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WBA-MAD Exclusive: An interview with Lee Ashcroft
Jack Hepworth talks to Albion's former wing wizard
It’s been a long time coming, so whisper it quietly. Better still, phrase it as a question. After all, modesty has always become us. Can Albion now be defined as an established Premier League club?
After the dust had settled on Albion’s impressive 2-1 victory over Queens Park Rangers on Boxing Day, the Baggies were sitting pretty in sixth place in the Premier League. Several newspapers dared to suggest that our yo-yo days are a thing of the past. It’s amazing what an unprecedented third consecutive Premiership season, continued development on and off the field and a blistering first half of the new season can do for your reputation.
After the heartache of three relegations from the Premier League since we first dared to get involved back in 2002, the mid-table respectability of the last two seasons has surely ushered in the most promising footballing era here for thirty years.
Of all of the special things about this remarkable club, perhaps the most heart-warming appeal of West Bromwich Albion has always been its staunch support and memory of past heroes, of times gone by; through the thick and the thin. The long road back to the promised land – and security therein – has been littered with potholes, hidden bends and thrilling twists since we fell from the top division after the cataclysmic 1985/86 season.
Few seasons, however, have provided as much drama as that which came to an incredible conclusion one May afternoon on the south coast back in 1994.
Needless to say, it had been a tumultuous campaign for fans and players alike.
The summer of 1993 had, typically, been far from uneventful here at B71. Ossie Ardiles had left for his beloved ‘Tottingham’ just weeks after leading Albion to a memorable 3-0 play-off final triumph over Port Vale at Wembley, and his erstwhile assistant, Keith Burkinshaw, had taken charge. Burkinshaw had two FA Cups and a UEFA Cup to his name, and a wealth of managerial experience besides.
But if Albion are, today, a ‘work in progress’, the club was a positive construction site back in 1993.
On Friday 6th August 1993, with the new First Division season fast approaching, Albion parted with £225,000, paying Preston North End for the services of a young winger by the name of Lee Ashcroft. North End had been relegated under John Beck two months earlier, shortly before Albion had headed in the other direction.
The season began in dramatic fashion on 13th August, with ten-man Albion claiming a last-gasp equaliser against Barnsley at Oakwell. Kevin Donovan’s goal ensured that 6,000 Baggies fans didn’t travel back to the Black Country empty-handed. Away-day drama and enormous travelling contingents were to prove something of a hallmark of the 93/94 campaign.
In his first programme notes of the season, manager Burkinshaw expressed his anticipation of the months to follow. ‘There is a feeling within the club that this is going to be a very exciting nine months for everyone concerned,’ the veteran wrote. There was no pulling the wool over Burkinshaw’s eyes.
Ashcroft, meanwhile, had to wait until late September before making his league debut, after previous outings in the League Cup and Anglo-Italian Cup.
“It was a difficult season, my first season,” he explains, earnestly. “I was only young; I still hadn’t turned twenty-one when I joined Albion. I moved out of my mum and dad’s house in Preston and went to live in the middle of Birmingham. Nowadays you see these young kids who do really well and get a move to the Premier League, and I know why so many of them struggle in that first season. I’ve always been a really homely person, and then I found myself in a different place… you don’t know anybody, and you’ve got to survive. But the lads at West Brom looked after me.”
Indeed, survival was to be the order of the season, though it was not a campaign devoid of high points, too; in the September, Darren Bradley’s scorching strike at The Hawthorns in a 3-2 derby day thriller fulfilled the first half of a memorable league double over Wolves.
The team was not known to deal in half-measures off the pitch, either; Ashcroft was thoroughly inducted into the squad by his new teammates, as he now recalls with a knowing grin.
“It’s all down to Stuart Naylor that my career started to dip!” he jokes. “He introduced me to alcohol – after the first day training at West Brom he made me drive us out to a pub. I’d never drunk before!”
Fifteen pints or so later – depending on who you choose to believe – the Baggies’ experienced keeper and somewhat less worldly-wise new acquisition emerged from the anonymous hostelry.
“Those were great days, with Stuart, Simon Garner, Bob Taylor, Andy Hunt and all of those people,” Ashcroft fondly recalls.
Off-field revelries aside, Lee certainly made his mark at The Hawthorns as the season drew on. The plucky Prestonian’s move to Albion had been born on a Wednesday evening towards the end of the 92/93 campaign.
If his first season at The Hawthorns was to prove a challenge, the final year of Ashcroft’s first spell at PNE had been torturous. Lee made his debut for North End in 1990 as the side looked to consolidate itself in the old Third Division. The memory of his PNE debut still brings him a broad smile and a wealth of fond memories.
“It’s a lifelong ambition to play for your hometown club, and my debut came when I’d just turned eighteen. It was a big, big moment in my career, and I was a proud man that day. If it hadn’t been for my dad, none of it would have happened. He took me everywhere; he still does now, he still watches me now in management. He’s watched nearly every game I’ve played. Growing up, he was the one who gave up his time and made those sacrifices to give me good knowledge... I owe a lot to him; he’s my hero and my best friend as well.”
Lee’s whirlwind career at Deepdale had been marked by close encounters with other heroes, too. “I was lucky enough to play with one Tony Ellis at Preston. To be in the same dressing room as him was unbelievable.”
At the time, North End’s home ground was notable too for its artificial surface, a phenomenon that Ashcroft now looks back on gleefully. “As a forward, the artificial surface was a dream. Defenders couldn’t tackle you; they certainly couldn’t go to ground,” he grins. “We trained on it too, which gave us a certain advantage.”
But the hometown dream only turned sour in the 92/93 season.
“92/93 was the first and only time I’ve ever been relegated. Some of the players didn’t care, but I certainly did. I didn’t actually play in the last game of the season at Bolton; I sat in the stand at BurndenPark, and it was a horrible, horrible feeling. It was all down to one person, and that was John Beck. He had done very well at Cambridge, but people worked out how to play against us at Preston, and we didn’t have a plan B. He had us trying to play the long-ball, and I didn’t last too long under him.”
In a twisted sort of way, Albion’s modern history may always owe something to John Beck. It was March 1993, and English football’s third tier was heading towards a nail-biting climax. North End were marooned in relegation trouble. Ardiles’s Albion, towards the other end of the league table, were scoring plenty and letting their fair share in, as was their wont. A midweek fixture towards the end of the campaign, a fixture steeped in history between two of English football’s founding members – West Bromwich Albion vs Preston North End – was to throw up both a thrilling game of football and the origins of a transfer whose ramifications would go on to be so crucial, as Ashcroft now remembers.
“I’d had a nasty falling out with John Beck on the Monday and didn’t travel with the team down to West Brom – I made my own way there. I got there a little bit early and as I looked around the ground I thought ‘I’d love to play for these.’”
Albion cruised into a two-goal lead against their relegation-threatened opponents early on, but PNE’s talismanic striker Tony Ellis reduced the arrears for his side, and one young man on the visitors’ team caught the eye, giving the Baggies’ left-back Steve Lilwall nightmares that would recur for months to come! Indeed, Ashcroft scored an equaliser for Preston, and Beck’s team were only denied a point by Bob Taylor’s late winner. The result aside, though, one young man in a North End shirt had made his impression.
“I obviously had a really good game and when I heard West Brom were interested it was a dream come true. I knew at the time that Ossie used to play with a diamond formation, which wasn’t a winger’s system really, but of course Keith took over that summer and he signed me straight away.
“Just before I moved to West Brom, there were three or four different clubs that I could’ve gone to, but after that one game for Preston at The Hawthorns my mind was made up.”
With Ashcroft on board, the first season after the Baggies’ promotion ebbed and flowed, though Albion were never far from danger at the league’s lower end. Lee was to play an increasingly important role as the campaign went on.With four games remaining, The Hawthorns played host to a relegation six-pointer against Birmingham City.
“Every time we got a result, Blues seemed to win,” Ashcroft says of the run-in. “I always knew it would go right down to the wire.”
When Barry Fry’s Birmingham team emerged from the crunch clash against Albion as 4-2 victors, it looked for all the world as though the Baggies would slip back through the same relegation trapdoor that they had fallen through on that fateful afternoon at Twerton Park in 1991.
Three matches remained, and Burkinshaw’s side found themselves second-bottom of Division One. Understandably, the club’s battle-hardened supporters feared the worst.
“I know that if we can add some fighting spirit to our undoubted footballing abilities, then we can still maintain… our place in Division One,’ chairman Trevor Summers wrote in the Grimsby programme, on an afternoon when everybody associated with West Bromwich Albion hoped and prayed that they would only be bidding farewell to the old Brummie Road terraces, and not their Division One status. Ashcroft and his team lacked nothing in fighting spirit.
Today, with just over six years of managerial experience now under his belt – the majority of those spent with Kendal Town in the Evo-Stik Premier Division, before his recent move to Northwich Victoria – the former Baggies star has never lost the mettle and determination which drew such fond support from the Albion fans.
A nervy 1-0 win over Grimsby at The Hawthorns kept Albion in with a fighting chance, but an emotional 3-2 defeat to Luton in the season’s penultimate game meant that the fight for survival would go all the way down to the final day of the season.
That match at Kenilworth Road was notable not only for a superb solo strike by Bob Taylor – complemented with a goal from Ashcroft himself – but also for the Baggies’ big centre-half Gary Strodder being sent off after an almighty scrap with Luton’s heftily built Mitchell Thomas. Tension was in the air.
“I never really felt too much pressure playing football, because I was doing something that I loved, something that every kid wants to do. I just wanted to give it my all in every game, to keep going right until the end, and that was because the fans at Albion were so good to me. They took to me, probably because I wore my heart on my sleeve and gave it everything I had in every game, and that’s what all fans want to see.
“But we were absolutely desperate not to let the fans down; they supported us home and away – they were fantastic away from home. It was a new experience for me; different from playing in front of 3,000 at Preston.”
Albion travelled to Fratton Park on 8th May 1994 knowing that only three points would guarantee their survival. The Baggies had only managed three away wins in the league all season.
“We had to get off the coach about half a mile from the ground and had to walk through all the fans,” Ashcroft remembers. “The hairs on your arms and on the back of your neck just started to stand up, and I remember thinking then ‘we’re going to beat these.’” From then, I knew we would. In the dressing room before the game, I said to the lads – ‘I’m going to score today.’”
Once the game had kicked off after a five-minute delay, Burkinshaw’s men came out of the blocks well. To this day, Portsmouth supporters claim that FrattonPark has never seen away support like it.
“We started well down there. And then, just before half-time, it happened,” Ashcroft recalls.
Ian Hamilton swung a cross in from the left flank towards the back post. Ashcroft stole a march on Pompey full-back Mark Stimson and rose to head the ball home. The sheer delight – and relief – etched across the Albion winger’s expression as he turned to celebrate his vital goal captured the drama of the day.
“In the second half, Tony Lange saved the one that was heading for the top corner… it was just incredible. I’d got subbed off about five minutes from the end, so there I was, biting my nails on the bench. I’ll never forget the feeling when the final whistle came.”
When referee David Elleray finally blew for full time, Albion’s travelling army swarmed on to the pitch in delirium. Blues had scored a last-ditch winner at Tranmere, but Ashcroft’s goal and Lange’s heroics rendered that academic. Burkinshaw’s Baggies had survived.
Naturally, the team celebrated the escape in style!
“It was a fantastic trip home, but I can’t remember much of it!” says Lee, with a broad grin etched across his face. “We’d been drinking with Frank Skinner in the bar after the match – I think we hijacked him in the end and got him on the bus! I can’t remember the next two days of my life!
“If we hadn’t won that game, Albion might not be where they are now,” Ashcroft admits, when asked about his place in the club’s recent history. It is a history whose unfolding he still continues to follow. “Whenever I go back down there now – to where I used to live – if I go for a pint, they remember me! Albion’s the team I support now, they’re my club, and they’re the team I look for before anyone else.”
Say the words West Bromwich Albion to Lee Ashcroft and he’ll tell you the same thing. “I loved every minute of it. Every minute.”
Was Ashworth's goal against Portsmouth his defining moment at The Hawthorns? Have your say here at Baggies Banter.
Source: WBA MAD
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