Ashton Storms back with sights on a better break
By Stuart James
With tears streaming down his cheeks and pain coursing through his broken right ankle, Dean Ashton recalls contemplating his footballing future. Having forced his way into the England set-up for the first time, the West Ham striker was set to make his international debut against Greece the next day until an innocuous challenge with Shaun Wright-Phillips in training changed everything. There was "a big crack" before frenzied emotion took over.
"I was crying uncontrollably once I was off the pitch and into the dressing rooms because I knew it was long-term," said Ashton. "The crying comes from the shock - I couldn't control it at all. Your instant thoughts are: 'I've missed the chance to play for England.' The pinnacle of your career. You know you are going to be out for a long time. 'Am I ever going to play again?' All these things go through your mind at the same time. It wasn't very nice."
Ashton admits there have been frustrating moments when he has thought "I could have had 10 caps", but otherwise his mindset remains positive. "I think there are always places up for grabs in the England squad if you believe it," said the striker, who will lead West Ham's attack at Arsenal today. "I believe I can be as good as any striker that is in the England squad and, therefore, I feel that I am good enough to play well enough to eventually deserve a place."
His current run of form puts him ahead of Peter Crouch, Jermain Defoe and Darren Bent, who all seem to spend more time on the substitutes' bench than the pitch these days, while Andrew Johnson's goal drought, together with injuries to Michael Owen and Emile Heskey, have pushed wide open a door that was slightly ajar. That certainly did not appear to be the case when Ashton watched England, and Heskey in particular, impress against Israel and Russia.
"It's difficult because [Heskey] doing well perhaps makes it seem like a player like me could be used in the squad but, at the same time, I don't think you would be human if you thought, 'Oh fantastic, he's doing brilliantly, there goes my chance'. But it doesn't really matter how [Heskey] does, it's down to me. I feel I've got different attributes but he's earned the right to be in the squad and he's played well when he's been in there so I've got to play better to get above him."
His rehabilitation work should help. Alan Pardew, West Ham's former manager, was talking up Ashton's physical condition before he broke down with England but the former Norwich striker insists he has made huge strides since then under the influence of John Green, the physiotherapist who has worked closely with Owen. Indeed Ashton is so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from Green that he describes his injury as "a blessing" at one point.
"When Alan Pardew said about me being a 'meaner machine', that was me doing my own regime in the summer and coming back losing a bit of weight," he explained. "Whereas this time someone has been telling me what they think is best for me. I feel like I am a hell of a lot stronger but quicker at the same time, so I feel like I have really made the best use of my physique. I like to think that I now try to transfer the power that I've got into speed as well.
"It's about how you use weight to your advantage. An example is people looked at [the rugby union player] Jonah Lomu and you wouldn't have said, 'God, he's fat'. He was absolutely rapid but he's a huge guy and that's what I like to look at. People have said about me, 'Perhaps he's a bit too heavy or too slow'. But I think if they actually took the time out and came and watched me, face to face, they would realise that I'm not actually fat and I'm not that slow."
He is also not tired, which is a little surprising given that Ethan, Ashton's first child, was born at the end of last month. Ashton claims being a dad is "the best feeling in the world", a phrase that many West Ham fans are likely to have applied to securing their Premier League place on the final day of last season. The campaign was a testing time for everyone at Upton Park, Ashton's patience stretched more than most as he watched, helpless, from the sidelines.
"Obviously you don't want to see your team-mates struggling and getting caned in the press but, at the same time, there was nothing I could do except encourage. Being injured is hard enough but the thought of your team getting relegated after I had worked so hard to get out of that league was difficult. I was really made up for everybody that we stayed in the Premier League. Not only was it fantastic for the club but they did me a favour at the same time."
Ashton admits Euro 2008 is something "I'd love to be part of" although for the moment his mind is focused on the Emirates Stadium, where he believes West Ham can be "more than a match" for Arsenal. Another good performance and the memory of watching the England's game against Greece from his hospital bed might be forgotten. "It was one of those nights when there were plenty of chances and I just remember thinking, 'I wish I was playing'." He surely will be soon.