This season, Prostate Cancer UK is the Official Charity Partner
of The Football League. To celebrate this partnership, and in
recognition of the fact that prostate cancer affects one in nine
men in the UK, we've asked some of the country's most acclaimed
football writers to tell us about their favourite No9 in the
history of the beautiful game.
This week, Jacob
Steinberg, football writer for the Guardian (and Upton Park
regular) tells us why former Crewe, Norwich and West Ham star Dean
Ashton holds a special place in his heart.
Read on for Jacob's tribute to Deano and tell us your thoughts
in the comments section below.
Crewe's missile: Ashton during the FA Cup match that made his name. Photo courtesy of Action Images
It was the briefest fling, but he was still the one that got
away. When Dean Ashton was called up to Steve McLaren’s first
England squad, it was the culmination of a whirlwind seven months
that saw him become West Ham’s record signing at £7.5m, be an
instant hit at Upton Park and play a huge part in leading the club
to an FA Cup final that they lost in devastating circumstances to
Steven Gerrard FC. Only 22, it seemed inevitable Ashton was on his
way to the top; instead it marked the beginning of the end.
A stray challenge during training from, of all people, Shaun
Wright-Philips was all it took. Ashton returned to West Ham from
England duty with an ankle injury that would keep him out for the
entire 2006-07 season, and although he returned the following year,
he was never the same and was eventually forced to retire at the
age of 26 in December 2009, making him one of English football’s
great ‘what ifs?’.
How good could he have been? It is an inexact science, of
course, but at the time he was equipped with all the necessary
tools to become one of the very best strikers in Europe. Though he
never played for a big club, he had a brilliant record in the lower
leagues for Crewe
(Ashton features in our Best No9s for the Alex) and continued
that form in the Premier League with Norwich and West Ham. He was
not blessed with blistering pace but he was a powerful runner, he
could link play and he could score with either foot. Above all, he
was clever. Many saw him as a cross between Alan Shearer and Teddy
Sheringham. In the FA Cup final against Liverpool, he both bullied
and outwitted Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia, two defenders who
had won the Champions League the year before.
Ashton first came to my attention during a televised FA Cup game
between Crewe and Rotherham in January 2002. The BBC Match Of The
Day team's pre-match coverage focused on Crewe and their conveyor
belt of talent, famous for producing the likes of Danny Murphy and
David Platt. The talk now was that they'd nurtured another star:
Ashton. With my interest piqued, I watched Crewe win the game 4-2;
Ashton scored twice, one a fierce effort into the corner from 25
There were ugly goals and there were beautiful goals. I
travelled up to Eastlands to see him score twice as West Ham beat
Manchester City 2-1; the second was a simple tap-in but the first
was breathtaking: a wonderful backheel to bewitch Sylvain Distin
before he rammed a shot past David James. A year earlier Ashton,
playing for Norwich, had embarrassed James with an absurd lob from
a ridiculous angle.
Perhaps he saved his best for the Manchester clubs. In 2005
there was a fine header to help Norwich beat United; in 2008 I was
lucky enough to witness a superb overhead kick for West Ham at Old
Trafford that drew applause from the home fans. The only thing was,
he injured himself when he landed and had to go off. It summed up a
career that so cruelly never got off the ground.
For more in our Best No9s series, read Michael Cox's ode to
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and check out our definitive list of
the best (and worst!) strikers from the Football League in the
sidebar on the right.
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