2018 sees Evo-Stik League side Ashton United celebrate the 140th anniversary of the original Hurst Cricket & Football Club being founded in a world without motor cars, motion pictures or radio communication – let alone aeroplanes or television.
Football was still its early stages across the globe; the world’s oldest surviving football club - fellow Evo-Stik members Sheffield - had only been going for 21 years, the FA Cup concluded its 7th season of competition, the Football League was still a decade away and future World Cup winning countries such as Spain, Germany, Brazil, Italy and France simply didn’t have any football clubs at all.
Formed in the modest village of Hurst - up the road from the modest Lancashire mill / market town of Ashton-under-Lyne (with a population of about 35,000 at the time) on the Lancashire / Cheshire border - the club was never in a position to compete on the pitch with the established Lancashire heavyweights such as Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers... football clubs which are drawn from cities with vastly greater populations; 1878 also saw the birth of another two successful Lancashire clubs – Everton and Manchester United. One of those early giants of football, Blackburn Rovers, gave Hurst Cross its record crowd when over 9,000 people flocked to see the reigning FA Cup holders tackle Hurst in a Lancashire Cup tie back in 1885.
Despite their modest standing in the game, the club has a number of significant firsts to its name.
On October 20th, 1883 Hurst became the first Manchester-based club to host an FA Cup tie (although the 1882 and 1883 semi-finals had been staged at Manchester’s Whalley Range Rugby ground) as they beat Turton 3-1; Manchester United didn’t enter the FA Cup until 1886 (as Newton Heath) and Manchester City (as Ardwick) not until 1890.
The Manchester Football Association’s first tournament was the 1884-85 Manchester Cup, won by Hurst after a 3-0 win over Newton Heath in the final - played at the Whalley Range ground.
Ashton United (as they have been known since 1947) were amongst the first clubs in Manchester to have floodlights – inaugurated on 29th September 1953 with a friendly against Wigan Athletic, Hurst Cross beat both Maine Road (October 14th, 1953) and Old Trafford (March 25th, 1957) to host a floodlit match.
The provision of floodlights led to Ashton staging what appears to have been the first Football Association-authorised floodlit tournament (possibly the first in the world) over the course of the 1954-55 season – leading clubs from the Lancashire Combination & Cheshire County League played midweek fixtures (all at Hurst Cross) for the Lancashire & Cheshire Cup.
Ten years after the Lancashire Combination and Cheshire League merged to form the North West Counties League in 1982, Ashton became the first cub to win the ‘double’ of both the league title and league cup – a feat only managed three more times since.
Ashton joined the Northern Premier League (now the Evo-Stik League) after winning the North West Counties League and nine years later one of their players claimed a record that will take some beating – in 2001, Ashton midfielder Gareth Morris scored the fastest recorded FA Cup goal, taking only 4 seconds to net against Skelmersdale United.
Whilst the current playing staff at Ashton will be familiar to few outside the immediate area, some big names have plied their trade at Hurst Cross over the years – most famously, Dixie Dean... signed in the days immediately before World War II at the end if his playing career and Alan Ball... a fifteen-year-old debutant in Lancashire Combination football just half a dozen years before lifting the World Cup.
In addition to Alan Ball, the club has had some success with spotting talent early – with Alf Arrowsmith signing Bill Shankly in 1960 and going on to win the title at Liverpool, whilst John Mahoney (signed by Ashton from amateur football in 1964) won more than 50 caps for Wales and played top-flight football for most of his career after leaving Hurst Cross.
Eddie Hopkinson is just one of a number of former England internationals to turn out for the club – although his debut was far from planned... the former Bolton goalkeeper was the club’s manager at the time when, short of players for a match in 1979, he was forced into action for the first half until some more of his regulars turned up – having been delayed en-route.
Ashton’s last major trophy came in 2011 (The Northern Premier League Cup) and, after a number of near misses in recent seasons, the club’s stated aim is to mark their 140th anniversary year by winning promotion to Conference North – currently just outside the playoffs, the club appears in good hands on and off the pitch, with a small but dedicated band of supporters and volunteers proud to be paying their part in keeping the area’s oldest club moving in the right direction.
Here's to the next 140 years!
Updated 11:40 - 24 Mar 2018 by George Clayton