Wanted: another pearl from Dean

Which striker will strike hottest?: Norwich can win by a whisker thanks to the signing worth his weight in goals
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In his black training shirt with "D A" initials and No 36 writ large, Dean Ashton cut an impressively bulky figure at Norwich City's training ground on Friday. Menacing, too, if you took into account the sort of stubble usually cultivated by boxers in advance of a big fight. So, then, is Dean planning to put the wind up Fulham by the aggressive condition of his whiskers in readiness for this afternoon's game at Craven Cottage which, if Norwich win, guarantees their survival in the Premiership?

In his black training shirt with "D A" initials and No 36 writ large, Dean Ashton cut an impressively bulky figure at Norwich City's training ground on Friday. Menacing, too, if you took into account the sort of stubble usually cultivated by boxers in advance of a big fight. So, then, is Dean planning to put the wind up Fulham by the aggressive condition of his whiskers in readiness for this afternoon's game at Craven Cottage which, if Norwich win, guarantees their survival in the Premiership?

"No, not really," smiled the 21-year-old. "I just couldn't be bothered to shave." As long as he bothers to score today, Norwich will be content. More, they will be overjoyed, which is a fair description of the club's reaction ever since paying £3m to Crewe Alexandra for him in January.

If they cling on to top-flight status, that record splash by Norwich will become a piffling outlay. The chance of salvation on the last day of the season was set up by Ashton's coolly dispatched penalty match-winner against Birmingham City last weekend, a goal alone worth the millions paid for him if his club can dodge the drop.

That spot-kick was Ashton's seventh goal for Norwich in 15 games since leaving Crewe, where he was born and had spent all his playing life. To average a goal every other game is something to which every other Premiership striker, with the possible exception of Thierry Henry, aspires, and to arrive at Carrow Road having already plundered 19 goals for Crewe in half a season was indication enough that the young man is a special talent. The wonder is that other leading clubs were not tempted into the investment during the January transfer window.

In fact, Norwich's fellow strugglers Crystal Palace made a late bid but, Ashton points out: "It was very late on when I knew about Palace, and by then I had already seen Norwich and knew I wanted to sign for them. So it was not a case of rejecting Palace, just a case of joining the club I wanted to play for."

Norwich's manager, Nigel Worthington, staked his reputation that someone who was scoring prolifically in the Championship would carry on doing the same thing at a much more difficult level, and while accepting that paying so much for a striker untested in the Premiership was something of a gamble, the club's board backed their manager.

Ashton, who had been under the eye of Crewe's wise old boss, Dario Gradi, from the age of 12, was achieving the perfect career curve in his four-and-half years in the first team there, scoring more goals every season. Unsurprisingly, Crewe fell apart after Ashton's departure. "Probably just a dip in confidence," was Ashton's modest explanation, though he did offer the opinion that "if any team loses one of their strikers it's going to be hard. But to go 20 games without a win, as Crewe did, and then to escape relegation on the last day of the Championship season last week, when it mattered, shows good character. Hopefully we can do the same on Sunday."

The Norwich supporters, in excess of 7,000, who will help to cram the Cottage and its environs this afternoon hope so too. Norwich's recent surge in form, based on Ashton's goals, has left them in pole position among the four clubs who must fill the three relegation places. All we need to do, they tell you in the city, is win at Fulham and we're safe. Quite so, except that winning away from home has so far eluded Norwich this season, so there could be no better time to terminate that bleak sequence.

Joining a struggling club was a conscious decision for Ashton. "I knew all about that when I was going to sign, but I wanted to make sure I got the right club for me and my future, and I feel I have done that. I didn't take long to make my mind up, either. I slept on it, woke up the next morning and knew I wanted to sign.

"I found the first five games difficult, although I expected that. There is the difference in pace, also the people you are playing against, they are world-class footballers, so scoring against them was obviously going to be very tough. Settling into the team, getting used to the style of play, was the main thing. And I'm grateful to the staff and the other players for helping me do that."

Ashton's unassuming attitude has aided the settling process. "Dean is a lovely young man who goes about his business quietly and effectively," said Worthington. "He is really enjoying himself, and for a manager to say that is good news. He had been with Crewe and Dario all his career, and hadn't ever been away from home. So all the things about moving - new area, new manager, new team-mates - weren't easy, but he has been absolutely magnificent. Once he got his first goal he was off and running."

Ashton claims that, although the possibility of relegation was clear, it did not influence his decision about signing for Norwich. "If we do go down, then we will come straight back," was his forecast. "And I have committed my future to the club. I signed a three-and-a-half-year contract, so as far as I am concerned I will be trying to improve as a footballer here."

Ashton's strike partner, Leon McKenzie, sauntered past and unleashed a bellow: "McKenzie, Ashton, Sunday, yeah." It was indication of Norwich's confidence that such banter was possible 48 hours before the season's most crucial match.

"Nothing has changed," Ashton confirmed. "We are trying to keep the same vibes because we have done well in recent weeks. It's just a question of one last push against Fulham."

When Ashton adds that he hopes to play a big part in that push you know what Worthington means about the big, unshaven man wearing the 36 shirt going about his business quietly and effectively.

Ashton's rivals

Simon Turnbull

Kevin Phillips (Southampton)

Kevin Phillips has been this way before. On the final day of the 2001-02 season he lined up in a red-and-white shirt for a home team facing relegation from the Premiership. On that occasion, he scored the goal that kept Sunderland in the top flight for another 12 months. Three years on, the player who was once rejected as a youth-team right-back at Southampton could be a saviour for the Saints against Manchester United at St Mary's. He might not be the razor-sharp predator he was five years ago, when he plundered 30 goals in his first Premiership season with Sunderland, but at 31 Phillips still has an eye for goal, both as a scorer and as a creator. He scored a vital point-saver at Bolton last month and teed up Danny Higginbotham's last-gap equaliser against Crystal Palace last weekend.

Andy Johnson (Crystal Palace)

If the Crystal Palace contingent are feeling glad all over when the final whistle sounds at The Valley today, the chances are that Andy Johnson will have had something to do with it. The true revelation of the season has scored 20 of Palace's 39 goals in the top flight and, having failed to hit the target in his past two matches, he is due a strike - a crucial one - against Charlton. He is due a strike from open play, too, having scored just one since January. Half of Johnson's Premiership goals have come from penalties, and he has been accused of deliberately playing for spot-kicks - a claim strenuously refuted by Iain Dowie. "He's the most honest professional you'll ever see," the Palace manager says of a player he helped transform from a make-weight in Clinton Morrison's transfer to Birmingham into an England international.

Robert Earnshaw (West Bromwich)

His mother, Rita, was a boxer in her native Zambia, and the penalty he struck past Roy Carroll at Old Trafford has left Robert Earnshaw with a fighting chance of staying in the Premiership with West Bromwich next season. It was the 14th goal of the season by the featherweight forward who has had to scrap for a place in Bryan Robson's starting plans. Despite having been Albion's third-choice striker for much of 2005, behind Kevin Campbell and Geoff Horsfield, Earnshaw has continued to be their No 1 goalscorer. Zoltan Gera is No 2, with six goals, followed by Campbell, Kanu and Neil Clement with three. A decisive one against Portsmouth - plus a favourable combination of results - and Earnshaw will have repaid the £3m fee.

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