer allowed at the higher levels of the game in England. There is an unusual "bus shelter" at the back of the eastern terrace should fans wish to protect themselves from the elements. Down the northern side of the pitch is the "Popular Stand," which is single-level covered terracing, and the southern side houses the main "Sid Sykes Stand" (which has seating for 250), the changing rooms, and the Press and Directors' boxes.
(Note: all exchange rates are as of the time of this posting, September 2013.)
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Refreshments for the average fan are served by a single snack bar in the southwest corner of the stadium. The menu is as you would expect at any football stadium in the country; hot and cold drinks, and snacks such as pies, burgers, chips, and crisps are all very reasonably priced. My personal favourite, meat and potato pie and chips, was only £3.10 ($4.90) and cooked to perfection. Of course, as it's proper football, a cup of Bovril is yours for just £1 ($1.60). There is also a VIP lounge, which provides a full three-course meal for match sponsors for £35 ($55.80) per person.
There is a social club adjacent to the main stand, and after the match, the players and officials from both teams come in the club for some refreshment, and happy to talk to the fans in attendance.
While you may not get the ear piercing roar of a larger stadium, or the feeling that you only get from standing in a crowd of 70,000 people, non-League football has something very different to offer. The stadium has no segregation for fans, nor does it need any. Both sets of supporters sit and stand together and partake in friendly banter throughout. This creates a great atmosphere that actually feels much safer than the segregated crowds of the higher leagues.
There is also interaction between the fans, the management of the teams, and the match officials, again something totally unheard of higher up the leagues. I've certainly never seen Jose Mourinho conversing with the front row at Stamford Bridge.
Ashton-under-Lyne is a typical northwest mill town, and as such, the area is awash with traditional brick-built terraced houses on quiet, narrow streets. A ten-minute walk from the town centre, and only a twenty-minute drive from the centre of Manchester, the stadium is perfectly situated should you wish to shop before the game, or hit the vibrant pubs and bars of the city centre afterwards.
Another benefit of the location, coupled with the lack of a roof over the eastern terrace, is a wonderful panoramic view of the foothills of the south Pennines around Ashton.
There were around 150 fans at the stadium, somewhat below the NPL average, but those I spoke to were very friendly and extremely knowledgeable about both the team and the sport in general. There was an interesting mixture of fans there, too. There was a contingent of die-hard Ashton supporters, many of whom gathered behind the goal their team was attacking in each half. They were extremely vocal, and sported banners declaring their allegiances.
Some of those in attendance were fans of local EPL teams, such as Manchester United and Manchester City, but supported their local club too, enjoying the affordability of regular attendance. One man I spoke to was simply a fan of non-league football, and travelled the area all season. He had, in fact, just arrived at half time, after watching the first half at another non-league club from across town!
Although Hurst Cross is tucked away between houses, there is ample parking within a five-minute walk of the ground. There is a small car park behind the stadium, and plenty of street parking all around. It is positioned just off the main road that runs between Ashton and the next big town of Oldham. The M60, which circumnavigates the Greater Manchester area, is only a five-minute drive away, giving easy access to the rest of the north of England and beyond. There is also a Metrolink tram stop within a five-minute walk, which allows inexpensive access to the city.
This is where non-league football really excels. While entrance to the average premier league game would cost you a minimum of £50 ($79.75), an adult ticket at Hurst Cross is only £9 ($14.35). Now, this would be fantastic value in isolation, but any adult ticket includes free entrance for a child under 13. £18 ($28.70) for an afternoon's entertainment for a family of four can not be rivalled.
While you may not be watching world class players in FIFA A-grade surroundings, there is undoubtedly a different level of passion and commitment in play here, and this can only be complementary to the experience of the fan.
Another amazing thing I discovered was that a season ticket, again including a free child under 13, is only £135 ($215.20) a year. Over the 23 home games, that works out at £2.93 ($4.70) per person, per game. For not much more than the cost of two tickets to two EPL games, you can buy a season ticket. For any sports fan, regular attendance at your team is what life is all about, surely.
The name Hurst Cross is somewhat apt, as my visit has become something of a redemption for football in my eyes. As a lifelong fan of an EPL team, for the last decade I have become more and more disillusioned with the sport I have loved for so long. The cost of supporting has sky rocketed, and as such, my opportunities to attend games have declined. Ashton United allowed me to watch an entertaining game of football with my young son, in comfortable and safe surroundings, and with tickets and food for us both costing less than £20 ($31.90).
The blazer-sporting man on the turnstile, the table of condiments at the snack bar, the club shop with an amazing collection of historic football programs, the friendly fans, and the amazing ticket prices all add up to a fantastic sporting experience.
There is no doubt that Hurst Cross, and non-league football in general, could benefit if some of the EPL's millions of pounds filtered down the pyramid. However, the charm and warmth that is hidden away from the masses in small football grounds like this should be enjoyed, savoured, and - most importantly - retained. People should go out there and experience the heart of football, which is still beating strong.
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