In a Vanarama National League North division with several former Football League names, Curzon Ashton may not be highlighted as one of the heavyweights. Trading in the smaller-time tag is, however, something the Tameside club’s CEO, Natalie Atkinson, has set about since she began the role.
Having previously served on the board, this is her second season as full-time CEO at the 2016 Greater Manchester Club of the Year, and the one-time Football Development Manager at the Manchester FA is moving steadily onwards in her quest to help drive The Nash toward uncharted territory.
Promotion to the National League (and then League Two), pushing the women’s team up the pyramid and continually harnessing a bond with the local community are all valued segments of the plan for the one-time triathlete and sports consultant, who feels a dent has barely been made in what they ultimately want to do.
You’re a current National League board member. Tell me about that and how it works alongside your role at Curzon Ashton.
Towards the end of last season, it was the league AGM, and you have a kind of stint on the National League board, and there’s a North and South member club representative, then the National representative. The Premier Division has four votes on anything and the North and South have one vote, so they needed someone to represent the clubs and I put myself forward, really to help me understand more about non-league football, because I have obviously worked at The FA with the County FA, but a club is very different. So, day-to-day, my role is Chief Exec at Curzon Ashton, but then any queries, questions, issues, anything that clubs within the North division want highlighting, I’m that middle person between the clubs and the board. I also sit on the ground grading committee for the National League, so I’m just going to hopefully commence supporting our ground grading team. Again, learning for me more than anything, in terms of going to the Northern clubs that have a ground grading meeting this year, so we go through the standards, the seating and so on.
The discussion around women in football is a more pertinent topic than ever at the moment. What are your thoughts around some of the issues currently at the forefront of discussion (discrimination, safeguarding, grievances not being treated in the right manner etc.)?
I’m asked the question quite a lot of ‘have I faced any barriers and discrimination in terms of being female in football’ and I have to be really honest and say I haven’t. I’ve only seen positivity. My board members, in the league and in the club, are very respectful and I’ve always said that if you know what you’re talking about, you’re doing a good job and you’re confident in the way that you come across and you respect people within the game, then I think that respect will come back.
As a club, how much do you focus on ensuring Curzon Ashton protects against discrimination and in which ways?
We are a very inclusive club. We’re a very family-oriented club. If you’re going to go down the road of making sure we’re fully inclusive then that’s got to come from the top, so our board is diverse. As well as myself, we have other female directors on the board. We have every discipline of football within the club. We have a women and girls’ pathway, we have a disability pathway and fully inclusive disability programme, we have a homeless programme. We also ensure our prices for National League games are the right price for the community we’re based in within Tameside. We’re very respectful and nobody is disrespected within the club. We make sure our child protection, health and safety, discrimination policies are all presented within key places around the club as well. Yes, our priority is that we are a National League club and the men’s team, but everything we do underpins that ‘showpiece’.
Last year you mentioned an ambition to see the women’s team reach the top level one day. With the structural changes to the FA Women’s Super League just announced, I don’t know if that now makes it seem an impossibility, but in terms of developing the women’s side of Curzon Ashton, what is happening as we speak to push that along?
Within the whole club – and this is where we don’t separate the boys and the girls and the men and the women – everyone here has the same kit; what the Under-7s are playing in, the men’s team are playing in. We’ve restructured the women’s and the girls’ game at the club; we now run the Wildcats initiative in partnership with the Manchester FA, so we have younger girls coming here. We’re starting to see transition from Under-12s, 13s, 14s to the development squad we now have of Under-16s. We have a women’s team that started with a new manager and coach last season. It is going to take time for that team to grow. They don’t get the crowds that the men’s team get, but that will come. They’re in the North West Women’s League; they finished mid-table last season, which was brilliant. The aim is to look towards a playoff place this season. Progression has got to be slow and we build from the bottom up; so we want to start to build an Under-7 and Under-8 girls only team. We’ve got boys only teams and we’ve got mixed teams at Under-7s and 8s, a soccer school at 5 and 6. It’s then starting to build girls’ under 7s and 8s and then through the pathway. That will take something like five years to build that, but we’ve got to start somewhere. The women’s team is fully integrated within the club as well; they play the games on our 3G pitch and in time I hope they’ll play in the stadium.
“We just have to be unique and we have to be ahead of the game.”
Since you began with Curzon Ashton, what has progressed really well from your point of view and what has been a bigger challenge perhaps than even first anticipated?
The biggest challenge we face as a club is the locality. You’re in a hotbed of football within Greater Manchester; from Premier League through to National League. There are six other clubs within Tameside that are all around National League / Evo-Stik level. There’s a population of 230,000 people, areas of Tameside are among some of the most deprived in the country, and economically, it’s not a rich borough. As a football club, we’re all battling against each other for the same sponsorship and advertising deal. That is the biggest challenge here and we’re all fighting for the same fans, because you’re not a huge borough and it’s very territorial. If all those Tameside clubs were playing at home at the same time, and it’s very rare that they would, an average gate is about 2,000 people. You’re a borough of over 200,000 people – where are they all going? They’re all going to watch Bury or Oldham or Man United or Man City. So that’s our biggest challenge, for Curzon and for Tameside. Hyde residents will go and watch Hyde, Stalybridge residents will go and watch Stalybridge; they won’t travel to Curzon Ashton. Then we’ve got two teams in Ashton within a couple of miles of each other (Curzon Ashton and Ashton United). We have to be unique in what we do, so our community programme is bigger than any other club within Tameside. No other club has got the catering and hospitality facilities that we’ve got, no other club has got a link directly with the sports trust that we have – we have a partnership with Active Tameside – and nobody has got the reach in terms of education that we have. We just have to be unique and we have to be ahead of the game.
“I’m a chief executive – I just happen to be female.”
In a recent interview with L’Équipe, Eva Carneiro mentions never having wanted to be held up as an example to women, but rather to be looked at solely for the job she does. With what you do and all the work you’ve done previously outside of football, do you see it as an opportunity, a responsibility even, to represent women and what can be achieved in a traditionally male-dominated industry?
I want to be a role model for anybody, to show that you can go from a background of participating in sport – mine was running – or going to university, working hard and achieving your goals. For me, it’s not about because I’m female; it’s about being a role model in terms of young people and what you can achieve if you set your sights on it. It could have been in cricket, athletics or another sport, but it’s about that ability to work hard and know I can achieve something. I’m a chief executive – I just happen to be female.
In your Football Development Manager role with the Manchester FA, you helped secure investment for 3G pitches, for example. Reflecting at this point on your career, which achievements or changes are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of getting this job, if I’m honest. It’s hard work, and there are challenges and ups and downs, but I am really proud of working here. All the facility development work I did with Manchester FA, I’m really proud of. I’m proud of that because working with a County FA, you’re judged on the number of clubs you work with, the number of teams that are affiliated with the County FA, and we did turn that around. We’ve not even scratched the surface here at Curzon Ashton and so I’d like to be asked that question in five years’ time. For me, it would be the refurbishment of the training ground, that the National League team are in the Premier Division, and that we become a sustainable, profitable football club. That is the aim in five years’ time.
Article/interview by @chris_brookes