We have all met that guy at work who had trials with Liverpool but didn't make the grade or that fella in the pub who claims he was a potential superstar but had to retire at 16 because of a crippling injury. These stories seem to be surprisingly common among the general populous and it is often difficult to know just how true they are. Injuries are a cruel mistress in any sport and there is no doubt that countless careers have ended far too soon because of them. For Dean Ashton, his career ended just as he was reaching the height of his powers, immediately ending the rise of a star.
Dean Ashton was one of many shining success stories of the Crewe Alexandra youth academy during the Dario Gradi years. For a club that had produced ex-England internationals, Danny Murphy and Rob Jones, Ashton looked set to be another feather in their cap as he made his first team debut aged just 16 years old. Scoring eight goals in 21 appearances during his first season had fans and management excited that they had uncovered a real gem.
By his second season, although he suffered a disrupting injury, he was beginning to catch the eye of the youth international coaches and represented England through the age levels. Despite their relegation to Division Two, Crewe were able to keep hold of Ashton and managed to bounce straight back to the First Division at the first time of asking. A prolific partnership was beginning to develop for the Cheshire club between Ashton and Rob Hulse but bigger clubs were starting to pay attention.
Hulse left Crewe after their promotion in the summer of 2003 to join West Bromwich Albion but they managed to keep hold of Ashton who went onto score 19 goals in the First Division, enabling the club to finish in 18th place, two points clear of relegation. Whilst Hulse had won promotion to the Premier League with West Brom, Ashton stayed faithful to Crewe a little while longer and would remain at the club for the first half of the 2004/05 season in the newly renamed Championship.
Ashton, and as a result Crewe, began the 2004/05 season brightly. The goals were flowing for the big striker as he scored 18 league goals in 24 games but unfortunately for Crewe that only caused more attention to be paid to him. Norwich City were the Premier League club that managed to secure his signature in the January 2005 transfer window, as they attempted to avoid relegation. The departure of Ashton had a devastating effect on Crewe who struggled to replace his goals. The club failed to win a single match between the 3rd January 2005 and 7th May 2005. Luckily for Crewe, a win on the final day of the season kept them in the Championship on goal difference.
The Canaries has smashed their transfer record when they signed Ashton for £3 million. His arrival at Carrow Road seemed to spark hope that the club may stay in the Premier League. Home wins against Manchester United, Newcastle United and Birmingham City all featured goals from the clubs record signing. The season ended in heartbreak for the club as a 6-0 defeat away at Fulham on the last day of the season saw them relegated. A win would have kept them up. Despite only joining the club in the January, Ashton ended the season as joint top goalscorer in the Premier League for Norwich with seven goals in 16 games. You can't help but wonder if they had signed him six months earlier how different things may have been.
Just six months after joining Norwich, Ashton was signing a new contract such was the amount of interest surrounding him. He had been a hit in the Premier League and come very close to keeping his club up so it figures that many clubs such as Manchester City, Charlton Athletic and West Ham United were all rumoured to be interested in taking him back to the big time. Ashton was happy to remain at Norwich in a bid to help them gain promotion, but his suitors would not go away.
In January 2006, just one year after joining Norwich for £3 million, he was sold to West Ham United for £7 million. He was soon able to find his feet in East London and scored two goals against Manchester City in the FA Cup quarter final as The Hammers went on to reach the final. Ashton made his appearance in the FA Cup final at Wembley as he started the match and scored a goal in the 3-3 draw. Although Liverpool went onto win the cup on penalties, Ashton had clearly impressed and some felt he was unlucky not to be called up to England's 2006 World Cup squad.
After the World Cup, England found a new manager in Steve McClaren and he wasted no time in bringing Ashton into the fold, naming him in his first squad in August 2006. Unfortunately for Ashton, what should have been a proud and momentous occasion turned out to be a nightmare and was the beginning of the end. The striker went down under a tackle from Shaun Wright-Phillips during a training session prior to the match against Greece, the diagnosis was not good, it was a broken ankle. Ashton would be out of action for a year, missing the whole of the 2006/07 season for West Ham.
Unfortunately he never really recovered from that injury and despite returning for the 2007/08 season, the problem soon crept up on him once again. In December of 2009, Ashton announced his retirement from professional football, aged just 26. During his short career he scored 93 league goals in 248 appearances and had become a household name in the Premier League. Terrible injuries can happen to anyone and Ashton was about as unlucky as you can be.
The question of just how good he might have been pretty much answers itself. When fit, he had shown that he could almost single handedly turn the fortunes of a club around such was his goalscoring ability. England call ups were just beginning to figure in his career and many will believe that fans were robbed the opportunity of seeing him reach his full potential both domestically and internationally because of the cruel course of events. I remember discussions at school about whether Hulse or Ashton would turn out to be the better player whilst they were at Crewe, there is no doubt that Ashton's career would have gone far beyond that of Hulse.
Remarkably Ashton never won silverware during his time as a professional, just another reminder of how unforgiving and tough football can be. I have no doubt that he must look back and wonder what may have been and at 33 years old, he would probably have still been playing today. It is not very often that England produces a talent so comfortable in front of goal as Dean Ashton was and so it is an even greater shame that we were not able to see him in England colours more. Crewe Alexandra fans will look back and be immensely proud that Ashton came from their system and so they should be. Other footballers should count themselves lucky that they are able to do what they love because a crippling injury can always come your way. For the rest of us, we will always look back and wonder just how far he might have gone.
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