Not the Face of the Franchise, like many sport websites, will look to explore a narrative. The weekly NTFeature attempts to highlight the selected athlete in an interesting way. That is certainly the hope.
Whilst not always the primary objective, the pieces may try to offer explanation for the subject’s under-appreciation. Such reasons are varied. They can relate to the specific role the individual is asked to perform. They can simply be operating in the domineering shadow of others. They may find themselves on the fringes of adulation because they are outside of the accepted convention. They may be a mercurial talent lacking in consistency. They may be the maverick gunslinger amongst their more reliable peers.
Everyone has a story. Perhaps the saddest narrative is one that sees the protagonist fail to reach the apex of the profession due to circumstances out-with their control.
Dean Ashton has such a story.
Soccer, like most sports, can have cruel elements. Skill level and ability can vary wildly. Mistakes can be made. Embarrassment is possible. Ultimately, a sport that heralds winners must also embrace losing.
We have become conditioned to expect a natural decline in soccer. Careers are finite. Players get older.
Dean Ashton retired at twenty-six years old.
He wasn’t afforded a graceful exit from the game. An ankle injury ended his career.
Much has been written and discussed — including within the pages of NTFOF.com — regarding the evolution of soccer. There has been a seismic shift in how we describe and evaluate players. We are drawn to positional designations such as the ‘holding-midfielder’, the ‘second-striker’ and the somewhat baffling ‘false-nine’. There is a school of thought that suggests a rise in tactical understanding and analysis has led to the re-evaluation and re-classification of a players role within a teams formation. This accepted level of nuance could be a simple reaction to the current era player and their modern-day foibles. It is tempting to suggest that what is often presented as a specialism may mask a deficiency. Do we celebrate the ‘ball-playing center back’ by ignoring the fact he struggles to defend ?
Dean Ashton was a center forward.
Even with the full benefit of hindsight — and respecting the manner in which his career unfurled — it is hard to suggest he was anything other than a very good center forward. He appeared to have all the tools. He, with a combative and rugged physicality, seemed to play bigger than his six-foot-one frame. He had pace. He had an ability to link up with others and illuminate their play. He had the most treasured skill in an attacker — a keen eye for goal. This was no one-trick pony. He was a rounded, intelligent player.
He made his debut in the professional game as a sixteen year old. He graduated from the acclaimed Crewe Alexandria youth development program and was deemed ready for first team action at an early age. His progress at Crewe was steadily guided by Dario Gradi — a coach widely acknowledged to be one of England’s premier talent shapers. During Ashton’s five year tenure at Crewe Alexandria the club vacillated between League One and Two. Even the most cursory level research into the video footage of Ashton’s Crewe career will quickly assure the viewer of his talent. With respect to the lower leagues in which he learned his trade it is clear that the young Ashton was destined for a bigger stage. What is perhaps the most striking aspect is that he doesn’t display the expected rawness of a young player. On the contrary he looks assured and almost polished. The youthful exuberance is definitely evident but it is matched with a mature speed of thought and physical dominance.
His progression as a player was accelerated as he moved up through the divisions. He was acquired by Norwich City and enjoyed enough success to have West Ham pay a significant fee for his services.
West Ham gave Dean Ashton a platform that saw him receive the recognition of international football. However, the honor of representing England was one that came with huge personal cost for Ashton. During a training session prior to an international fixture Ashton was involved in an innocuous collision with the diminutive Shaun Wright-Philips. His ankle was badly injured.
This incident and the resultant injury derailed Dean Ashton’s career. Comeback attempts were made but never truly consolidated. He simply wasn’t the same player. The physical pain was too much. He announced his retirement in December 2009.
All that remains is speculative. Dean Ashton in his prime — if we can ever truly believe him to have reached it — was a scintillating player. As the game, international and domestic, has seen the emergence of the lone striker one cannot escape the sense that the game was robbed of a potential superstar. Football coaches would salivate at the thought of such a player spearheading their attack. He would offer more than just a lumbering target. He would certainly provide the necessary physical presence. In addition, his intelligent movement and skill on the ball would easily translate to the versatility top teams covet.
Dean Ashton, at every club and level, was an accomplished goalscorer. Sadly we will never know the heights his talent may have taken him to.
Readers and writers of soccer love the succinct storyboard moment. We gravitate to an on-field achievement that serves as a suitable microcosm that can signify more. It is somehow fitting that Ashton’s moment occurred six years after he had left the professional game. A career cut short was best defined by the execution of the unexpected yet somehow predictable.
March 2016 saw a sold-out Upton Park salute one of their own. Mark Noble, loyal servant to West Ham for over a decade, was being honored with a testimonial game. Two teams wereassembled from past and present West Ham stalwarts. Dean Ashton was to make a cameo appearance. Ashton, removed from the regular conditioning of the professional athlete, cut a significantly different figure from that of his playing days. He looked heavy. His once inspiring frame now looked cumbersome.
The game itself was being played at a very controlled and comfortable pace in keeping with the celebratory nature of the occasion. Retired Hammers legend Ian Bishop had found a pocket of space to the right of the penalty box and hoisted in a teasing cross. With no tight marking to negotiate — or any real defensive challenge — Ashton quickly sprung into an acrobatic bicycle kick. The ball crashed into the net. It was a move of impeccable timing and unstoppable power. Vintage Ashton. The Upton Park crowd jumped to its collective feet. Chants of ‘Deano’ began to rise from the terraces.
Ashton was mobbed by team-mates and ‘opposition’ alike. The supportive environment that made his involvement possible had now abandoned all notions of competition. As the jubilant scrum of celebrating players thinned out, Ashton and Noble shared a moment together. With players trotting back into their positions for the game’s restart Dean Ashton was already signaling to the technical area. He was done. He needed to come off the field. He could not continue.
It was almost darkly comic. Within a matter of seconds Dean Ashton had been transformed from instinctual predator to a broken mortal. It was the perfect encapsulation. It was the perfect end to his story.
In recent weeks we have seen large sections of the media calling for the effective over-throwing of Wayne Rooney. This is a player who broke into our sporting consciousness as a bullish teenager. He was immediately ordained the savior of English soccer. But, we are informed with reasonable justification, his time is up. Its time for the next generation. We are bearing witness to the slow, meandering, ponderous and public decline of Wayne Rooney.
Dean Ashton can only have wished to have been so lucky.