Bury FC are no more. Bolton Wanderers were saved after entering administration and sit on -11 points at the bottom of England's third tier. Oldham Athletic, a founder member of the Premier League in 1992, are 90th out of 92 clubs in England's Football League. Stockport County lost their league status after 106 years in 2011. They dropped as low as the sixth tier, from which they were promoted last season.
Manchester City may be England’s Premier League champions and Manchester United the country’s biggest club, but Greater Manchester, Britain’s third largest conurbation with 2.8 million people, was home to nine professional football clubs at the start of this season. While the Manchester giants dominate, Wigan Athletic, Bolton and Oldham have played Premier League football. There are big contrasts in their fortunes, but it’s not all doom and gloom beyond the big two.
Once considered basement division stalwarts, Rochdale is exceptionally well run and surviving in England’s third tier on average crowds of 3,500. Sunderland, the best supported team in that division, averaged 32,000 last term. Unlike Bury, Rochdale cut their cloth accordingly. They will appreciate the windfall from playing Manchester United this month in a Carabao Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Backed by Peter Lim and United's Class of '92, Salford City are newcomers to the Football League after four promotions in five years. They have done well, but are trumped by the achievements of another northern club.
Without any benefactor or large fan base, Curzon Ashton rose to England’s sixth division on crowds of 350. That figure includes significant numbers of away fans from the likes of tonight’s visitors Darlington. Curzon’s core home crowd is just 220. They are now in their sixth season at that level, surviving when far better supported clubs including FC United of Manchester and Altrincham (considered the Manchester United of non-league football in the 1970s and '80s) have been relegated.
Curzon is the perfect example of a community football club that is well run on and off the field. The National paid a visit to the club which used to play at National Park until 2005. Ashton, a working class town of 40,000, 10 miles east of Manchester, gave the world three World Cup winners in Geoff Hurst, Simone Perrotta and Jimmy Armfield. A statue of the trio stands outside the £4 million (Dh18m) Tameside Stadium. Tameside is the administrative area which has no less than eight non-league clubs: Stalybridge Celtic, Droylsden, Ashton United, Hyde United and Mossley. Most have over 100 years of history. Curzon was only formed in 1963 after two local amateur clubs merged, one of them a church team based on Curzon Road, hence the name.
One man was there from the start.
“I’d raise money to buy kits by collecting and selling firewood,” explains the man who is now financial director Harry Twamley. An original Curzon shirt hangs on the wall behind him. Another Harry, Galloway, is the club president. They chugged along for decades watched by crowds of 150 but this millennium has been good to them.
In 2014 Curzon reached the National League north. Favourites for relegation, they have stayed there ever since. They have had some epic cup runs, including an FA Cup match against Wimbledon where they led 3-0 with nine minutes to go … but eventually lost 4-3.
“That devastated us,” recalls chairman Wayne Salkeld, a director of an engineering company, “We stood to make £75,000 from TV money for the next round. That was money which we would have put into our facilities rather than the team. If we have no facilities then we have no team.”
So what's Curzon’s secret? Firstly, they make good use of the grant system from the Football Foundation to improve their facilities, facilities which then improve their revenue.
Overheads are pared right down, Salkeld points out. “This club is run mainly by 10-15 volunteers including the board.” There are no major shareholders, no benefactors.
There is evidence of hard graft everywhere – the Manchester worker bee fittingly sits proudly on their away shirt. A coach is finishing off putting names on the season tickets, the groundsman Justin lovingly readying the pitch, the men in the programme hut preparing sales.
The local council own the ground but Curzon have a 99-year lease. The ground is a key to their success. As well as the well-groomed main pitch and tidy stands holding 4,000 which surround it, there’s an impressive clubhouse and offices, plus a 3G training pitch. The East Manchester Junior league are based in the clubhouse, while 380 junior players, all of them paying subs, are affiliated to Curzon Ashton. All those young players receive a free season ticket to support the first team. Plenty come to games and buy food and add support. The car park is packed every night. Players bring families, families buy food and beverages from the club.
“The function room is busy with weddings, christenings and funerals,” explains Wayne. “This is a very working class area, we know what people can and cannot afford. At the other end of the scale, there’s a breakfast meeting for business people for which our chef has to get in at 4am.
"Veterans teams use our pitch, army veterans too. There is a disabled team, a team made up from parents who’ve lost a child – we carry their logo on our away shirt. We have walking football, a team for suicide awareness, a team of NHS doctors and lots of local Asian footballers. Burnley’s Under 23s team use our facilities – a Premier League football club who want their young players here.”
Getting fans through the gate is almost harder than getting people there to play football.
“It’s not just United and City on our doorstep; every town in Tameside has a team. But we do have season ticket holders from United and City who like our family feel. And we have fans on the team coach to away games. We’re always trying to promote the club – we even have a stall on Ashton market.”
The stadium was opened by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United sent a team featuring Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi and Jonny Evans. It has been a huge success, with local cup finals played there.
"Alex was fantastic on the day, nothing was top much trouble for him," 'then manager Gary Lowe recalls recalls. "He had no edge, no security, he shook everyone's hand. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also brought a team a few years later. Another gentleman.”
Curzon’s total annual revenue is £500,000. Their playing budget is the second lowest in a league where players earn around £300 a week.
Mark Bradshaw is their current manager – and only the third to hold the role in 20 years. A former professional with 500 games to his name, he's going through videos of the opponents as he checks the batteries of the GPS monitors of his players. And when he's done that, while still talking, he's writing CAFC on the balls "so that the opponents don't think they're theirs".
Bradshaw is full time but his role also means he coaches the youth team, takes bookings for pitch hire, buys biscuits and sweets for his own players and coaches the club’s junior teams.
“Football first for me,” laughs the softly spoken Bradshaw. “But I’m pleased that my daughter comes to games.”
Manchester’s Football Association may have lightheartedly suggested it could be construed as illegal to manage so many teams, but he’s in a prime position to spot up-and-coming talent.
“We’re up against full-time teams like York City who will have players on £1,000 a week,” Bradshaw says. “They have 26 full-time players, we have one. We can’t compete financially, we can’t buy established players at this level because they cost too much. Darlington fans raised money to help their manager with his budget [they’ve raised £1 million towards their club infrastructure and playing budget in six years]. We can’t do that. So we have to tap into the loan market.”
Manchester, as opposed to geographically isolated rivals such as Kings Lynn, is at least a hotbed for footballers.
Tonight’s crowd is a healthy 560 and includes 20 or so local boys and girls who make up the Nash ultras. The club’s "Nash" nickname comes from their old National Street ground. They are well dressed, vocal and far better inside a football ground supporting a team than hanging around on the street. Evidence of generational crossover is everywhere at the club, with people involved from eight to 80. It feels like a community club because it is, but money is always tight.
“We just need a financial break, a bit of luck,” says the chairman. “With FC United [who play close by] going down and Stockport going up we’ve lost a couple of big away followings and around £15,000.”
The will to engage is everywhere. Media students work at the club and a kit launch in the town where Newton Heath, later Manchester United, were declared bankrupt in 1902, owing £2,600. The launch has been viewed by 17,500 online. The club have a podcast and cameras in the tunnel.
The game starts and we are joined by Gary Lowe, Curzon’s manager from 2000 until 2011. He usually resides in Spain.
“I listen to Curzon games on the club’s live commentary; it’s really professional,” he says.
“Slowly, slowly is the reason this club is successful,” adds Lowe on a terraced occupied by travelling Darlington fans, one of whom is overheard to remark: “This ground would be perfect for us.” There’s steep open terracing behind both goals, a covered terrace along the side and a seats main stand for 524.
“Money from cup runs is invested into the club rather than splurged straight on players,” explains Lowe. “They’ve had breaks – the council wanted their old ground for housing and so built this new one for example, but I was manager for over a decade and my successor John for over seven years.
"Other clubs change their managers but when you bring in a new manager you bring in six or seven new players. And another six or seven new ones when you change him again.
"That upheaval is costly and unsettling. We don’t have it at Curzon because there’s patience. I signed a five-year contract. I made better, more qualified decisions. I never felt under any pressure.
"Even if results didn’t go our way, I wasn’t under pressure to sign ready-made footballers. I could continue with younger lads who came from local football but had fine careers.”
“Harry Twamley was in charge of the money,” adds Lowe. “I’d argue with him to get an extra fiver to pay a player. He fought his corner, I fought mine. Among many wonderful people there, that man is Mr Curzon Ashton.” Twamley was awarded a British Empire Medal in the 2017 Honours’ List for service to football.
Curzon beat Darlington to briefly go top of the league. Isaac Sinclair, son of former England footballer Trevor is one of their more promising players.
Curzon have lost subsequent games and while nobody at the club would admit it, survival in the league against far better supported and wealthier clubs is their measure of success. Greater Manchester can be proud of them, an example to every small football club how to engage with their community.