It was the news that every professional sportsman dreads. After months of frustrated rehabilitation and failed comebacks, 26-year-old Dean Ashton was informed that he would never be able to play football again. At a clinic in Amsterdam, Dutch surgeon Niek van Dijk -- the man who had enforced the retirement of Netherlands and AC Milan legend Marco van Basten -- explained to Ashton that he risked ending up in a wheelchair if he refused to hang up his boots. His career was over.
Ashton had made a living from the game he loved for nine years, becoming an established Premier League striker with Norwich and West Ham, and an England international. It was while on duty with the Three Lions in 2006 that a training ground clash with Shaun Wright-Phillips left his ankle shattered. Three arduous years later, it was time to call it a day.
"As a player, you refuse to entertain the prospect of retiring. You won't let the thought cross your mind," Ashton told ESPN at an Aviva event ahead of November's Financial Planning Week. "I was thinking, 'I might be able to have injections, there will be a way to keep going'. You think it will go on forever -- that you'll play at the top level no problem until you're 35 and then you'll finish.
"But it came to the point where there was a very real prospect that I might not be able to walk properly again. I wasn't able to walk a golf course, or even go out to the shops -- suddenly I had to think about my quality of life and my kids, not just about football. There are other things, too, though. You are trying to deal with never being able to do the job you love again, alongside all the financial implications. You go from earning a huge amount of money to literally zero. Players tend to live for the moment and don't think about the future, but it's so important to think about the unknown. Suddenly it's all finished and you're left with all of this stuff to sort out."
The problems faced by ex-professionals have been well documented in recent years, with the plight of former England and Arsenal defender Kenny Sansom -- who in August revealed he was homeless -- providing a stark reminder that players are not immune from depression and addiction. Those whose careers end prematurely are at particular risk, the snatching away of a livelihood understandably proving a major emotional challenge for those who suffer such a fate. Some players are never able to let go of their time on the pitch. Paul Gascoigne was psychologically crippled by an inability to separate himself from his football glory days, with his descent into alcoholism another example of the potential pitfalls facing retiring players.
Both West Ham and the Professional Footballers' Association were on hand to offer Ashton support after his retirement. But for the striker, a strong believer in his own mental fortitude, the only way he could cope with the anguish of early retirement was to go cold turkey from football.
"Imagine asking anyone what their favourite thing is in the world and then telling them they can never have that again. That's what it felt like," Ashton explains. "You miss the simplicity of loving the game, of scoring goals -- whether in training or matches. Just going out on the grass with a ball, being able to play the game you love. Obviously I've been down but never to the point of feeling depressed or that I wanted to go and do bad things. I made a conscious decision that the best thing was to cut myself away from football completely. I wanted to totally forget about the game, about West Ham and what happened.
"My teammates at West Ham were great in terms of what they said at the time, the text messages when I was leaving. But players move on very quickly. Yes they might be thinking, 'Wow, that's horrific -- I hope Dean's alright', but in the back of their mind what they're really focused on is 'I'm playing this weekend, I need to be ready.' Players move from club to club so often now too, it's difficult to make long-term friends. There were probably only one or two players there at West Ham when I left who had been there when I first signed. It's a fleeting game. Because I was injured I didn't spend a lot of time with the lads so I didn't really forge those relationships."
Ashton moved back to Norwich to settle with his wife and kids and began the process of cutting football out of his life. Being a full-time dad became his profession and he found sporting solace in golf, which helped fill the competitive void left by football.
"My family played a huge part in my recovery. My boy was 2 at the time and everyone who has had kids of that age knows how lively they are. You can engross yourself in your kids and there were plenty of times, in the months after retiring, I'd be going to kiddy classes -- there would be 12 women with their kids and then me. A couple of months earlier I'd been playing in the Premier League. It made me realise that I am just a bloke, a dad.
"The first time I played football again was in the garden with my son. He's always loved football and it's really refreshing to see the game through his eyes, his enjoyment. There are no worries about injuries or pressure, he's just enjoying playing and whacking it past me in the goal. If he watches the telly and sees Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney he thinks they're amazing and then when friends tell him 'Your dad played football against them' he just doesn't really get it. He probably looks around and thinks, 'What, him?' There's been the odd time I've shown him clips of me but it's as if he thinks it's not really me, especially with my bleach-blonde hair back then. He sees me as this bald, old dad, which is true I guess!"
The highlights DVDs contain plenty for Ashton's son to be impressed with. As a boyhood Manchester United fan hailing from the Cheshire village of Holmes Chapel, the striker's memorable overhead kick at Old Trafford stands out as his best goal -- "that was definitely the pick of the bunch, it's just a shame we were 3-0 down so I couldn't really celebrate" -- while the zenith of his career came at the Millennium Stadium in 2006. Ashton had scored to help put West Ham on the brink of winning the FA Cup final, but Steven Gerrard crashed home a stoppage-time equaliser before Liverpool went on to triumph on penalties.
"Playing in the FA Cup final was one of the things I will remember for the rest of my life," Ashton recalls. "When I was growing up I watched the FA Cup final and was desperate to make it there one day -- to get to do that was amazing. There was a such a buzz in the hotel beforehand, lots of people, putting on suits. You get to the ground with all the fans, the band, the royalty, it all just feels like a real sense of occasion.
"You know if you do something in a game like that then it can be remembered. Luckily for me I got to start and got a goal, obviously it would have been great to have won it but looking back now it's great to have been involved in a final that everyone remembers. Gerrard stole my limelight but at least for me, people may remember that I scored, that's what you want. Watching them lift the trophy was the hardest thing. You walk past it and you don't get to touch it. But Steven Gerrard is one of the best players I've ever played with; sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say that on the day he did something spectacular."
Gerrard continues to star for Liverpool and England seven years on and is one of the many former teammates and opponents Ashton sees still enjoying the game that was cruelly taken from him. Now 30 years old, Ashton's rediscovery of football remains an ongoing process. He had an intention to take coaching badges this year but it proved a step too far, with the training ground still holding too many painful memories. A career in the TV studio, rather than the dugout, appears more appealing.
"Getting back into football was a gradual thing. I started watching 'Match of the Day' again, taking in a few matches on Sky or ESPN. I love football and always have done, it's just retiring was hard and it just took the shine off the game for me for a while. I didn't really think about coaching that much while I was a player but because I'd come through Crewe and seen the impact of good coaching I definitely had an appreciation of it. I saw a lot of players who perhaps shouldn't have got anywhere go on to make it in the game because of the grounding and quality of coaching they received at Crewe.
"I have tried coaching, I did a little bit at Norwich but I dropped out of it. I enjoyed being back at the club but I didn't have the passion for the content of coaching, the tactics, the sessions. It wasn't there. I was driving away feeling down because although I was back on the pitch, all I wanted was to be playing. It's really hard to watch England, for example, there are people starting games who I came through the Under-21s with; there are people starting who I was ahead of in the pecking order. That makes me feel that I could have been part of that.
"Coaching is definitely not something I can comprehend doing in the near future but maybe when there's a bit more distance between me and the injury, when I'm a little bit older, I might feel different. It's been five years but actually it's not a huge amount of time. I enjoy the media work because although, like the coaching, it brings back a lot of memories, it doesn't feel the same -- I've got my suit on rather than my tracksuit and it doesn't feel like I should be out on the pitch."
Ashton is an affable character; his self-deprecating humour and honesty are endearing qualities all too rare in modern football. Any subconscious resentment toward those currently playing would be wholly understandable but, outwardly at least, there is not a hint of bitterness. With media commitments pouring in and a new company -- dedicated to branding products for amateur golfers -- launching later this year, Ashton is now fully embracing life as a retired footballer.
"The main thing I take away from all that's happened is that I got to do something that I always wanted to do. It's through no fault of my own that I had to stop and, actually, you've got to be grateful for what you have got. Towards the end, before my retirement, when I was struggling to walk, you realise that football is just a game and that as long as me, my wife and kids are healthy I can't ask for much more. There are plenty of times when I think I'm missing out on things, that 'He's playing when that could have been me,' but it's irrelevant when you consider what's really important."