What do you think of when someone says ‘Dean Ashton’? Despite only playing for the Hammers for three years, there are countless memories that spring to mind. Th at lucky rebound in Cardiff over 10 years ago before the heartbreak. Th e overhead kick against Manchester United, or even the one more recently at Mark Noble’s testimonial. Personally, it was the way he used the inside of his right foot to outfox Sylvain Distin and then fire in with his left at the near corner. Skill and a rocket of a strike. Ashton, through and through.
Of course, if your treasured memory is that goal in Cardiff , then you’ll also remember it as one of the last great Ashton moments before the summer of 2006. A call-up to the England squad was not the start of an exciting new journey but the introduction to months and years of pain, false hopes and ultimately resignation. If Ashton’s career post that FA Cup final is one of ups and downs, so too is West Ham’s. Was Ashton’s bad luck also West Ham’s ultimate moment of disaster this millennium?
From six goals in 16 games in his first few months, Ashton missed the next full season, before completing the 2007-2008 season with 11 goals in 31 games. And then the injury hit once more, and five games and two goals in the 2008-2009 season, Ashton was gone.
A career cut short that never fulfilled its potential in the nation’s highest league. 56 games and 19 goals, but it could have been so much more. At 33, Ashton could easily still be a starting striker in the team today.
Over the course of spells at Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City and the Hammers, Ashton managed a goal every 2.6 games. That’s a tremendous feat given that most of his games at West Ham were under the shadow of a niggling ankle injury to which he would eventually succumb. Andy Carroll has played a similar number of games to Ashton in his whole career, and he scores a goal every 3.6 games.
If Carroll is in someways similar to Ashton – a formidable striker who we are often reliant upon, and yet who is injury prone – then both strikers bookend a period in West Ham’s recent history when good strikers have been hard to find. Or when they have been found – like with Diafra Sakho – they spend more time off the pitch than on it.
Ashton, one can argue, started the curse of the striker for the Hammers. He was meant to be the saviour after Di Canio. When Ashton first got injured, our form dipped, Pardew was sacked and we survived on the last day of the season. Once he left after the 2008-2009 season, we struggled under Zola and then Grant, and it’s been a yo-yo journey ever since.
While Sam Allardyce brought us back up from the depths of Grant’s relegation, he always struggled with strikers: a master of the clean sheet rather than the goalfest. Ricardo Vaz Te never cut it in the Premier League and Carlton Cole was more cult than killer. It is perhaps too much of a stretch to say Ashton’s premature end was the root cause of our lack of potency in front of goals in recent years and our fall and rise between the two leagues.
But Ashton is symbolic of that 2006 FA Cup Final team and the hope that greeted the end of that season – despite the heartbreak. A first season back from relegation and a top 10 finish and FA Cup final to boot. Ever since then, there have been near misses in cups, failed Europa League campaigns, and relegation worries at times. Oh how we could have done with the attacking prowess of Ashton over the last decade.