THE Evo-stik play-off semi-final at Hurst Cross must qualify as the most important Ashton derby of all time. Even in the pre-war Cheshire League days of Hurst FC and Ashton National it’s unlikely there was a game to compare.
Victory tomorrow (Tuesday) night will put the winning club within 90 minutes of a place in Conference North. With Ashton United finishing third in the NPL premier division, and Curzon fourth – separated by only a point – the match is too close to call.
Home advantage might prove crucial, although neither manager sees it that way. In fact Blues boss John Flanagan is happy to be making the trip across town.
“From our point of view I think it’s great we’re playing at Ashton. We don’t have a long way to go and that’s good for preparation,” he said.
“It would have been preferable to be at the Tameside Stadium but I like Hurst Cross and we normally perform well there. It’s going to be a great night for Tameside and I’m looking forward to it.”
Robins co-manager Paul Phillips countered: “I’m happy to have home advantage but Curzon are a very good team and it won’t be easy. We haven’t managed to beat them this year. We drew here and lost at their place, so we won’t be taking them lightly.”
Another factor is the possible absence of key players. An ongoing hamstring injury means skipper Sam Walker remains a major doubt for the Blues. His Robins opposite number Jay Gorton – described by Phillips as “probably our player of the season” – faces a late fitness test on bruised ribs.
A groin strain means Jordan Henderson is unlikely to appear for Curzon and Brad Robinson is definitely out for United. However, Kevin Leadbetter, who played half an hour against Rushall, will feature for the Robins although probably as a substitute.
Both clubs have taken a gamble on selection within the last week. Flanagan fielded his strongest available line-up against Mossley in the Manchester Premier Cup final while Phillips and partner Steve Halford put out a very weakened side against Rushall on Saturday.
Flanagan commented: “Several days later, and with hindsight, maybe I could have changed things. But we wanted to win the cup and we didn’t take any chances with anybody.
“We’re used to playing two games a week and the final didn’t have any influence on Saturday’s draw at Frickley. There was no fatigue. It was just one of those games you knew was going to be a draw after about five minutes.”
Phillips said: “We took a bit of a risk on Saturday by resting eight or nine players, but we considered all the different things that could happen.”
Asked which Robins players he sees as a threat, Flanagan pointed to strikers Dale Johnson and Martin Pilkington, adding: “Outside of that I see Ashton as an honest team.
“I think we’ve got more about us to concern them than the other way round. And that’s not me trying to be rude. It’s that I would rather they worried about us than us about them.
“We’ll be mindful of Johnson and Pilkington when we’re making plans, and of Chris Baguley and Ben Deegan, but we’re not going to change what we do to accommodate Ashton.”
Phillips took a different approach: “I think both sides know a lot about each other. Curzon have got some very, very good players and with John Flanagan in charge they’ll have a good spirit too. It would be stupid to pick one person out.”
The game, which takes place at Ashton United’s Hurst Cross ground, kicks off at 7.45pm. The winners will either be away to Workington or home to Ilkeston in the play-off final on Saturday.