The missing man: Dean Ashton and what could have been

In a new post on PNIG, Jonny Sharples looks at a forgotten England international who would have been in his prime at this World Cup and asks whether he could have given England something a bit different…

4068496362With the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil just around the corner, many pundits, writers, and fans will begin working on who they believe should be part of the 23-man squad representing England at the tournament in South America. After Roy Hodgson names the men who will head to Brazil, more columns will be written and more discussion will take place about those unlucky players who didn’t quite make the cut. But there is one 30 year old England international who will have very little, if anything, written about his absence from the England team, a centre forward who is certain to miss the 2014 World Cup. He also missed the 2010 tournament in South Africa and the 2012 European Championships. He is a footballer who has not played since the end of 2008, less than six months after making his only appearance for England.

Dean Ashton was a tall and strong centre forward whose physicality and presence were combined with a lethal eye for goal and superb finishing ability. Born in Swindon, he was a product of the Crewe Alexandra conveyor belt masterminded by Dario Gradi. He graduated from the same club that saw the first playing appearances of fellow England internationals Danny Murphy and David Platt. In his five years at the Railwaymen he played for England at under 21 level, as well as for the under 17s, 19s and 20s, and his performances at Crewe marked him out as one of the finest young strikers outside the top flight of English football. By the time Norwich City broke their transfer record to sign Ashton in January 2005, the striker had scored 74 goals in 178 appearances for the club and this achievement was recognised by a supporters’ vote in April 2014 that saw him named Crewe’s second greatest ever player.

Norwich’s new number 36 joined a club struggling to keep their Premier League status in tact, and they would eventually go down on the final day of the season after one of the most exciting relegation battles in recent memory. However, Dean Ashton himself impressed in his short time in the top tier: in his sixteen appearances for the Canaries he found the net seven times, including winning goals against Newcastle and Birmingham, and the opening goal of a 2-0 victory against Manchester United. With his club relegated, but Ashton himself playing well in a struggling team, many believed that the forward would stay in the Premier League. However, he began the next season still in the yellow of Norwich City.

Ashton made 28 appearances for Norwich in the Championship in the first part of the 2005/2006 season, scoring ten times, as the Norfolk club looked for an immediate return to the Premier League. But late in January 2006, just over a year after Norwich signed him, West Ham agreed a £7m deal to take Dean Ashton to the Boleyn Ground. He was therefore part of the side that reached the FA Cup final against Liverpool. A hamstring injury looked to have kept Ashton out of the team to face the Reds but he was declared fit and scored the goal that gave West Ham a 2-0 lead. Sadly, the east London side would go on to lose the final on penalties. However, Dean Ashton had caught people’s attention and would receive his first England call-up after the summer’s World Cup.

It is here where things took a turn for the worse for Dean Ashton. During a training session for a friendly against Greece, a tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips saw Ashton break his ankle and he would miss the entire 2006/07 season. He would never fully recover. Without the goals of their number 9, West Ham struggled, with their Premier League safety only being confirmed with a victory over Manchester United on the final day of the season. Despite missing a full season of football, Ashton returned to Premier League football for the 2007/08 season and would feature in 31 of West Ham’s 38 matches, scoring ten times and earning an England recall against Trinidad & Tobago under Fabio Capello in the summer of 2008. The first half of the game in the Port Of Spain would be Ashton’s only minutes as an England international, joining players such as Owen Hargreaves, Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate in the ‘What If’ column of England internationals.

The session in which Ashton broke his leg.

The session in which Ashton broke his ankle.

Ashton appeared just five more times for West Ham, netting twice, before a sprained ankle in a training session ended his season and, ultimately, his career. In December 2009, West Ham announced that Dean Ashton had retired from professional football at the age of just 26. But had things worked out differently would Dean Ashton still have been considered as a potential England international in 2014?

Fabio Capello, the England manager who handed Ashton his only cap in 2008 and was national team manager up until 2012, was clearly an admirer of the man from Swindon and may have seen him as a viable option to replace Peter Crouch in the England side. Although not as tall as Crouch, Dean Ashton was more robust and physical and arguably had more of an eye for goal than the man who featured 18 times under the Italian and scoring eight times. Furthermore, Capello also persisted with Emile Heskey at international level up until the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa, and Dean Ashton’s goalscoring prowess was certainly more fearsome than the much-maligned Heskey. Fabio Capello’s use of strikers like Crouch and Heskey, and even Kevin Davies in October 2010, certainly makes it seem that if it wasn’t for a Shaun Wright-Phillips tackle then Ashton would have had an England career under the Italian manager.

So what about the current England manager? Well, when Roy Hodgson replaced Capello in February 2012, Dean Ashton would have been in his prime as a 28 year old centre forward; at the time of the World Cup in Brazil he has just reached his thirties. Although Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney have cemented themselves as Hodgson’s first choice strikers, his use of Andy Carroll and Rickie Lambert since his appointment suggests that there is a place for a big, physical forward in the England side. It also looks increasingly likely that those two strikers are vying for the final spot among the attacking ranks in Hodgson’s England squad for the World Cup.

So who knows, with six years of hypothetical international experience and a new ankle, Dean Ashton could have been heading to Brazil this summer as the ideal foil for Sturridge, Welbeck and Rooney.

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One comment

  1. Interesting, Dean Ashton seems like he could have been a good player for England. You here Ledley King being talked about much more in the “What If” subject but if Ahston wasn’t injured he could’ve proved to be an exceptional striker.

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