The lament of Dean Ashton, the England great that never was

The lament of Dean Ashton, the England great that never was

Perhaps it was inevitable. Although he left the Stretford End speechless with a stunning overhead kick, Dean Ashton was to hobble off against Manchester United just moments later. In technical terms, the goal was as superlative a strike as you’re ever likely to see in English football. After Bobby Zamora’s cross was headed high into the sky by Wes Brown, Ashton watched the ball like a hawk, timing his effort to perfection while simultaneously holding off the attentions of Rio Ferdinand. Ashton caught the ball sweetly and it whistled past Edwin van der Sar.

The Red Devils were already 3-0 up and pushed themselves to within touching distance of a second league title in a row but, as extraneous as the goal was in the wider scheme of things, it was impossible not to take notice of Ashton’s quality. But was there a celebration? A smile back towards his teammates as if to say, “What about that, lads?” No.

Instead, there was a grimace and a pull-up, as Ashton knew his strike would be a spectacular final contribution to the game. By that stage, in May 2008, it had become an all too familiar sight for Hammers fans – seeing Ashton forced off prematurely, wounded and dejected. Indeed, 18 months later, Ashton was forced to hang up his boots, after failing to recover from the ankle injury that had curtailed his progress as a burgeoning English talent.

On his Twitter handle, Ashton says, “The most important thing is family and enjoying life”. While nobody could possibly argue the legitimacy of that statement, one wonders the pain Ashton felt knowing that, enjoyable as his life may be, football is no longer a part of it. As it were, Ashton was tipped to be one of the leading English strikers of his generation, but never quite managed to reach that mantle, through no fault of his own.

It started for him in the reasonably modest surrounding of Crewe Alexandra, where Ashton built up a reputation as one of the finest forwards in the lower leagues. Although there was already a wealth of talent available to Sven-Göran Eriksson in the senior England set-up, Ashton was backed to go all the way. His goalscoring prowess helped journey through the various youth ranks before impressing at under-21 level, scoring against the Netherlands and Sweden.

For England, Ashton was a tremendous attacking prospect. Towering high at over six feet, the Swindon-born player had a huge back and thick legs, ideal to fit the mould as a target man. But, as the bicycle kick against United clearly demonstrated, Ashton was much more than just a beanpole near the top of pitch with which players could hoof passes towards and hope he would flick something on. Ashton had an excellent touch, good vision and a killer instinct.

He got his reward for a promising sequence of performances at Crewe in becoming Norwich City’s record signing for £3m January 2005. The 17 goals notched by Ashton proved to be irresistible for the Premier League club, whose record fee indicated the faith in the player’s ability to flourish in the top-flight.

At the time, Canaries boss Nigel Worthington hailed Ashton as one of the best young strikers in the country. His former boss at Crewe, Dario Gradi, also backed Ashton for success and his words were somewhat prophetic, with the striker wasting no time in launching his Premier League career with ten goals as he played a pivotal role in Norwich’s bid for survival.

Ultimately, it was not enough, as the Canaries fell to relegation back down the lower reaches. However, Ashton’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed. His sublime flicked finish against Manchester City and match-winning strikes against Newcastle and Birmingham enhanced his status greatly as a forward unnerved by the enormity of the occasions.

Almost naturally, speculation grew of a potential move that would have kept him in the Premier League but Ashton vowed to stay on at the Norfolk club and help them back to the top level. His mission to propel the Canaries back to the top-flight, however, was interrupted by injury. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was only the beginning of a profoundly haunting period in his club career when he never seemed to fully discard his ailments.

Luckily, and that’s not a word you would use often in association with Ashton’s career, he still managed to make 28 league appearances and score 10 times, doing enough to earn a move to West Ham for £7m in January 2006. Ashton said of the move: “The chance of a swift step up to the Premiership is too good to turn down. I’m really delighted to join a massive club like West Ham. When West Ham came along I jumped at the chance to be back and playing in the Premiership.

“My ambition has always been to be playing in the Premiership regularly and hopefully the club can make the best of my ability. I spoke to Norwich manager Nigel Worthington and the board and told them I wanted to pursue this opportunity.”

What was supposed to be the dawning of a new era for Ashton rapidly descended into a nightmare as he endured an endless run of serious injuries that left him embittered, fed up and struggling to persevere. There were highlights in his first season though, including a brace against Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter-final. Up against Stuart Pearce’s men at the City of Manchester Stadium on a muggy Tuesday evening, West Ham outclassed their opponents with Ashton personifying the qualities of Alan Pardew’s resurgent Hammers side.

His first was sheer determination; picking up possession after a slight touch from Nigel Reo-Coker and screeching past the defence before unleashing a wicked drive that beat David James at his near post. While the England keeper would have been disappointed with letting the ball get beyond him in such a manner, there was no denying the quality of the strike from Ashton. But he wasn’t done there, knowing that England manager Erikson was monitoring his progress. He converted his second from close range after a searching pass from Yossi Benayoun and set the Hammers on their way to the semi-final.

Pardew’s West Ham were an impressive attacking unit, with Matthew Etherington enjoying arguably the finest season of his career along with the emergence of Reo-Coker as a box-to-box general and leader in the Hammers dressing room. The east London side played their best and most effective football with Ashton leading the line. Pardew prioritised the FA Cup over the league and, although he was criticised for fielding weakened teams ahead of cup clashes, their progress to the final after defeating Middlesbrough in the semis justified his choice of precedence.

Then, a week before Ashton’s chance to shine in a cup final at the Millennium Stadium, he pulled his hamstring against West Brom during a league game – Pardew’s worst fears realised. It looked nailed on that ‘Deano’ would miss the final, but on this occasion his recuperation was swift enough that he stepped out of the tunnel for what was to be one of the most thrilling and unforgettable cup finals in history.

Although Ashton was dramatically shy of intensive training before the game, he had declared himself fit and was ready to pounce against Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool, led by their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard – who had enjoyed one of his finest seasons.

West Ham were led by a 21-year-old in Reo-Coker but many pinned their hopes on the abilities of Ashton to produce goals on big occasions to see the Hammers through one of the most important games in the club’s history. He didn’t disappoint. The striker slotted a perfectly weighted pass behind the Liverpool defence to play in Lionel Scaloni and after the wing-back’s cross was diverted into his own net by Jamie Carragher, many of the plaudits went to Ashton, who had played a killer pass that unlocked the Reds’ defence.

But Ashton was hungry for a goal of his own and his sense of purpose was duly rewarded when he capitalised on a fumble from Pepe Reina to prod home in predatory fashion. Sending the Hammers fans into raptures, Ashton gave his team a strong push in the right direction in their quest for cup supremacy, taking a massive weight off Pardew’s shoulders after the manager had opted to play him through the pain barrier. His involvement in West Ham’s first two goals was justification enough. But this was not to be Ashton’s day. It was, of course, the Gerrard show – a player the West Ham man hoped to be calling an England teammate one day.

The Liverpool legend became the match-winner in Cardiff with two goals that stretched the game into extra-time, with Benitez’ men prevailing in the penalty shootout. Although it ended in travesty for West Ham, the game was something of a personal high for Ashton, who was singled out for praise in Alan Hansen’s post-match analysis for the BBC.

“There were individual errors for goals for Liverpool, but Ashton was outstanding in the first half and produced a quite magnificent pass that led to Carragher’s own goal,” Hansen said. ‘Magnificent’ and ‘outstanding’ – those were words Ashton wanted pundits and observers to use when discussing his performances. His decisive contribution in the final put him on the precipice of a call-up to the England squad, which was a particularly stirring thought for Ashton considering a World Cup loomed large that summer.

Unfortunately, Ashton failed to make it to the tournament in Germany, but it didn’t deter him. After a poor showing at the World Cup, the FA dismissed Eriksson and in came Steve McClaren. His first game was a friendly at Old Trafford against Euro 2004 winners Greece and Ashton had been selected. He was expected to form a partnership in attack with Wayne Rooney as McClaren sought to blend different styles together effectively. Rooney’s directness and pace would complement the force and predatory instincts of Ashton, McClaren believed.

But there was no foreseeing the catastrophe that would follow. During a training game, Ashton went down in a heap after a collision with Shaun Wright-Phillips. Immediately, the coaching staff and players knew that something serious had occurred. Ashton had broken his ankle. McClaren’s plans were disrupted but Ashton’s career was on the verge of collapsing. He was within touching distance of putting the England shirt on for the first time when the doctors informed him he would play no further part that season.

Pardew and West Ham found it difficult to disguise their strong feelings: “We are absolutely devastated,” the manager said, who knew he had to contend without one of his key players for an entire season. It took an inspired run of form from Carlos Tevez to keep West Ham up in his absence and, following the Argentine striker’s departure to Manchester United, Ashton was hungrier than ever to fight his way back into the first-team, now overseen by Alan Curbishley. Much to his relief, Ashton’s campaign in 2007/08 was relatively unbroken by injury, as he made 35 appearances, scoring 11 times, including that overhead kick against United.

However, that extravagant reminder of his talents in front of an appreciative Old Trafford crowd was to be one of the final scenes in a career wretchedly cut short by his troublesome ankle. Things had been going so well; he signed a new five-year contract at Upton Park in June 2008, the same month he finally made a senior appearance for England. A thrilling and proud moment for Ashton, although it was only 45 minutes in a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago, it was a half of football he will cherish for the rest of his life.

After he sustained another ankle injury in a training session under his third West Ham boss in Gianfranco Zola, Ashton was once again condemned to the sidelines for an extended period. Although the Hammers fans remained wishful that he would make a full recovery and return to his best form at some point, it was not to be. Ashton announced his retirement in December 2009, at just the age of 26.

After the curtain was prematurely drawn on his time in professional football, Ashton decided not to go into coaching, as the pain of what happened to him on the training ground remained raw and intense. He had a brief stint in commentary but now he has no involvement in football. Still only 36, he has left that part of his life behind him, even though he would still love to be playing and entertaining the fans. It serves as a reminder that the beautiful game can end in the ugliest of manners for some.

Not all footballers are lucky enough to enjoy a fulfilled and lucrative career, with armfuls of trophies and endless prestige. It’s a grind for most. It’s a struggle and it’s a fight. The race to stay fit amidst the difficult physical demands of elite-level football is one that gets the better of some. Unfortunately, for Aston, he was one of the victims to this cruel reality. We’ll never know how far Ashton could have gone in his career but, like him, we can only wonder.

It’s heart-warming, at least, that he gave the fans he played in front of plenty of memories with his goals. Knowing that can be enough for Ashton at least, to forget the pain and torment with which his career ended.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11

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