Chris Ashton can barely score a try without annoying someone – in his time as England manager, Martin Johnson struggled to stomach the horizontal high jinks that accompanied his box-office wing's touchdowns – so it was asking a bit much of the Lancastrian to switch clubs in the trouble-free manner generally associated with rugby union's fledgling transfer market. When Ashton's end-of-season move from Northampton to Saracens was confirmed yesterday, you could almost hear the words "good riddance" in the air at Franklin's Gardens. He may be a force of nature, but Ashton is also one of the natural-born-awkward brigade.
Certainly, he is incapable of spinning a yarn that those in full possession of their faculties might believe. Like Paul Gascoigne and Wayne Rooney, supremely gifted footballers with a well-developed talent for making life messier than is strictly necessary, Ashton tends to answer a straight question with a straight answer, even when he is trying to do the opposite. He may have intended to go down the "options open" route when pressed on his move earlier this month, but he ended up admitting that he would be on his way. Standing behind him as he did so was his boss, Northampton's director of rugby, Jim Mallinder. The grin on his face told those who spotted it that he, for one, was losing precious little sleep.
Mallinder (right) played an assured hand throughout this saga, pointing out that Ashton is not the only half-decent finisher at the club and reminding listeners that rugby cannot be played successfully by those who have no desire for the place where they happen to be playing it.
"We're only interested in people who are interested in being here," he said. "It seems to me that his head is elsewhere."
Unfortunately, Ashton is heading for rivals who have worked their way deep under Northampton's skin. It is the equivalent of Rooney leaving Manchester United for Liverpool. Saints fell out with Saracens spectacularly two seasons ago, when Tongan prop Soane Tonga'uiha was talked into taking up residence at Vicarage Road. After a highly entertaining public spat, Tonga'uiha opted to stay put. Bad blood remains, even now.
Yesterday, Ashton took to Twitter – nothing becomes a modern player like the manner of his social networking – to say that it would be "all about Saints" until the end of the season. It might be all about watching Saints from the stand, if Mallinder chooses to hand the No 14 shirt to someone with a future at the club.
Saracens could yet be the making of Ashton. But he is leaving behind the club who made him what he is. The fact that Northampton are not shedding tears suggests he has some way to go in reaching his potential.Reuse content