At Colwyn Bay this season, Astley Mulholland has been recapturing the sort of form that earned him professional club attention earlier in his career. Still one of the most explosive in the ranks, he is basking in the creative licence afforded to him by the Evo-Stik North play-off chasers, but there is also a wherewithal to what he does, which may just benefit those around him even more than his deft scoring touch.
Experience and know-how count for a great deal at all levels, though any team hunting down success needs the players who deal in game-defining moments. You could say that Astley Mulholland takes more than a bit from both of those categories, and it is in North Wales rather than his native South Manchester where the 16-goal Colwyn Bay top scorer is enjoying some of his very best form this season in the Evo-Stik North, at a club where he feels especially at home.
Celebrating his 30th birthday in January, his attacking performances have had him scaling the kind of heights that saw him flagged up as something of a potential non-league gem a few years ago. That was when he was in the blue and white of the former Greater Manchester side Flixton, rattling in one after the other to turn plenty of heads, with League Two Crewe Alexandra among the interested parties, as he recalls.
“It was in the North West Counties and I got 44 one season. I went down to Kidderminster and Crewe, and I ended up signing for Altrincham in the end, just because of work and stuff.
“Then I moved on to FC United for four years, which was where I got comfortable playing in non-league. When you’re playing at a club like that in front of 3,000 / 4,000 a week, it’s more than enough.
“Over the years I’ve been pushed out wide, and to be fair, I do prefer it down the middle or in the number 10 role, but as long as I’m playing and I’m happy then I don’t mind. This is probably one of the best seasons I’m having.”
As much as Astley has been playing like a man reinvigorated, Colwyn Bay have also been finding a fresh energy of late under ex-Llandudno manager Alan Morgan, sparking belief that a euphoric end to the season is there to go and grasp. They sit just outside at the minute but still have every chance of being in that coveted playoff shake-up, while only three players in the Evo-Stik North have notched more than the Seagulls’ leading marksman.
“I’ve got licence to go and play and express myself, and just for me it’s down to enjoying it and having a good dressing room and good lads around you.”
Bay also notably ended the 45-game unbeaten run of South Shields with a 4-2 victory in September, with Astley on the scoresheet alongside Jack Hindle (twice) and skipper Sam Barnes. He sees it as firm evidence that they have the credentials to be mixing it even further up the table than their current berth of 9th (with games in hand).
“If I’m being honest, and I’m not being biased at all, I think we’re underachieving, if anything, for the team and the personnel we’ve got. It’s just recently we’ve been getting good results.
“We were the first team to beat South Shields and that says a lot, and it wasn’t a fluke; you don’t score four goals and be 3-0 up at half-time against a team like South Shields if it’s a fluke. The game could have been 5-5; it was just a really good, entertaining game.
“So I think we’ve been underachieving but we’re gaining a bit of momentum now, we’ve got a few games in hand and we’re gonna push for it, for the play-off spots.”
Over a mammoth 42-game league campaign, it generally comes down to more than just the luck of the day. After joining FC United of Manchester in 2011, where he made almost 100 appearances, Astley was part of a side that repeatedly knocked on the door of the National League North, with three consecutive play-off campaigns.
That gave the former Ashton United and Chorley man a great first-hand insight into what makes up a winning side and one ultimately capable of going right to the finish in a season. Astley arrived at Llanelian Road from Glossop North End last March and after ending last season in 15th following relegation a year earlier, there is an undoubted sense at Colwyn Bay that the tide is steadily turning in their favour again.
Of paramount importance is having a well-oiled machine of a team, and on a personal level for Astley, he also attributes his purple patch to being entrusted with the opportunity to roam.
“Just getting to play with a bit of freedom. I’ve got licence to go and play and express myself, and just for me it’s down to enjoying it and having a good dressing room and good lads around you.
“It changes game to game really with personnel and the type of thing that the gaffer wants to do, but he generally gives me licence to go and play where I feel I can get on the ball and affect the game. I believe if you work hard then you get your rewards from it, and that’s what I tend to do, I do work hard for the team and it pays off quite a lot of the time.
“It’s just a well-run club as well. The fans are all for you, they want to win, and it’s just a homely club.
“The pitch is in immaculate condition; probably one of the best in the league, to be honest. It’s just a nice club to be at.”
Through his non-league path, Astley has taken in stops at a range of clubs and setups. While the magnificent simplicity to the game at its core is always there, it is not always reality that a player will just progress through their career without any disruption.
The economics can play a huge part, even for those who get to call football their sole profession. Then there is injury, personal issues and the like, that all have the potential to steer people down varying avenues.
As mentioned, Astley turned 30 this year, which as we all know in football terms means a move from your prime at 29 to suddenly being deemed a veteran! Astley, however, has an unmistakeable spring in his step this season, with two goals and an assist to help dismantle Brighouse Town 4-0 recently, and he even came close to helping turn Bay’s 2-1 defeat at Tadcaster Albion last time into something, only to be denied by the crossbar.
Among the Evo-Stik North’s most consistent marksmen, as well as dad to a young daughter, he provides some insight on the juggling of responsibilities that has been necessary to keep him in the game up to this point.
“It’s been hard at times, because I was self-employed as a concreter for quite a few years and that involves a lot of working away. When you’re working away you’re not getting to training during the week so you might not be involved in the games.
“I was a photocopying engineer, which meant I could play during the week, because it was a 9 to 5, or 8 to 4, so it wasn’t too bad. Now I’m a machine operator in a mill and they give me sociable working hours, because it’s shift patterns like 6-2, 2-10.
“When I’m on a 2-10 shift, that’s like a night shift, they give me sociable working hours so I can get to football. It’s quite fair in that respect.”
In amongst his scoring selection this season, Astley has shown his poacher’s instinct and ability to keep his composure after bursting through with that pace. He had wasted no time at all in reaching double figures for Bay in 2017/18, with his exploits naturally attracting interest from other clubs scrambling to move on up the non-league pyramid.
At the end of October, though, he signed a contract to take him through to the end of the campaign, and plying his trade away from home, he explains why in addition to the major plus of having the right personnel, it has all been somewhat manageable this season.
“We’ve got five of us in a car school so we alternate the drive on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, so it’s not too bad at all. A lot of the games are down towards us as well, so we just go to the meeting point on the coach, so it’s not too bad.”
One vitally important detail to Astley is that while he retains the feeling he has always had for football, he has been playing for two people for some time. His older brother Kyle was still only 19 when he passed suddenly after collapsing in a 5-a-side game, and when Shaw Lane’s Daniel Wilkinson died after taking part in an Integro League Cup match with Brighouse Town in September 2016 he felt compelled to try and bring about lasting change for the better.
A Glossop North End player at the time, Astley set up a JustGiving page and launched an online petition for defibrillators to be readily available for all clubs and for individuals trained to deal with cardiac arrest to be on site at games. Feeling that this lack of equipment at semi-pro and grassroots level of the game is a major downfall, Astley also set about raising the money as a way to make sure clubs can provide medicals for players every season to detect any serious problems.
His petition was signed by over 22,000, with prominent North West sporting figures like Gary Neville and Anthony Crolla adding their support. Astley’s intention has been to set up a charity, which brought about some friction with a company he was initially working with who wanted to take the lead themselves.
Nevertheless, he explains how the cause remains very much in his thoughts.
“I just took a step back this last year, just to see what I can do to try and set it up. When the season finishes I’m going to pursue it a bit more and see if I can get the charity set up and some charity games; just anything I can to raise money and start giving out defibrillators to people.
“I think last time I raised £200, which is still there ready to put back into the pot, so I’m gonna definitely pursue that again.”
Football gives him the vehicle to be able to set about introducing something so impactful, and even without the form he has been revelling in this season, he has never really lost the love for it along the way. A Manchester United fan growing up back home, football was always the common hobby, and a big piece of the community he grew up within.
“It’s always been massive. Wythenshawe, all the kids just used to go out on the green and play football, regardless of what weather it was.
“That’s what it was growing up.”
Naturally, it is not just on the pitch where greater understanding comes into play for an experienced competitor. Astley has been making a concerted effort to help the younger prospects at Colwyn Bay to see what can lie before them if they put the right pieces together in their approach.
“What I’ve learned is the time goes too quick. You should always try and achieve more than what you’re doing at the minute.
“Your playing career’s short, you don’t realise until you’re like me now, I’m 30. I don’t even feel 30 – I’m still one of the quickest on the pitch!
“But it just goes too quick and you can earn a living out of it if you put your mind to it. We’ve got young lads at the club now and we’re forever moaning at them in training, all the older lot, because they’ve got ability.
“It’s not because we want to be on their backs, it’s because we want them to do well. We have an oldies versus youngies game, and the oldies always win, but we’re always moaning at them to do better in the games because we want them to progress.”
Time does indeed continue to shift at a rapid pace, but what of the future for Astley? Are there targets in his mind for this season or beyond, or is it simply about enjoying the here and now?
“I’ve always loved football. I’m enjoying it at the minute, just taking each game as it comes and seeing where we go with it come the end of the season.”