Tony Bugby continues his preview of Tameside’s four Northern Premier League clubs with a look at Ashton United’s prospects for their forthcoming campaign through the eyes of manager Steve Cunningham.
Ashton United can lay claim to possibly the longest ever pre-season which has certainly been a marathon.
When Steve Cunningham was appointed manager at Hurst Cross in early January, the Robins were battling relegation from Northern Premier League, premier.
While ensuring Ashton remained in the division was the number one priority – they finished mid-table – Cunningham admitted he was treating the remainder of the campaign as part of pre-season for the 2023/24 campaign.
He explained: “When I came in, it was a case of getting used to the club and getting used to the playing staff as you do in pre-season.
“It has been a long process, but we have got there, and pre-season has been good.”
Cunningham is pleased with the squad he has assembled believing he has the quality to be challenging at the top of the table.
“We want to get promoted, either through the play-offs or winning the league, though it will be a competitive season with a lot of quality and strong teams in the division,” said Cunningham.
“A lot of other teams have spent big money, but man for man I believe we are as good as anybody.
“You need luck, but over 42 games I am confident we can go toe to toe with any team.”
Cunningham, who has won promotions in the NPL with Colne and Buxton, backs his own record, adding: “I have the experience to know what teams need to win the league.
“The team which starts the season will not finish it and players will come and go.
“If we are five or six points off the play-offs with five or six games to go, that is when I come into my own.”
Cunningham admitted it will be a tough start to the season – the Robins travel to Workington for their opener on August 12 – as they will be without five key players through injury and holidays.
The good news, though, is they ought to all be available in the next 10 days.
Cunningham has made some big signings, none more so than goalkeeper Luke Simpson who was with Kidderminster and The New Saints most recently. He began his career at Oldham Athletic.
“Luke will be the best goalkeeper in the division by a country mile,” Cunningham said boldly.
“I have always been meticulous in my recruitment and Luke’s situation has changed.
“He has always been in full-time football but due to his involvement in his family business and family life, this works for him to provide a good work/life balance.”
Cunningham is also pleased to have recruited exciting wingers Alex Byrne (Matlock) and Marcus Cusani (Atherton Collieries) and midfielder Chris Dawson who was with him at Buxton.
Ashton are also hoping to complete two more signings in time for their opening game, one a player from the National League who has never played this low in the pyramid.
Cunningham points to the spending power of Macclesfield FC and Radcliffe FC as indicators they will be challenging at the top, adding there are other strong teams which makes for it being an ultra-competitive season.