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Dean Ashton - a career cut short

Dean Ashton
Ashton was restricted to one appearance for England

By Aimee Lewis

Alan Curbishley, who managed Dean Ashton at West Ham, has described the striker's retirement as a sad day for the player, his club and football.

The 26-year-old decided to end his playing career after failing to recover from a debilitating ankle injury.

Curbishley told BBC Sport: "I saw enough to show me he was going to be around the England team for some time."

Dario Gradi, his former boss at Crewe, said the West Ham player was "the best finisher I've worked with".

Ashton broke his left ankle while training with England in August 2006 ahead of a friendly with Greece.

The fixture was meant to be the start of a glorious international career.

National coach Steve McClaren had based part of that Tuesday's training around the then 22-year-old, who was set for his international debut and had already drawn comparisons with Alan Shearer and been lauded by World Cup winner Sir Geoff Hurst.

Dean Ashton
He showed that the dream could still be there. He started with Crewe, went to Norwich and ended up in a FA Cup final with West Ham

Alan Curbishley

But halfway through the session Ashton collided with Shaun Wright-Phillips and fell to the ground, his agonising screams bringing the rest of the squad to a standstill.

"We all looked round," recalled John Terry, who had then just been named the new England captain. "He was on the floor and all of a sudden everybody was rushing over."

The former Crewe and Norwich City striker spent the next 11 months recuperating, and although he did play again - scoring 13 goals in 40 appearances for West Ham - he broke down once more in September 2008 and did not play competitively again.

In between the injuries, Ashton did manage a solitary England cap, a 45-minute appearance against Trinidad and Tobago in June 2008, but the player - and England manager Fabio Capello - would have yearned for more.

Curbishley certainly wished he could have called upon the services of West Ham's £7.25m signing more frequently.

On the former Charlton manager's first day in charge at Upton Park, back in December 2006, he was told he would be able to put Ashton's name on the teamsheet within a month.

"As it turned out he was six months away from full fitness," recalled the 52-year-old, who had Ashton available for 39 of his 62-game tenure.

"When I got him back you could see what a player he was. He was a centre-forward in the old tradition - big and powerful, someone who could bring players into the game and his finishing was second to none.

Dean Ashton
Ashton won his solitary England cap in 2008 against Trinidad and Tobago

"In the few games I had him, I think he scored one in three for me. It's a sad day for Dean Ashton and everybody at West Ham.

"He showed that the dream could still be there. He started with Crewe, went to Norwich and ended up in a FA Cup final with West Ham."

That FA Cup final will forever be remembered as the 'Gerrard Final', courtesy of the galvanizing effect Steven Gerrard's two goals had on leading Liverpool to an eventual penalty shootout victory.

But West Ham were, in truth, the superior side, with Ashton bamboozling the Merseysiders for the hour he was on the pitch (a hamstring injury, which made him a doubt for the final, ended his participation prematurely).

His sublime pass to Lionel Scaloni played a role in the first goal of the game and his predatory skills came to the fore when he prodded the ball over the line, after a fumble by Reds goalkeeper Pepe Reina, to put West Ham 2-0 ahead.

The stardust he sprinkled on the few games he played for West Ham - a beautifully-taken goal against Manchester City in the 2006 FA Cup quarter-final and an overhead kick against Manchester United spring to mind - certainly justify the high esteem with which Ashton is held by Curbishley and others.

Ashton learnt his trade under the stewardship of Dario Gradi at Crewe, signing for the Gresty Road club as a promising 16-year-old.

The striker once said Gradi had to be persuaded of his talents by then scout Steve Holland, but Crewe's caretaker manager was unequivocal in his praise of his protege.

Gradi, who has nurtured the likes of England internationals David Platt and Danny Murphy, told BBC Sport: "He's probably the best I've ever had for goalscoring. He always knew where the net was and picked his spot."

In 143 appearances for Crewe, Ashton, scored 67 goals and attracted the interest of a host of clubs, with Norwich City spending a club record £3m on the striker in January 2005.

He scored seven goals in 16 matches for the Canaries, but could not save the club from Premier League relegation. A further 11 goals in the Championship prompted West Ham to make a club record bid for him in January 2006.

However, his retirement means that we will never know the heights the player could have eventually reached.

"It's a shame for him and a shame for England," added Gradi. "He's the best of the goal-takers of the strikers around."

Indeed, Ashton, capped at every England level from Under-17s up, was marked out by Capello when the Italian was appointed England manager.

Had it not been for injury he would surely have earned greater international recognition and be jostling for a place in next year's World Cup in South Africa.

Ashton once said talk of him being injury jinxed was a "myth", but there is no denying that his early retirement is a cruel end to what could have been a fairytale story.

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see also
Injured Ashton forced to retire
11 Dec 09 |  West Ham
Ashton's playing career in doubt
10 Nov 09 |  West Ham
Zola rejects Ashton quit rumours
18 Sep 09 |  West Ham
Hammers complete Ashton transfer
23 Jan 06 |  West Ham
Norwich secure 3m Ashton signing
10 Jan 05 |  Norwich
Ashton breaks ankle in training
15 Aug 06 |  Internationals

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