Before Dean Ashton broke his ankle in an England training session at Old Trafford on 15 August 2006, Steve McClaren had decided that the striker would be starting his first international against Greece the following evening. Then with one challenge the road forked and Ashton was set upon a new path.
In that moment Ashton collided with Shaun Wright-Phillips, so began a long, sad journey of injury and pain that ended last week in retirement. The end of Ashton's career at the age of 26 should remind us that, for all the derision heaped upon the current generation of multimillionaire footballers, their profession can be unspeakably cruel.
What separates Ashton from, for example, Brian Clough who lay on the Roker Park turf with his cruciate ligaments ruptured and his career over at the age of 27 is about £50,000 a week, the value of Ashton's last contract with West Ham. Presuming Ashton has been sensible, his earnings, plus the pay-off from West Ham for the remainder of his contract, should see him right for the rest of his life.
Which makes you wonder why the stories that Ashton may sue Wright-Phillips, the Football Association and Chelsea, Wright-Phillips' club at the time, will not go away. Ashton has not said himself that he intends to follow that path. But should he do so then he will forfeit the sympathy that is due him at the moment.
Professional footballers accept risk as part of their business. No one at the time of the injury, least of all Ashton, ever suggested that Wright-Phillips intended to break his ankle in that training session. The feeling was that this was the kind of collision that takes place hundreds of times in football without incident.
The break of a bone and the tear of a ligament are part of the chaos theory of football, of sport itself. They are as impossible to predict as the shot that hits the post and bounces out or the deflection that beats the goalkeeper. We wish the injuries did not happen but they are a part of the imponderable, unpredictable nature of the game and it is ludicrous to hold players and clubs responsible for football's many random outcomes.
Ultimately it would not be Wright-Phillips whom Ashton would pursue, it would be his insurers, but what a sad statement it would make about the game. It would make clubs even more reluctant to release their players for international duty. But perhaps most depressing it would give more pointless work to this grisly new band of "sport" lawyers.
As usual, the FA is copping some of the flak over the Ashton case, even though he subsequently came back after the injury, and played 35 games for West Ham in the 2007-2008 season, which casts some doubt over the long-term severity of the original break.
The FA's insurance covers the wages of any player injured on England duty while he is unable to play for his club. The FA's premiums will not be cheap, especially when, in recent years, its policy has had to cover, among others, the wages of Michael Owen for his cruciate injury sustained against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup finals and Theo Walcott's shoulder dislocation before the friendly against Germany last year.
The FA policy covers wages up to a maximum of £50,000 a week for two weeks and then £100,000 a week after that for a maximum of two years. The FA had no control over Freddy Shepherd making Owen the highest-paid player in the country then, with a £120,000 a week contract. Owen's boot caught in the turf, his cruciate ruptured and the FA's insurance policy had to pay up accordingly.
Now West Ham want to sue the FA for the value of Ashton, anything between £7.25m, the fee they paid Norwich City for him in January 2006, and the £15m they estimate he was worth in the summer of 2008, when he scored five goals in his last eight league games of the season and made his England debut. It is a preposterous claim.
What happened to Ashton was very sad but it was one of football's chance acts. It might just have easily taken place a week earlier at his club's training ground. West Ham should also remember that if Ashton had been a foreign player injured on international duty the chances are that his salary would not have enjoyed the insurance coverage of an England player.
The English FA insures its players well beyond the minimum requirements that Fifa stipulates for footballers on international duty. Robin van Persie was injured playing for the Netherlands and Arsène Wenger complained yesterday that even the Dutch FA does not have an insurance policy that enables it to cover his wages while he misses games for Arsenal.
Unfortunately, modern English football always requires a villain. In the sad case of Dean Ashton there was no villain, just a victim. Sometimes football, as in life, is just not fair. It does not mean that someone has to pay for it.
Agbonlahor should come ahead of Owen in World Cup shortlist
Those who demand that his Champions League hat-trick means Michael Owen should be in England's World Cup squad can answer the question that Fabio Capello and his assistants ask every time they hear that demand: who do you drop to accommodate him, Wayne Rooney or Jermain Defoe?
By my reckoning Owen is not just behind that pair for the two "smallish and quick" strikers' places in Capello's squad template. Gabriel Agbonlahor surely deserves the place ahead of Owen if Rooney or Defoe get injured between now and May.
Kaboul should wear hair shirt for foolish pursuit of fashion
The stupidity of players who tear off their shirts when they score and consequently get dismissed for a second yellow card never fails to amaze me. Younes Kaboul (below) did it on Saturday after his injury-time equaliser for Portsmouth against Sunderland.
He explained that he was a man who "loves football so much" that he was liable to do anything in a moment of joy. Not because he is a show-off with a memory that barely extends beyond the last 10 minutes of his life. He can contemplate that deep love for football as he watches Portsmouth from the stands against Chelsea on Wednesday.
Don't do it, McClaren
Steve McClaren is top of the Eredivisie with FC Twente and doing such a good job that Bolton are supposed to be considering a move for him if Gary Megson is sacked. I couldn't think of a worse career move for McClaren.Reuse content