by Ben Edwards
Naming your favourite player when you were a kid was easy. Mine was Kenny Dalglish. So much so that (age 7) I insisted my mum call me Kenny and, when she refused, proceeded to write ‘property of Kenny Edwards’ on all my belongings.
There was no objective or rational football reason for my obsession with Kenny Dalglish, he simply played for Liverpool and I liked Liverpool because they played in red. These days (age 30 something) such decisions are far more complicated – I don’t support Liverpool for starters. There are many players that I have enjoyed watching over the years but few that I genuinely admire. All too often the illusion of brilliance on the pitch is shattered by the fact they are a bunch of gormless, rapacious idiots off it.
One footballer that I will always have admiration for however, is Dean Ashton. Not only was he one of the most talented strikers of his generation, he was also thoroughly grounded – he knew how precious his gift was, which makes the fact it was taken away from him all the more poignant. Friday 11th December 2009 – the date he officially retired – was a sad day for anybody who loves football, no matter what colour your stripes.
The 2006 FA Cup final will always be remembered as the ‘Steven Gerrard Final’, but the first half will always belong to Dean Ashton. Despite clearly being unfit, Ashton gave Hyypia and Carragher such a torrid 45 minutes that Carragher felt obliged to score West Ham’s opener himself, while Pepe Reina was so intimidated by Ashton’s towering presence that he could do nothing but spill the ball at Ashton’s feet and let him tap in a second. Had he not been injured, West Ham would have won.
I have no doubt had his career not ended so prematurely he would have played a pivotal role in England’s 2010 World Cup campaign. I recall after England lost to Portugal on penalties in the 2006 World Cup, a pal and I sat around sinking consolatory beers, plotting our best team for 2010. Both of us agreed that it had to be built around Dean Ashton (West Ham bias notwithstanding). What England lacked, we felt, was a big target man who could hold the ball up, drag defenders out of position AND score goals. That would free Rooney up to charge around without getting frustrated, and thus avoid any more testicle-stamping incidents.
What I admired most about Ashton was that he seemed to be three types of player in one. He had the footballing brain of Teddy Sheringham (some might also say the pace – but that’s unfair, Ashton could scamper when he needed to); he had the physical presence of Emile Heskey (with the added bonus that he could actually score goals); and while nowhere near as prolific, there were clearly shades of Alan Shearer in his predatory instincts and the manner in which he could larrup the ball.
Whether Ashton would have stayed at West Ham is debatable – Wenger had already shown interest in his Crewe days and Alex Ferguson was also rumoured to be sniffing around. Yet his future with England was in no doubt. It was a cruel irony, then, that he should sustain the injury that would ultimately force his retirement while away on England duty.
It is devastating for any player to retire because of injury, that it should happen at the age of 26 – just as he was coming into his prime – is nothing short of tragic. We will never know just how good Dean would have become, but there were flashes of genius that suggested he could have been one of the greats. For me, he encapsulated the very essence of what a traditional English No.9 should be – tall and powerful, but with a hint of finesse. It is a lost art these days and for that reason he remains the footballer I admire (and miss) the most.