(Photo: Terry Marland)
By Saj Sadiq
AT the ripe age of 23, most young players are happy just to gain valuable experience and learn the tricks of their trade – not, though, if your name is Ryan Astles!
Despite suffering a heavy defeat at Halifax last weekend, the talented young centre-back is right in the thick of it and leading from the front in a bid to keep Chester perched on Non-League’s top table.
Hailed as a “defensive colossus” by manager Marcus Bignot, Astles is beginning to help steer the Blues in the right direction.
The 1-0 victory over fellow strugglers Solihull Moors earlier in the month was their first in the league since mid-October and meant that National League survival is suddenly in Chester’s hands with games to spare among their drop rivals.
At the same time, Astles himself is turning heads among a number of Football League clubs with rumours linking the former Rhyl and Northwich Victoria man to a potential move away from the Deva Stadium in the January window.
One thing’s for sure, Chester’s survival hopes will be severely dented should they lose their talisman – but Astles isn’t thinking about life anywhere else, simply focusing on carrying out the responsibilities that encompasses his rapid rise to claiming the captain’s armband.
“It is a big challenge, but I have a good group of players around me and supporting me,” he told The NLP. “You have to lead by example but you have to also make sure that everyone is playing their part as well.
“I believe as a team you defend from the front so if our strikers are pressing the opposition defenders then that is a good starting point and that shows that we are working as a group and that makes my job as skipper much easier.
“We are 100 per cent ready for this challenge. We knew from the start of this season it was going to be tough, especially with us having one of the lowest budgets in the league. But we just have to keep picking up points wherever we can and hopefully come the end of the season we will get over the line with enough points to keep us in this division.
“Everyone at the club knows we can avoid relegation and it’s just down to us to put in the performances on the field and to pay back the fans for their support and backing.”
Surprisingly, that victory over Solihull on December 9 – thanks to a man-of-the-match display from Astles and a late winner from Ross Hannah – was only the third league success of Bignot’s reign since taking over the manager’s hotseat from Jon McCarthy in September.
But Astles believes that progress has been made a lot quicker than the results suggest and says the former Solihull and Grimsby Town boss has made a positive impact on the Blues’ squad.
“It’s always different when a new manager comes into a club, but as you can see from recent performances, it’s working,” said Astles after the Blues’ penalty shoot-out victory over AFC Fylde in the FA Trophy last Saturday.
“He’s made sure that we are in for an extra day training every week and the way he conducts his training is different. He shows us exactly what he wants on the tactics board and also tells us face-to-face exactly what he wants from each player. It’s down to us players then to pay back to the manager for all the work he has done with us during the week.
“The fans can probably see that it is working, but the results haven’t come with it. We’ve actually played some good football and at times we have been unlucky.
“You need a bit of luck during the course of the season and we’ve just not had that.
“The performances in the last five or six games have been great, but we just have not put the ball in the net and at the other end we have given sloppy goals away.
“At the end of the day though the results just have not been there and that is what counts. Three points is what it is all about and we’ve not managed that often enough despite playing some good football this season.
“Hopefully now we can build on the Solihull win and ensure going forward that everything fits together.”
Bignot has turned around fortunes at the Deva with the help of a raft of new signings – thanks largely to the new Build Bignot’s Budget Initiative, which has raised almost £4,000 in its first two months. And Astles, for one, says the will to keep a starting shirt has upped the ante ahead of a busy Christmas period.
He went on: “Everyone is watching out for their starting spot and competition for places is definitely a good thing. Previously there were some positions in the squad where we had three players fighting for two spots, but now that has changed and we have three or four players for every position.
“Everyone knows that if they don’t train well or play well then they will simply not play. The new signings that have been made are for all areas of the squad and that is helping us a lot to push ourselves to where we want to be as a team.
“We need to get on a good run that will give the players and the club confidence and get the fans backing us. We need to push on.
“Over Christmas we’ve got Guiseley twice and in between the Guiseley matches we have Hartlepool. These are all big games for us.”
(Photo: Terry Marland)