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Bish's briefs - Dean Ashton could have been an England great

Published: 15 Dec 2009 - 09:03:43

The 2006 FA Cup Final has become known as 'the Steven Gerrard final'. Two moments of individual brilliance by Liverpool's intransigent captain denied West Ham their first meaningful piece of silverware in 26 years.

It also stole the man-of-the-match accolades away from the best player on the pitch that day, Dean Ashton.

This week the 26-year-old striker was stolen away from football. The sombre news that a debilitating ankle injury had swathed down a young man, set for the very top, before he had got anywhere near his prime, was crushing.

In Dean Ashton, English football had a player not motivated by money, or the excess of celebrity, but the sheer drive to score goals and win trophies.

He was as focused as anyone in the game to make the most of his exceedingly rich repertoire of talent.

When Alan Pardew spent the majority his summer transfer budget five months early to snap up Ashton in January 2006, he was buying into a player whose stock had risen from a brief sortie in the Premier League with Norwich, when his goals were not enough to save the Canaries from relegation.

A product of Dario Gradi's renowned youth system at Crewe, his name had been bandied about and touted as a future star within football circles for years.

Gradi later said that Ashton was "the most accomplished player" to come through under his stewardship at Crewe. Praise indeed.

Many leading clubs had taken an interest and Pardew's investment of just over £7m saw him beat off the advances of several Premier League clubs to lure him to East London.

It should have been one of the shrewdest pieces of business in recent times.

I first saw Ashton as an 18-year-old, when he came on as a substitute in a televised League Cup tie v Ipswich in Oct 2001, and within minutes of seeing him had already claimed he was a future England player.

His touch, movement and technical prowess was staggering for one so young.

This kid, no doubt, had it all in front of him. Except when that call-up for England came, after he had graduated from Crewe, tasted the top with Norwich and then led West Ham to within seconds of a memorable triumph, it was the beginning of the end.

Let me take you back to 2006. Ashton's form at the tail-end of West Ham's first season back in the top flight following their unbelievable relegation in 2003, almost took him from the Championship to the World Cup Finals, in just five months.

His virtuoso performance in West Ham's FA Cup Quarter-Final win at Man City, in which he scored both West Ham's goals in a 2-1 win, made people sit up and take notice.

The way he led the West Ham line, when not fully fit, due to a hamstring injury sustained just 12 days earlier in that FA Cup Final, surpassed that performance.

When he scored the goal that put his side 2-0 up, the world seemed to be at his feet - a man who had suddenly found himself on the fast-track to the top.

He didn't quite make it to the World Cup, but it allowed his club manager Pardew to put him through a pre-season of intense physical conditioning that would see the full-figured striker a leaner, meaner physical presence.

Pardew even played Ashton in central midfield during pre-season to sharpen his fitness. He excelled.

Ashton was primed for the season of his career to date - one in which full international honours were there for the taking, as Steve McClaren took over from Sven Goran Eriksson, in the wake of what proved to be a disappointing World Cup.

The call came. Three days before the 2006-07 season was due to start Ashton would win his first cap in a friendly against Greece at Old Trafford. Not as a substitute, not as a man to make up the numbers, but if the consensus from the training ground in the build-up to the game was to be believed, as the focal point in England's attack.

The man that McClaren wanted to spearhead an attack supported by no other than Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole.

Reward for taking a back-door to the top through the ranks of Crewe, in and out of the Premier League with Norwich and then back again with West Ham.

It was not to be. A freak training ground injury in a clash with Shaun Wright-Phillips, of all people, ended Ashton's season before it had started, and ultimately his career, long before it had reached the heights it was set for.

His three-year battle with injury, which ultimately lead to last week's sad news, leaves so many questions unanswered.

He would surely have not remained a West Ham player for much longer if his career trajectory continued to propel him forward so quickly.

Would West Ham have struggled to survival in 2006-07 with Dean Ashton? How much quicker would Carlos Tevez had adapted to English football had Ashton been his strike partner in his early days at Upton Park? Why does such an injury happen to one of those so focused on maximising his considerable talents?

If he had stayed fit, would Ashton have been on the plane to South Africa this summer? No doubt.

Would he have started England's opening game against the USA in Rustenburg on June 12? Very likely.

He is the one thing England's attack lacks, the hold-up man with the physical presence and brings others into play - who scores goals.

What made Ashton so special was that he had the classic components of the archetypal British centre-forward. Strong, powerful, great in the air, a battering ram and a bruiser.

But he also dovetailed finesse into his game, dropping off into space, wonderful touch and the ability to bring others into the attack. A sort of Shearer and Sheringham worked into one.

Look at Ashton's goals. Left foot, right foot, six yards out, outside the box, overhead kicks, tap-ins, crushing headers, goals from nothing, goals borne from instinct.

The rare breed of striker that if he was on your side kept you in the game just for his presence in your attack. And all by the age of 23.

Ashton battled back eventually from his injury to score more goals but it wasn't long before his ankle let him down again.

The sharpness of mind and the natural finishing talent still there, the body no longer.

He fought his way back into the national side and won that elusive cap, under Fabio Capello, against Trinidad & Tobago in June 2008. It was a taste of his dream, and when he opened the 2008-09 season on a bright sunny day in East London with two goals inside West Ham's first ten minutes of the season, two years of troubles had seemed to have simply made him stronger.

Except it didn't - less than a month later, with a new five-year contract under his belt, he hobbled off at the Hawthorns and will never grace a Premier League pitch again - the goals had just delayed the inevitable.

His time was up. This time the cards stacked too high against him. He vainly battled on for over a year but after breaking down in training in-front of his West Ham team-mates, the fight came to an end.

We will never know just where Dean Ashton's career could have took him. His career could have stalled, he could have won a handful of England caps and floated around the second-tier of the Premier League for a decade.

But his potential, ability and ruthless desire promised so much more, and what will hurt him the most. is that the man who dreamt so much of scoring on the biggest occasions, will never know where his talents could have taken him.

READ BISH'S BRIEFS EXCLUSIVELY AT FOOTBALL.CO.UK EVERY TUESDAY

DSG


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:andy bishop
Having worked in radio, newspapers, magazines, internet and television I hope to now bring my passion for the game to your computer screens with analysis, comment and tongue-in-cheek humour on all things global in the world of football - from Barcelona to Boca and from Blatter to Berlusconi...enjoy!

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