By Liam Chronnell
THERE is one date etched in the memory of Sam Ashton above all others - January 7, 2006.
That was the day the former Bolton Wanderers academy goalkeeper realised a life-long dream by playing for his hometown club - as an outfield player.
Ashton, a fanatical Bolton fan now plying his trade with non-league giants FC United, came off the bench to make a shock debut in Wanderers' 3-0 win against Watford in the FA Cup last season.
The 20-year-old was released by the Premiership club at the end of last term, but will never forget his moment of glory.
"I couldn't believe it," admitted Ashton, not least because the Breightmet shot-stopper came on as a striker. "I dreamed all my life of playing for Wanderers, especially with being a Bolton lad, and for it to come true was amazing."
The former Withins School pupil was handed his fairy-tale opportunity after an injury crisis left the Reebok outfit short on numbers for the trip to Vicarage Road.
Sam Allardyce included Ashton in the squad after impressing at right back in training, and replaced Mexican international Jared Borgetti in the 89th minute.
"The manager said I was part of the squad for the trip," said the young keeper. "Nicky Hunt was injured and he wanted cover for Joey O'Brien at right-back, as well as in goal. I was so excited I even forgot to take my gloves with me.
"With a few minutes to go, the manager said I was going on. I never imagined to be playing, let alone as an outfield player. It was a brilliant day when they signed me but to actually play was even better."
But the dream did not last as Ashton was allowed to leave at the end of last season, though he now is rebuilding his career at FC United, the breakaway club set up by disenchanted Manchester United supporters.
The rebel Reds are currently sweeping all before them and are the runaway leaders of the North West Counties League Division One. Ashton has been a huge part of their success, conceding just 10 goals in 23 appearances.
"It was difficult to leave. I'd been there since I was 13, but you just need to pick yourself up and get on with it," said Ashton, who is a plasterer by day. "Being at Wanderers was a great experience but I needed to be playing every week.
"I went to Cambridge and they wanted to sign me but I decided against it. I also went to Radcliffe Borough but the manager said I wouldn't be first choice. Then I got a phone call from Karl Marginson (FC United manager) and I played one game and just thought I want to sign for them'.
"That's what I did and I'm really enjoying it. The club and the fans are brilliant, and obviously winning helps."
Ashton is still in touch with several of the Wanderers players, including Joey O'Neil, and goes to the Reebok when ever he can to watch his beloved Whites.
Indeed, the talented goalkeeper sports a Bolton tattoo on his right arm, something he considered having removed to boost his career hopes.
"I thought about getting rid of it because it might stop me being picked up by a club as some fans don't like that sort of thing," he explained. "I had it done when I was 15 and it's just part of me - it's who I am.
"You never know; one day I could go back to the Reebok but for now I just want to concentrate on doing well for FC United."