Jonathan Sayer thought it would be easy when he decided to give up his life as a screenwriter and actor to take over the ownership and management of his childhood football club, Ashton United tier seven.
Even before his first season in the Northern Premier League of England was a month old, he was rudely confronted with the harsh realities of life in the world of semi-professional football.
Sayer is best known as the co-writer and star of the popular West End show The Play That Goes Wrong and its subsequent BBC adaptations.
The title was arguably better suited to his first year at the helm of Ashton, the club he bought in 2019 in partnership with his father, but which quickly presented him with far greater challenges than either of them could have imagined.
That struggle is the subject of Sayer’s Nowhere to Run, published Thursday, a at times comical but mostly revealing look at the realities of balancing a meager budget in the non-league trenches in an effort to keep fans happy.
Sayer and his father bought Ashton just after relegation after one season in the National League North, a tier six promised land in which the club was ultimately not built to survive.
At the meeting to introduce himself to the fans, in a rash act, he will quickly regret, promised supporters instant promotion. The die was cast for a stormy campaign.
“The year we were relegated, I was filming a TV show in nearby Manchester, so I went to games more often on Saturdays,” Sayer told PA news agency. “There was a tweet saying the club needed help, so my involvement started that way. I did not say at that stage: “I will buy the club.”
“I have been very lucky in my life and it was like a way to get back into my community. They had a pay gap, which I now understand is a regular occurrence in non-league football.
“I thought it would be a lot of fun, especially for my father and me — a joint project. I thought it would be easy – invest some money, be really organized and everything will be great.
The book chronicles the course of the pair’s first season in charge, a 2019-2020 campaign that was cut outside of the league due to the Covid-19 pandemic and eventually struck off the records.
The season didn’t go well. Despite a significant increase in the playing budget and the risk of contracting all the players, which is quite unusual for a club of the seventh tier, in an attempt to secure a promotion, the team soon became bogged down in a fight for relegation.
They were caustically dubbed “Cashton United” by rivals and despite Sayer’s involvement in raising the club’s profile locally, the team failed to stick together and there were no results. Despite the investment, there was never enough money to pay the bills.
There was also a farce. After an internal altercation, a member of the club whom Sayer calls “part of the old guard” made off with the only keys to the stadium’s dressing rooms.
A television expensively installed for the manager to view footage of matches with the team stubbornly refused to work even a year later, and an outdoor bar built to boost matchday revenue was closed after the board pointed out they never gave permission for construction.
But it was on the pitch that Sayer’s worst nightmares came true.
“I thought, ‘We’ve been demoted, we’ve increased the budget, so let’s go back up,'” he says. “There was all this momentum. But the reality was so hard. The first three or four months we lost a lot of matches.
“I feel like I personally let everyone down when we lose. This is a reliable feedback environment, football. It can be cruel. I am a sensitive soul and I feel things very keenly.
“The theater can be similar. You get harsh reviews, people either laugh or they don’t. The difference is that on the day of the show, I can influence things, I can rewrite things, I can rehearse, and all the energy goes into performing.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. You have to stand there like an absolute instrument. You can applaud and applaud, or you can use Sven’s (Goran Eriksson’s) unemotional approach.”
It has been four years since Ashton was relegated to the Northern Premier League. Sayer and his dad are still waiting for the elusive promotion they promised fans in 2019.
However, this remains a long-term project. After finishing 14th in each of their full seasons (Covid also ended the 2020–21 campaign), there is optimism that lessons have been learned to finally put the club on a path forward.
“Football is like a game for me,” Sayer says. “I don’t understand how you can love theater and not love football.
“It’s the same thing – people get together, experience moments of catharsis and emotion, and watch the story unfold with the characters.”