Abbey Hulton United are on the Wright Path

Thu 2nd November 2023 | Abbey Hulton United
By Jay Cooper

When the NWCFL First Division South season began in 2023/24, there were a few standout teams that made an instant break for the play-off places, hoping to get there first and defend their position, rather than bide their time and push later on in the season. Brocton are the obvious example here, being a full 10 points clear at the top of the tree at the time of writing. Abbey Hey are their nearest challengers in 2nd, but another 10 points further down takes you all the way to Ashville in 12th.

As it stands, the play-off places are occupied by Abbey Hey, last year’s runners-up Stockport Town, Sandbach United, and new boys Market Drayton Town. However, there are 2 teams just outside the top 5 who are a sole victory from pushing into those play-off places. One of those are regular also-rans Maine Road, who I talked about last week in a very compelling and elegantly written feature article you can access using the link at the bottom of this page. The other of those 2 teams, is Abbey Hulton United.

The reason I spoke about the early season push that some teams have made in 2023/24 is because, if you were a gambler, Abbey Hulton United might not have been one of the teams you’d place a wager on making a surge for the top 5. That’s not to be disrespectful to the club in any way, but their record of league position finishes in the NWCFL First Division South reads like this: 2018/19 – 8th; 2019/20 – 15th at time of abandonment; 2020/21 – 17th at time of abandonment; 2021/22 – 16th; 2022/23 – 14th.

Consistent, yes, but maybe uninspiring at face value. Yet, with the berth of a new season, here they are, right in the mix for potential promotion as we move into the penultimate month of 2023. This solid start has also been helped by United’s emerging pattern of ‘go big or go home’ when it comes to games on the road. From 10 in the league thus far, they’ve won 5, and lost 5. This record means that they actually have more wins away from home than any other team in the league besides runaway leaders Brocton, which is worth shouting about.

All of this was done under the watchful eye of long-time manager Russell Leadbetter, who had been at the club since January 2019, which means he saw the club through a few shaky years, as well as a global pandemic. However, much to the surprise of those outside the scope of the club, Leadbetter handed his letter of resignation to the board in the first few days of October this year, citing workload commitments as the reason for his departure. Fair enough – you’d imagine it definitely wasn’t to do with performance dissatisfaction or anything of that ilk, with the club being 6th in the table at the time.

Whilst an unexpected managerial departure could absolutely derail the momentum of a club in some scenarios, the board at Abbey Hulton acted very swiftly. Club veterans Michael Wright and Stephen Amison were appointed to the roles of manager and assistant manager respectively at Drayton Beaumont Park, with long-time player Liam Robinson also pitching in with some managerial help whilst the new appointees found their feet.

Michael Wright was a player at Abbey Hulton some years ago, but, from speaking to him over the weekend, his experience in his short time as manager thus far has been different altogether. “There’s a lot more planning and preparation for training sessions and match days, along with more interaction with various members of the squad, the fantastic committee members, and our team of volunteers.

“I've had to do my homework on the teams in the league to plan our approach to games and convey the right message in the dressing room.  There have been times where we have had to find solutions for the team during games, and when the plan doesn't always pan out for lots of different reasons. The physical exertion required as a player has transferred into a lot of mental exertion, that's for sure.” 

These adjustments are also ones that Michael has had to make very quickly. There was no luxury of pre-season trial and error in this situation for the new gaffer, but it’s a challenge he is readying himself for. “The learning curve has been steep, and I have had to adapt quickly to the role; I expect that learning curve will continue for a good while. The support provided by the assistant manager Stephen Amison has been invaluable. The 10 years of experience he has within the club has helped guide me through the role so far. He's been on the end of the phone at all hours of the day. The squad have conducted themselves extremely professionally too, which is something to be grateful for. The league itself has thrown some challenges our way tactically – some we have managed to adapt to very well, others we have taken good lessons from.”

Perhaps another challenge for the club to adapt to would be to continue this strong start despite the change that’s taken place in the dugout. In the new manager’s own words, “it’s been a decent start to the season, but overall, I think we could, with more consistency, be sitting higher in the league. We plan to improve in some areas to help keep the level of performance where it needs to be. We've shown we can play at a very good level in spells, but we have to strive for better to push on and climb higher in the table. The commitment levels from a training sense have been nothing less than superb, so I am confident the team can achieve more.”

In terms of changes that the new man wants to make, however, they seem to be few and far between. “The club is very well run and has been for some time. Honestly, I couldn't really ask for or expect more at the moment. In the management team, we could probably add an extra pair of hands to support the lads in training and on match days, and we are working to find a solution to that, but, aside from that, there aren’t really any significant changes that need to be made for us to push further.

“The squad was in a very good place when Amo (Stephen Amison), Robbo (Liam Robinson) and I took the job after Russ' departure. We didn't need to change too much about the system, but we've just made small tweaks to it to suit a more attack-minded approach. We've tried to add focus on set pieces, attacking drills and pressing situations as a team in training, and that has come to fruition in some performances. The biggest factor is how the lads have adapted exceptionally to what we've asked of them.” 

Liam Robinson has since returned to more of a player role than a management role, which might be the reason for Michael Wright being hopeful of another hand on deck in his department. However, the gaffer was also quick to acknowledge that the club is built on many pillars, including the ones which are supported by volunteers. “It’s immensely important to have the support we do from everyone who volunteers at the club. Their unwavering efforts are extremely appreciated.

“That has been one of the things that has stood out for me: the roles that can go unnoticed or are in the background that you don't necessarily see as a player, but they have been so evident when stepping into the management role. The support from the sideline has been great - we've always had solid local support. Hopefully if we push towards the success that we are striving for, we can pull a few more people through the gates to help drive the lads on.”

That drive will be necessary, because play offs for Abbey Hulton is certainly no guarantee, nor is it really a fundamental expectation. However, Michael would certainly not turn it down, and wants his team to do what they can to turn it from a dream to reality. “Of course, hope is always there, no matter where you sit in the table. Keeping the right focus, pushing the players to their potential, and managing the games as they come is all we can do. We have a very good group, and some important players coming back from long term injuries which will only improve the squad. I would say we are cautiously optimistic about challenging for a play-off spot, but we know to do that we need a big push in the second half of the season. We'll give it everything.”

It has only been almost a month since Michael Wright took the job at Abbey Hulton United, but he seems to know what a task this is that he has taken on, and his belief in his players and the rest of his club is clear. It would be quite a refreshing sight to see this club, having been a mainstay of mid-table in the years since the old NWCFL Division One format was abandoned, make a sustained push for promotion, and, who knows, maybe achieve just that. They’re currently a single win away from taking 5th place in the table, and we only have to go back to late spring of this year to see the last time a team achieve a place in the NWCFL Premier Division from 5th – if Cheadle Town could do it, why can’t Abbey Hulton United?


Maine Road article: NWCFL | Guy Heffernan with a Maine focus on the Road to promotion

Image credit: Twitter, @HultonUtd, 28/10/2023

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