Ashton would have been a contender

West Ham correspondent Dave Evans looks over Dean Ashton s Hammers career WHEN Dean Ashton arrived at Upton Park it was because of a huge gamble by manager Alan Pardew. West Ham splashed out a then club record fee of �7.25million on the Norwich City stri

West Ham correspondent Dave Evans

looks over Dean Ashton's Hammers career

WHEN Dean Ashton arrived at Upton Park it was because of a huge gamble by manager Alan Pardew.

West Ham splashed out a then club record fee of �7.25million on the Norwich City striker, over two million more than they had spent on Tomas Repka and Don Hutchison, but Pardew was convinced he was the right man.

"I stay strong to my belief that, regardless of the figure we have paid, he is the right player at the right time for West Ham United," he insisted.

How right he was. Ashton had missed the FA Cup third round tie between Norwich and West Ham with a 'diplomatic groin strain', and how vital his availability was to prove as West Ham marched to the final.

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His stunning goal at Manch-ester City in the quarter-final was followed by another in the final against Liverpool, and had he been 100 per cent fit that day, West Ham would surely have lifted the trophy.

Unfortunately, that phrase bec-ame synonymous with Ashton's career at West Ham.

Had he been fit would West Ham have marched to glory in Europe? Joined the big boys of the Premier League? Gone on to win some coveted silverware?

It was not to be. A tackle by Shaun Wright-Phillips on Eng-land training duty just a couple of days before Ashton was due to make his senior international debut, shattered his ankle and began the cruel path towards retirement at 26.

He did return, in fact he played 40 of his 56 games in claret and blue after the injury, but all West Ham supporters could see that he was never quite the same player.

Never the most athletic looking performer, when he did return, it took him an age to get match fit. His warm-ups on the sidelines when selected as a sub, became marathon sessions of wiggling, stretching and bending.

And when he did get on the pitch, that pace with the ball had gone, that power in the air was almost non-existent.

He could still hit the net - top scoring with 11 in 2007-08, but he was not the same, he was no longer the successor to Alan Shearer in the England number nine shirt.

"I have no doubt that Dean will make our team stronger," mused Pardew after his signing.

"He comes into a group of strikers who are already performing at a very high level and we now have a striking team that can fulfil every role needed for success in the Premier League."

That was nearly four years ago. Since then every one of those strikers has fallen by the wayside at Upton Park.

Marlon Harewood, Bobby Zamora and Teddy Sheringham all moved on, never to hit those heady heights again and Pardew himself was dismissed the following season, and is still attempting to resurrect his managerial career.

Ashton is the last of that era of strikers to leave Upton Park although to many he left shortly after his final game against West Brom back in September 2008.

That day he was forced off with a cut ear, two days later, in Gianfranco Zola's first training session, he twisted that infamous ankle and was destined never to return to the fray.

While football fans all over the country debate the merits of the various candidates to play alongside Wayne Rooney at next summer's World Cup, there is one serious point to consider.

Whether your preference is for Emile Heskey, Jermain Defoe or West Ham's very own Carlton Cole, it is clear that the preference of the England coaches was for Ashton.

Steve McClaren was about to give him his debut on his first game in charge before injury denied him.

While Fabio Capello professed his liking for the big number nine when he took charge of the country.

Forget Heskey, Defoe and even Cole, a pre-injury Ashton would have surely been an automatic choice for England at the World Cup Finals, and what better chance would they have had with him in their ranks.

And what about West Ham? Cole has been superb this season, but with Ashton to take some of the pressure off, where would the Hammers be in the table?

Players getting injured is a fact of life, but with someone so gifted it is a real tragedy.

He could have been a contender, but through no fault of his own, he has been denied the chance.