It has this morning been confirmed that the West Ham United striker Dean Ashton has had his career ended by an ankle injury at the age of just twenty-six years old. It’s difficult to imagine the emotions that he must be going through at the moment, and those of us that live the dream of football vicariously would be well served to take a moment and consider the extent to which this much be hurting him at the moment.
Football, you will probably need little reminding, is simply not like other professions. You can’t study or work to become a better player unless the basic blocks are already in place. It is a lucky and select few that manage to nail the right combination of dedication, natural ability and, yes, that little bit of luck and make the grade. Dean Ashton, from an almost incomprehensibly young age, will have been imbued with the belief, the chink of light, that this didn’t necessarily simply have to remain a dream.
Somehow, he made it through every level. When others failed to make the grade as schoolboys, he was still in the race. He made it through the punishing youth system, a system that discards a hefty proportion of its young players without them getting anywhere near so much as a professional contract. He made it up, through the ranks and into the rarified air of the Premier League. To have it snatched away at such a young age and with the world at his feet seems to be one of the cruellest tricks of all.
At least, though, he can say that he made it. He was good enough. He was possibly the man of the match in the 2006 FA Cup Final between West Ham United, showing potential as a twenty-two year old that could easily have led to him becoming a regular in the England team. His career may be over, but he made it. He did it – and no-one can ever take that away from him. The fact that he was unable to see it through for what one might have expected to be the full duration of a professional player’s career is one thing. The fact that he was good enough to be there in the first place is something else altogether.
One would hope that he has sufficient insurance in place and that he earned enough during the time that he was playing to be able to cope with a life after football. We also hope that West Ham United will cast aside one of the more ignoble traditions in football and offer him all of the support that he needs and more, should any be required. The silver lining is that, should he wish to, he has plenty of time to learn how to coach. With a ten year head start on everybody else, you never know. As one door closes, another might just open for him.