Ashton vows to grab golden chance

The £7m striker thought his career could be over at 24 – now he's desperate to make an impact for club and country
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The Independent Football

A dank evening, on the eve of England's débâcle at Wembley, in an unprepossessing location adjacent to an A13 flyover in East London's Beckton, would-be England striker Dean Ashton is an inspirational presence among the youngsters of one of the country's disadvantaged areas. He appears at Newham's Kickz project which provides football sessions, delivered by West Ham United in the Community, but perhaps more crucially offers workshops next to the pitch on subjects including the perils of carrying knives.

Also under the scheme, a police armed response unit visits to discuss weapons and gun crime. The evidence is that the project has corresponded with a reduction of crime and anti-social behaviour in the area. Ashton's participation is welcome evidence that elite professional football isn't merely synonymous with "Baby" Bentleys, as West Ham manager Alan Curbishley refers to some players' preferred mode of transport, and neo-Georgian mansions.

It would be tempting to suggest it was the kind of occasion when the millionaire footballer gained something himself. A heightened sense of perspective about his own existence, perhaps, which has enabled him to place his own injury setbacks in the past year in proportion. Yet, what swiftly becomes apparent is that, for all the frustrations of the past 14 months, the striker has emerged a more complete individual for the experience.

The evening after we spoke, Peter Crouch would be toiling tirelessly and substitutes Jermaine Defoe and Darren Bent would make their own contributions, fruitlessly as it transpired, at Wembley, but it was easy to speculate about what a fit and voracious Ashton would have made of what was, in truth, a vulnerable Croatia rearguard. Before the start of England's failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, with Michael Owen injured, the forward had been the man venerated by many as potentially England's most potent striking weapon; a man to complement Wayne Rooney.

There ensued that fractured ankle in an England training session, which required many months of repair work, and two operations. And just when he was back playing for his club and had been called up for the squad to face Estonia and Russia, he was deflated by a further injury; a medial ligament tear.

Ashton admits he descended to such a nadir during his lengthy recuperation from that ankle break that he believed his entire career was in jeopardy, at the age of only 24.

"I [thought] that at one point before I had my second operation. I'd done so much work and it didn't seem to have got any better. At that point, in my head, I was thinking perhaps I'd be struggling [to come back], but the physio I was working with knew that I would be all right, although it may take a long time, and that kept me going."

That physiotherapist was John Green, the same man who has been instrumental in Owen's comeback from injury. "He did everything. I was with John for a good five months, every single day, working extremely hard. Without doubt, if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be back this soon," insists Ashton.

The whole experience had, he emphasises, not only instilled patience in him, but a mental toughness. "To go through the stage where you think you may struggle to get back playing... that thought is a horrible one," reflects the former Crewe and Norwich player.

"With the pain you have to go through, you get to see things through a different perspective. It just makes you realise what you can achieve. It takes some real hard work, and mentally you just think that, if you can get back over the hurdle of recovering from serious injury, you have the freedom to really express yourself and not particularly worry about the things that might have troubled you before."

In the interim he has become a father, his fiancée Gemma giving birth to their son Ethan, and now he is set to return, again, to club football. He hopes to play some part in the home fixture with West Ham's most avowed rivals, Tottenham. And none too soon, Hammers' followers could be forgiven for thinking.

So far, despite a goal haul including one in the 2006 FA Cup Final, have they been somewhat short-changed by the club's £7m investment? "Yeah, it does feel a bit strange," he agrees. "In one sense, I feel like I've been here a hell of a long time.

"Yet I haven't actually played that many games. So, I feel like I'm still starting and I've yet to show perhaps the form I had when I was with Crewe and Norwich. Obviously it's important to me that I start to get regular games, play consistently, and really show why they paid all that money for me."

Not to mention impress the new England coach? He nods and smiles ruefully. "Especially in the striking department, there's a lot of players who want to be involved. It's going to be a tough test to get into the squad because you've got players like Owen and Rooney, who you know are going to get in. For the rest of us, it's very difficult."

On Wednesday's evidence, one would not be too sure of that. The opportunity appears to be heaven sent for a player of his attributes to prosper as England rebuild. After the disappointments of the last few months, no one deserves his chance more.

Watch West Ham United host Tottenham today on Sky Sports 1, kick-off 1.30pm