David di Michele is someone whose contribution to West Ham history in his one season on loan from Torino is fairly limited.
But without realising it nine years ago, he was integral to one of the club’s biggest turning points in the last decade. Indirectly, he ended the career of Dean Ashton.
‘Alan Curbishley had just resigned and interim manager Kevin Keen had one game in charge, away at West Brom before Gianfranco Zola took over,’ Ashton told Blowing Bubbles in an exclusive interview. ‘Early on in the game, I went off with a silly little injury, a cut ear, and it needed stitching up. By the time it was done, someone told me that di Michele had already been put on in my place.
‘I suppose as interim manager, Kevin was so eager to do a good job he panicked a bit and didn’t want to leave the team a man down for too long. That was it, the death of my career. Subbed without even knowing.’
The following week, in Zola’s first coaching session, the ankle problem that overshadowed Ashton’s career landed its killer blow, and potentially one of the greatest strikers West Ham have ever had never played again.
Now aged 33, Ashton never got a chance to even come close to fulfilling his potential, but in his short West Ham career, he still managed to fit in an FA Cup final, earning an England place – and then years later, returning for the dream finale. But the sense of ‘what could have been’ still lingers, for player and fans alike.
His low-key exit was in stark contrast to his £7.25m signing from Norwich, although his new manager Alan Pardew’s comment that the club had paid over the odds for him was a strange kind of welcome.
‘I thought that was actually a really positive thing for him to say, because it was a real vote of confidence – he was saying “that’s how far I’m willing to go to get this player”,’ said Ashton.
‘As soon as I met him to discuss the transfer, straight away he was so positive about what he wanted to do at the club and how I would fit in, he made me feel amazing, like I was already there, and that’s exactly what a player wants to hear. It certainly helped me hit the ground running and fit in.
‘Stuart Pearce was supposedly interested in taking me to Manchester City, and there was talk of some interest from Newcastle, but you never know if there’s any real substance to it.
‘West Ham were the ones who put their money where their mouth was, though, and I was desperate to get back to the top flight, so that was good enough for me.’
Pardew’s faith was soon rewarded, Ashton scored on his first start in a 2-0 win over Sunderland, and soon he was a key figure in one of the most exciting squads the club had seen in years, with the likes of Nigel Reo Coker, Matty Etherington, Yossi Benayoun and Teddy Sheringham.
‘The dressing room had a strong British core, so it was easy to integrate myself,’ he said. ‘They’d been promoted the season before and made a great start to life back in the Premier League.
‘There was a great buzz there already and they made me feel really comfortable straight away even though I was taking someone’s place. That can be a bit difficult but I was lucky enough to get that early goal and settled in very quickly.’
Five months after joining the Irons, Ashton found himself playing – and scoring – in an FA Cup final, putting West Ham 2-0 up against Liverpool after less than half an hour.
It seemed like life could hardly get any better for the striker. And sadly for Ashton, that is exactly what happened.
‘I came off with 19 minutes left, with Bobby Zamora coming on in my place, so I saw the final stages from the touchline, and when the announcer announced how much additional time there would be, I remember zipping up my top and thinking that was it, it was all over, we’d won 3-2,’ he said.
‘But within 10 seconds the ball went to Steven Gerrard and he scored that goal. It was one of the best I’d ever seen, and it was a hugely deflating feeling, slumping back in my seat and knowing that it was all still to do. It was a crushing blow.’ As all Irons know, a penalty shootout at the end of one of the most dramatic Cup finals in living memory saw Ashton and his team-mates miss out on winner’s medals.
But come the summer, his eye-catching performances for West Ham earned him a call-up from new England coach Steve McClaren for the start of the post 2006 World Cup era.
McClaren called his squad ‘a new beginning, a new era’ – but for Ashton, it was anything but that.
The day before the game against Greece, in training he was on the receiving end of a Shaun Wright-Phillips challenge and broke his ankle. He would never be the same player again.
‘It had been such an amazing year, it was almost like things were going too well,’ he said. ‘I’d got back to the Premier League, played in the Cup final, had a great pre-season, been called up by England, I was ready to make my debut most likely the next day and then that happened.
‘I knew it was broken straight away, I heard it, but I was told I’d be out for three or four months, so I thought I’d be back after Christmas, have a decent second half to the season and carry on as normal. There was no way of knowing it was the beginning of the end.
‘It wasn’t the challenge itself that did the damage but the pure bad luck of how and where the break happened.
‘I didn’t need any tendon operations or anything, but it was as if I rolled my ankle at the same time, which made it far more complicated in the long term. Plenty of people have broken their ankle in the same way and made a proper recovery. I didn’t.’
If Ashton thought his first season at West Ham was eventful, it was as nothing as to what was to follow.
Stranded on the sidelines, he could only watch as the club went through one of the most dramatic periods in its history, with a short-lived European campaign, new owners, a change of management and the minor details of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano all happening before the season was even half done.
Whilst the West Ham soap opera took a new turn seemingly every day, holding the attention of fans everywhere, Ashton was left to get on with his recovery – and it did not go as planned.
‘I knew I’d be out for a few months, and obviously that was a huge disappointment, but I thought I’d get through it and come back stronger than ever, but when after six or seven months I had to go in for another operation, it was clear that that just wasn’t going to happen. It was infuriating.’
Meanwhile, on the pitch, things could hardly have been more dramatic, with the now legendary Great Escape finally coming off on the final day of the season.
But whilst Tevez became the new hero, the previous season’s talisman was stuck on the couch at home, watching, and feeling detached from it all.
‘There was never any chance I could have played a role in the Great Escape, it just wasn’t happening,’ Ashton explained.
‘Once I knew I needed a second operation, that ruled me out completely, so there was no way on earth I could do anything.
‘I’d taken myself off into my own little bubble, away from the club, so I was quite isolated from it all, but that didn’t make it any less torturous having to watch and knowing I was powerless to help.’
Almost exactly a year to the day from the incident that would change his career, finally Ashton made his return for West Ham at the start of the 2007-08 season, and whilst fans were relieved to see him back in action, for the player himself, the emotions were far more complex.
‘Mentally, recovering from an injury like that is incredibly hard,’ he said. ‘After being in rehab for so long it scares the living daylights out of you going back to work and hoping that everything will be alright.
‘It takes a long time to get your head right. I think Daniel Sturridge is a great example of that at the moment – he’s had so many setbacks you can tell he’s not 100 per cent confident.’
After so much torment and suffering, finally it seemed that fate was doing Ashton a favour, as that season he was an Irons first team regular – and equally importantly, a regular on the scoresheet, including one famous overhead kick at Old Trafford. At the season’s end, finally he got his reward. An England cap against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain.
It was to be his only England appearance, but after all he had been through, it was a priceless moment.
‘People watching might not appreciate how much that injury experience changed me as a player, so to finally get the chance to play for England was amazing,’ he said.
‘Having been so close only to see it snatched away, to think you might not get that chance again and then finally achieve it, made a lifetime’s dream become an even more proud event.’
With a full, productive season under his belt, the elusive England cap finally his and a new long-term contract signed, it looked like Ashton had finally managed to put his past troubles behind him. But what should have been the start of a new era for his career turned out to be its last hurrah.
‘I started the next season really well, and I scored two against Wigan, but when I was jogging back up field after defending a corner, I could feel something a bit funny in the ankle – not a major cause for concern, but something was up, definitely,’ he said.
‘Over the next four or five games it started to get worse. What it turned out to be was that I had a piece of floating bone in the joint, and every time it got close to it, I could feel something.
‘By pure coincidence, in Gianfranco Zola’s first training session after taking over as manager, the bone fragment got stuck in the joint – and that was it, the beginning of the end.’
Having been through the experience once already made Ashton a realist, and he soon understood the seriousness of the situation.
‘The signs were there – knowing I had to go back into have another operation to have that bit of bone removed gave me the gist that even if I did get back playing again, I wasn’t going to have as long a career as I’d hoped, but I tried absolutely everything to give myself the best chance to get back even if for just half a season,’ he said. ‘But eventually it was physically impossible. There wasn’t one moment; you come to terms with it over a period of time. The club knew I was done months before I went public because they could see how bad it was. Towards the end I could barely walk. There was no way I could possibly be a footballer.’
On December 11 2009, after just 46 league appearances and 15 goals in nearly four years at West Ham, aged 26, Dean Ashton retired from professional football. Even though it was succumbing to the inevitable, it did not make the experience any the less painful.
‘My response was to hide myself away. Rightly or wrongly, I didn’t speak to anyone from the club, I took down everything on the wall that even reminded me I’d ever been a footballer, and I didn’t watch a match for over a year.
‘I forgot about being a footballer altogether and concentrated on family time instead. That was my coping mechanism and in fact I think it did me some good, putting me in the place that I am now.’
The passing of time has done little to ease his pain, either.
‘I still hate what happened to me. I look at players I grew up with like Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka and James Milner, who are all still playing, and think ‘why did this have to happen to me?’.
‘That’s life – you can’t help thinking these things, but also you can’t dwell on them, you have to get on with living.’