Why we should all lament the retirement of Dean Ashton - the best striker England never had
In all the endless debate over who should partner Wayne Rooney for England at the World Cup next summer, one man’s name has never been mentioned.
While we ponder the relative merits of Emile Heskey and Jermain Defoe, it is not remiss to assume that Dean Ashton would have been ahead of all contenders had time not been called on his sad career last Friday, after three torturous years battling against an ankle injury caused by a tackle from Shaun Wright-Phillips during an England training session.
Ashton’s retirement, mooted for some time, did not come as much of a surprise, yet its melancholy predictability still shocked. By the time they reach the age of 26, footballers, especially strikers, are meant to be in their prime, a frightening prospect for defenders in the case of the former West Ham forward. Instead, through no fault of his own, Ashton finds himself on the scrapheap.
The poignancy of Ashton’s misfortune is that his achievements are not directly proportional to his talent. As he comes to terms with the decisiveness of retirement, he will have few outstanding memories to fall back on wistfully. What will claw at him instead is the years of lonely rehabilitation, all to no avail, the struggle to regain fitness and, ultimately, the crushing failure to recover.
Other footballers have undergone a similar fate to Ashton. The most recent to come to mind is the supremely gifted Sebastien Deisler, arguably the most talented German player of his generation. Deisler was a troubled individual, not only damaging cruciate ligaments in his right knee on several occasions, but also suffering from depression. Yet at least he won titles and trophies with Bayern Munich, and played 36 times for his country.
An ankle injury also cut short the career of Marco van Basten, one of the deadliest attackers football has ever seen. He was only 28, but unlike Ashton, he won countless league titles and European trophies for Ajax and Milan, and the 1988 European Championship for Holland, his volley in the final against the USSR one of the greatest goals of all-time.
Against that gilded backdrop, Ashton’s case is somewhat more modest. He scored goals in the lower leagues for Crewe, was relegated from the Premier League with Norwich and reached an FA Cup final with West Ham - which they lost. He played just the one time for Fabio Capello’s England, a meaningless post-season friendly against Trinidad & Tobago. Viewed with a dispassionate eye, it might be pertinent to ask exactly what all the fuss is about.
Well, Ashton, in short, had the lot. He was strong, powerful and quick. While he was good in the air and could play with his back to goal, linking up with team-mates, he was also blessed with a skilful touch on the ground and was able to disguise a pass as well as a chameleon might blend into its surroundings. A blend, if you will, of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham. But above all, most importantly for a striker, he could finish. He was capable of all types of goals: he could score with his left foot, his right foot or his head, from outside the box or in, a difficult chance or an easy one. And if he had to improvise, he could do that too.
Even after returning from his ankle injury to play for West Ham in the 2007-08 season, out of shape and unfit, he epitomised the saying that form is temporary, class permanent. In a stop-start campaign, he still managed to score 11 goals of varying quality, the pick of which saw him fend off Rio Ferdinand and direct a virtuoso bicycle kick into the top corner at Manchester United, a goal so breathtaking even Old Trafford applauded in recognition.
Before that game, he had been linked with United, and with the rub of the green, he might have been there now. But instead he hurt himself in the landing of that goal and had to be replaced at half-time. Just his luck.
In that epochal moment, we should have known it was not meant to be. Even his last act for West Ham was fittingly downtrodden, forced to leave a game at West Bromwich Albion in September 2008 early after a clash of heads. Gianfranco Zola had just been installed as West Ham’s new manager, but did not take charge for this game and during training the following week, Ashton’s ankle betrayed him again, meaning he has never played once for the Italian.
Ashton first came to my attention in January 2002, when Crewe travelled to Rotherham in the 4th Round of the FA Cup. The BBC’s Match of the Day team gave undue prominence to a game between two unfashionable sides, as Crewe were famous for having produced the likes of Danny Murphy and David Platt, and the talk now was that the conveyor belt of talent was rolling out another one: Ashton. Interest piqued, Crewe duly won the game 4-2 and Ashton scored twice, one a fierce effort into the corner from fully 25 yards out. Ashton scored again as Crewe lost in a replay to Everton in the next round. This time, though, it was against Premier League opposition.
Crewe were promoted to the Championship in 2003, neatly coinciding with West Ham’s relegation from the top-flight. At least it meant a chance to see Ashton in the flesh however. Yet it was not until Crewe’s third game against West Ham that Ashton made his mark, coming up with two instinctive finishes at Gresty Road in a 3-2 victory for the Hammers in August 2004. In two-and-a-half seasons with Crewe in the second tier, Ashton rattled in goals at an alarming rate - 60 in total - until Norwich bought him in January 2005.
Nigel Worthington’s side were battling against relegation from the Premier League. Ashton was earmarked as the man to rescue them, but despite scoring seven goals in 16 games, including a brilliant, winning header against United, the Canaries went down on the final day after a 6-0 defeat at Fulham. His best moment, the one that underlined his potential though, was against Manchester City, when from the left side of the area he somehow managed to lob the ball over David James and into the far corner with the outside of his right boot. By now, it was clear that Ashton was far too good for the Championship, but despite interest from Arsenal and West Ham, he remained at Carrow Road until the January transfer window.
West Ham, now back in the Premier League but faring better than Norwich did the previous year, eventually got their man and broke their transfer record to sign Ashton for £7.25m. His first start for Alan Pardew’s buccaneering side was against struggling Sunderland at Upton Park, where he scored a late winner prosaic in its quality, a mere tap-in from Marlon Harewood’s saved effort. Like any true predator though, he had displayed the essentially unteachable ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Further goals came at Upton Park, a stooping header against Birmingham and a thunderous left-foot shot into the bottom corner after he had raced away from the Everton defence with the utmost disdain. Yet the league was not where he shone brightest - instead it was the magic of the FA Cup which rubbed off on Ashton.
A televised quarter-final at Manchester City presented him with the opportunity to showcase his class to a wider audience. Ashton did not disappoint. After 41 minutes of an even match, Ashton exchanged passes with Nigel Reo-Coker and Matthew Etherington before opting to take on the City defence unaided. Chesting the ball down, he ran at the retreating but speedy Sylvan Distin, who the unsympathetic Ashton left with twisted blood. With the ball on his right foot, he suddenly back-heeled it across his body and cracked an unstoppable shot with his left foot into David James’s near post. The speed with which this piece of skill was done left the entire ground flummoxed and just for a moment no one realised Ashton had scored. Midway through the second half he doubled the lead and West Ham held out to win 2-1 and reach the semi-finals.
There West Ham faced Middlesbrough, a poor game decided after 78 minutes when Ashton’s flick-on found Harewood, who rattled a shot past Brad Jones to send West Ham into the FA Cup final. Despite his part in the goal, Ashton had not been particularly impressive. Perhaps he was just saving himself for the showpiece encounter with Liverpool.
If so, his ploy worked. Ashton was magnificent in the Cardiff sun, toying with Liverpool’s defenders, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, giving them a chasing that, to this day, they are unlikely to have forgotten. When Ashton announced his retirement, the pair could be forgiven if they breathed a sigh of relief, so good was he in that final. He set up West Ham’s first goal when, with his back to goal, he played a reverse pass to Lionel Scaloni, whose cross Carragher inadvertently turned in. Minutes later he pounced on Pepe Reina’s spillage to make it 2-0. Liverpool eventually won on penalties, but West Ham, and Ashton in particular, did not deserve to lose.
A week earlier Sven-Goran Eriksson had picked an England squad for the 2006 World Cup which did not include Ashton among his attackers. Watching the FA Cup final, the Swede might have reflected on his mistake not to include a 23-year-old forward who appeared to be on the verge of greatness.
No matter, for Steve McClaren, Eriksson’s successor, named Ashton for his first squad for a friendly against Greece in August 2006. No-one had inkling of it at the time, but that would be the beginning of the end for the best striker that England and West Ham never had.