Part two of this series looks at a player well known to West Ham United, Norwich City and Crewe Alexandra fans. He’s a player whose plain bad luck with injury forced him to retire when a future at Premiership and International level looked bright.
For part one of the series please click the link below.
They Could Have Been One of Football’s Greatest: Part Two – Dean Ashton
Dean Ashton can definitely be put into the category of “What could have been?”. Ashton broke his left ankle while training with England in August 2006, ahead of a friendly with Greece. No matter how hard he tried and how many comebacks he attempted, things would never be the same again.
Ashton missed the whole of the next season. However, come the 2007-08 season, he was back to full fitness – or so he thought. He played 35 games that season and was also capped by England. In September 2008, whilst training, Ashton sprained his ankle; he failed to play competitively again. Ashton did try to regain fitness, but his ankle was so badly injured that concerns over whether his injury would affect his mobility in future years led him to the decision of retirement. The loss of cartilage in his ankle was so severe that his bones were rubbing against each other, leaving flakes of bone in the gap between; on 11th December 2009, aged just 26, Dean Ashton retired.
Ashton began his career at Crewe Alexandra and was a product of their famous youth policy. He signed as a 16-year-old and made his debut soon after, becoming one of the youngest players to represent the club. In 178 appearances between 2000 and 2005, he netted 74 goals for Crewe. During this time, Crewe’s manager at the time, Dario Gradi, stated that, “People are right to say he has a bright future in the game”.
In January 2005, a £3 million pound bid from Norwich City was accepted; this deal broke Norwich’s transfer record by £2 million. Ashton scored seven goals during the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to save Norwich from relegation from the Premier League. Even though Norwich dropped down the ranks, and Premier League teams were interested in signing him, Ashton decided to remain at Carrow Road. After scoring 18 goals in 46 games, Norwich accepted a bid of £7 million from West Ham United in January 2006.
Ashton had a bright start at West Ham, scoring six in 16 appearances, including some crucial goals on their way to the FA Cup Final. Ashton was a big man, but he had a blend of physique, technique and an eye for goal. He represented his country at all Under 17, 19, 20 and 21 levels, consistently hitting the back of the net. It was only a matter of time before there would be a call up to the senior side; that call came in August of 2006, but the rest is merely history.
It’s been almost six years since Ashton was forced to retire in December 2009. Having just got back into football, co-commentating for BT Sport, Ashton had this to say on having any further involvement in the game, “Coaching is definitely not something I can comprehend doing in the near future, but maybe when there’s a bit more distance between me and the injury, when I’m a little bit older, I might feel different”.
“There’ll always be a bit of sadness there,” he divulged. “There’s always going to be a ‘what if?’, but you just learn to live with it. I’m still very grateful for all the things I got to achieve”.
“The main thing I take away from all that’s happened is that I got to do something that I always wanted to do. It’s through no fault of my own that I had to stop and, actually, you’ve got to be grateful for what you have got. Towards the end, before my retirement, when I was struggling to walk, you realise that football is just a game and that, as long as me, my wife and kids are healthy I can’t ask for much more. There are plenty of times when I think I’m missing out on things, that ‘He’s playing when that could have been me,’ but it’s irrelevant when you consider what’s really important”.
Ashton was undoubtedly a talent, a humble man, and was undeniably capable of being one of the best strikers of his generation; he scored 111 goals in 280 appearances. Unfortunately, football can be cruel; especially to those with a natural talent. There are a lot of ifs and buts as to where his career would have gone, but, if it had stayed on the same path, he could still have been a top striker for both club and country.
Quotes used throughout were sourced via ESPN and The Telegraph.