When West Ham United signed Dean Ashton in January a final concession wrung out of them by Norwich City - who had stubbornly rejected three previous offers - was an extra £250,000 on top of the astonishing £7 million transfer fee. Of that, £125,000 would be paid if West Ham qualified for Europe, with the other £125,000 when Ashton played a competitive match for England. No one thought that both bonuses could be due inside six months.
West Ham are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and, because one of either Chelsea or Liverpool will be in the final, are also just one victory away from qualifying for the Uefa Cup. Ashton has scored five goals in six starts and made a seamless transition into Alan Pardew's vibrant young team. Whispers that he is worthy of a place in Sven Goran Eriksson's squad have now become an open debate.
It is highly unlikely to happen, even if Dario Gradi, the manager of Crewe Alexandra, the club who spotted Ashton at 12 and nurtured his development over the next nine years, believes the 22-year-old is a better player than Peter Crouch, who will be in Germany. Indeed it is only a matter of time before Ashton usurps the Liverpool striker, Gradi feels.
"If you are talking about people like Crouch and [Emile] Heskey then I think he's probably the most talented of that type of English player that we have," Gradi says of Ashton. "I think he's got more natural ability than Crouch - although having said that, Crouch is those inches taller and that gives a type of advantage. I'm sure England will take Crouch, because he gives them an alternative."
It could be that both are included, especially if Eriksson is toying with the idea of a fifth striker and with renewed concerns about Owen's recovery progress. "But he [Ashton] will have a super chance after the World Cup when the new manager comes in and builds his own team," Gradi maintains. "I think the present manager has pretty much made his mind up and I wouldn't have thought he's going to bring in an outsider at this stage."
Gradi is probably right. But a late inclusion has happened before - with Michael Owen in 1998, Paul Gascoigne eight years earlier and, with the greatest resonance for West Ham supporters, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters in 1966, although all had played for their country previously. It has also happened with another player closely associated with Gradi - David Platt, again at Italia 90. "I remember people asked me if he would get in and I said he wouldn't play unless Bryan Robson got injured," Gradi recalls. "He did, and David scored that goal against Belgium and took it from there. So you never know."
Ashton himself is acutely aware of the possibilities, and has talked about his dream of gatecrashing the World Cup, but he also remains decidedly grounded. It's something that Gradi detected from an early age. "He's a laid-back boy," he says. "But he has that inner desire. He was always the first here in the morning and the last away at night. He wants to succeed."
That desire is there not least in Ashton's constant reminder to himself that he needs to progress. He talks about being quicker, stronger. "I don't feel I've shown everything that I've got," the striker says. "I feel that I can improve immensely. I feel that in every single game I have to go out and prove that I am good enough to do it consistently."
Ashton is not only acutely aware of the prices paid for him - £3m by Norwich last year, plus West Ham's fee - but also of the comparisons with Hurst at Upton Park. There are similarities and more so than with, for example, Teddy Sheringham. Hurst, like Ashton, was strong with a sound technique and also worked hard for his team, providing the focal point of the attack. "Sadly he was a little bit before my time," Ashton says when asked about his predecessor. "But I've seen clips of his game and if I can emulate him in any way then that would be fantastic, because he is a legend for what he did for West Ham and England."
Given he is in his early 20s, there are more contemporary role-models. "As I was growing up Gary Lineker was playing for England and scoring fantastic goals in the World Cup," Ashton says. "I did watch him, and even though he didn't score the spectacular goals he was always there. It doesn't matter whether you are scoring from 25 yards or five yards, it's still the same result.
"And then obviously Alan Shearer. From then on I studied him quite a lot and tried to take as much as I could from him." Ashton says he wants to match his "level of commitment and aggression and his will to win".
Gradi would concur. He speaks of Ashton's eye for goal and ability to hit the target and uses two of his strikes - one for Crewe against Wigan and a recent goal for West Ham against Blackburn - to help tutor his young attackers now.
"He looked the best he had ever looked when he came and played against us," Gradi says, recalling Crewe's loss to Norwich in December. "His movement was excellent. We had two people marking him but we couldn't stop him getting the ball. It was after that game that I thought he'd made the progress we all hoped he would make."
Gradi did well to hold on to him for so long. Premiership clubs, including Arsenal, came calling when Ashton was 16, but Crewe resisted. "I wasn't sure whether he could make that next step up," says Gradi, citing concerns over "growing pains" and because Ashton was always a "very big lad".
Plus, if he was to succeed, Crewe wanted some of the on-field benefits first. They were not disappointed. In 2003-04 he became the first player in Crewe's history to reach the 20-goal milestone in English football's second flight, and many believe it was his departure that led eventually to his former club losing that status this season. Not that Gradi has any regrets. "It's his ability and I certainly wouldn't try and claim that we made him what he is, that's not true," he says. "He is what he is largely because of himself."
Ashton, an England Under-21 international, now has 97 goals in 230 games. The final two of those came against Manchester City in last Monday's FA Cup quarter-final. Eriksson was at Eastlands. Whether the Swede was sufficiently impressed to make a bold addition to his summer plans remains to be seen, but what is inevitable is that one day soon West Ham will have to pay Norwich that extra £250,000.
PEARLS OF DEAN: DARIO GRADI GIVES A COACH'S VIEW OF THE STRIKER HE DISCOVERED
Dean Ashton is an out-and-out target man who scores goals. He is very nimble and rarely looks clumsy. An intelligent player, he always thinks about what he's doing and can sniff out the target.
He's a big, strong lad. Perhaps he doesn't use his strength as much as he could, but that's because he's a footballer, a ball-player, and not trying to outmuscle people. But he has a presence.
He is perhaps not quite as quick as he was as a youngster, but he's fast enough. I don't agree with those who say he's slow. He's not going to leave people for dead with his pace but he's OK.
Dean's touch is very good, especially for a player of his type, a big man. He perhaps doesn't win as many flick-ons as you would like but he links play well and he's always involved in the action.
Dean's got a natural talent to hit the target. When he shoots, you always think he's going to score. He's very accurate and very good at finding the corners - and he can play off both feet.
TOUCH AND GO: FOUR OTHER FORWARDS ON THE ENGLAND FRINGE
JERMAIN DEFOE (SPURS)
Consigned to the bench, having scored eight times, starting only half their games, and in danger of being left out by England. A natural goalscorer, if not always a team player, the 23-year-old doesn't appear to have recovered from being left out by Sven Goran Eriksson against Wales last September.
DARREN BENT (CHARLTON)
Arguably the most consistent striker this season since his £3m move from Ipswich Town. He has earned praise from Thierry Henry for the cleverness of his runs and scored 19 goals along the way, converting at least one of every four chances he gets. Just 22, he has all the attributes to succeed.
ANDY JOHNSON (C PALACE)
Burst on Premiership scene last season with 22 goals despite Palace's relegation. Made England debut against Holland but was used on right wing. Lightning quick, clever runner and cool finisher, but injuries have blighted his season. Not at his explosive best, 25-year-old may have slipped out of reckoning.
JAMES BEATTIE (EVERTON)
Has hit a rich vein of form, with 11 goals, finally showing why Everton paid £6m. Has power, pace, and confidence to try the spectacular, but hampered by failure to impress for England the last time he was playing so well when at Southampton. Needs to stay 100 per cent fit.Reuse content