Dean Ashton was on the verge of prosperity until it was abruptly snatched away from him in the cruellest of fashions.
His short-lived career for Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City and West Ham United supplied many magical moments but the former England international had the potential to become one of the most potent strikers in England.
Ashton progressed through the England youth ranks throughout the early stages of his career, until he reached the pinnacle in 2008. He was deprived of his first international cap under Steve McClaren in 2006.
A heavy challenge from Shaun Wright-Phillips in training resulted in a broken ankle and ruled him out of the three lions’ clash with Greece. His injury issues stemmed from this point onwards and became increasingly worse to the extent that he missed the entire 2006/07 campaign for West Ham United.
Eventually, after another injury prevented Ashton from making his international debut against Estonia for the second time, Fabio Capello recalled him to the squad for the upcoming friendlies against Unites States of America and Trinidad and Tobago.
On 1 June 2008, Ashton had finally achieved his lifelong ambition of representing his home country. England ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at the Hasely Crawford Stadium but this would sadly be the only time Ashton ever featured for the three lions.
In December 2009, Ashton announced his official retirement after a persistent ankle injury left him temporarily unable to walk. Despite retiring in 2009, his last appearance for West Ham dated back to September 2008 against West Bromwich Albion.
Overall, Ashton netted 111 goals in 279 appearances for Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City and West Ham United respectively. His solitary cap for England was arguably the greatest achievement of his career but he was a talent that promised so much more…
The Rise of Dean Ashton
Born in Swindon in 1978, Dean was brought up in Cheshire, where he attracted Stoke City and later Crewe Alexandra. The Railwaymen had produced many famous footballers from their highly credited youth academy such as Danny Murphy, David Platt and Rob Jones.
He signed a scholarship at the beginning of the 2000/01 season when the Alex were plying their trade in the Second Division (League One). In October 2000, he was handed his senior debut aged just 16, appearing as an 83rd minute substitute against Gillingham.
The 16-year-old was a teenage prodigy at the Alexandra Stadium and ended his debut season with eight goals in 23 appearances in all competitions. He was hampered by injuries during his second season but still accumulated a respectable tally of 10 goals in 36 appearances.
His performances were recognised at international level and Ashton represented England at under 17, 19 and 20 level between 2001 and 2002. Ashton’s breakthrough season came during the 2002/03 campaign, in which his 16 goals helped guide the Alex to promotion to the First Division (Championship).
Ashton was now tasked with the challenge of performing on a bigger stage, with more prestigious and elite opponents. He successfully replicated his lower league form in the First Division, scoring 20 goals in 47 appearances in all competitions.
Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers were reportedly interested in signing Ashton but Crewe Alexandra manager Dario Gradi immediately stated the rumours were simply speculation.
A call-up for England under-21s followed and Ashton impressed scoring against Sweden and the Netherlands. He exploded into life at the beginning of the 2004/05 campaign, netting a mind blowing 20 goals in 27 appearances.
Norwich City swooped into secure his signature for a then club-record fee of £3 million in January 2005. Ashton adapted to life in the Premier League relatively comfortably, although it was short-lived due to the canaries’ relegation at the end of the 2005/06 campaign.
He scored on his home debut during an enthralling 4-4 draw against Middlesbrough. Ashton would later score winning goals against Newcastle United and Birmingham City but was still unable to prevent relegation to the Championship.
Premier League clubs were set to offer Ashton a route back into the top flight with Charlton Athletic, Manchester City and Wigan Athletic waiting in line. However, Ashton opted to stay at Carrow Road with the ambition of regaining promotion to the Premier League.
Ashton resumed his goal scoring form with Norwich City in the Championship, scoring 11 goals in 30 appearances. Despite his initial pledge to guide the canaries back to the top flight, West Ham lured him away from Carrow Road in January 2006.
The hammers signed him for a fee in the region of £7 million and he made his debut in a 3-2 win against Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in February 2006. He went onto to score twice in the FA Cup quarter-finals against Manchester City and added another in their FA Cup Final defeat to Liverpool.
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The Beginning of the End
Despite reaching his primitive years at West Ham, it also marked the beginning of the end of Dean Ashton. He scored six goals in all competitions during his first half-season at Upton Park and drew praise from manager Alan Pardew and TV pundit Alan Hansen.
However, his injury which he sustained during international duty in August 2006 proved detrimental. He was subsequently ruled out of the entire 2006/07 season with a broken ankle, which persisted until his retirement in December 2009.
West Ham narrowly avoided relegation in his absence during the 2006/07 season and Ashton reported to pre-season training in July 2007. Surely his injury problems were deep in the past?
The 2007/08 season proved to be his final full season, with his performances earning him his first cap for England against Trinidad and Tobago in June 2008. Overall, he scored 11 goals in 35 appearances in all competitions, including a famous overhead kick against Manchester United, albeit in a 4-1 defeat at Old Trafford.
Ashton penned a new five-year deal at the end of the 2007/08 season but had no idea that his career was on the brink of concluding in catastrophic fashion. He bagged both goals in a 2-1 win against Wigan Athletic during the 2008/09 season but sprained his ankle during Gianfranco Zola’s first training session.
His last appearance came against West Bromwich Albion on 13 September 2008. It was an emotional end to a wonderfully brief career. Ashton could’ve been something very special but his injury curse plagued him until the stage where quitting was the only option.
Fortunately, Ashton has formed a career in media and regularly works for TalkSport. I’m a keen listener of the radio station and it’s fantastic to see such a gentlemen continue his love for football.