Few England players have been able to whack the ball with the ferocity of Dean Ashton. Since he was forced to hang up his boots early due to injury, the former Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City, and West Ham United striker has furthered his reputation for similarly hard-hitting analysis on the game’s hottest topics.
Here, Ashton addresses the biggest talking points for England ahead of the team’s big kick-off against Tunisia next Monday.
Daniel Rouse: How would you rate Gareth Southgate’s England tenure so far?
Dean Ashton: I’ve been really impressed actually. I think he’s taken a lot of flak from England supporters talking about what he’s done in his career as a manager – (he) obviously didn’t do that well at club level. But I’ve just been really impressed with the way he’s always come across with the media and I feel as if I can really see his vision of what he wants for the England squad, and England teams right through the youth levels.
DR: Rio Ferdinand recently claimed there were club cliques in the England camp during his playing days. Was this something you experienced?
DA: Absolutely. It was very difficult as a first-time player going into the squad because it was very much segregated by club sides and friendships. I think the challenge for Gareth Southgate isn’t necessarily if we’ve got the best players, I think it’s about whether he can get the squad together. I don’t think we’ve had that for many a year.
I think the divides were detrimental (to how we played). When you get to crucial moments in games and in tournaments, I think that’s when that togetherness and being able to trust your teammates is crucial. You get through difficult moments as a group, not as individuals. We certainly saw that for England in the European Championships against Iceland where we really didn’t look like we had any ideas and the players didn’t have that togetherness to pull it back.
DR: What do you think are Southgate’s biggest selection dilemmas for the tournament?
DA: I think he’s got a couple. At full-back he’s got decisions to make: does he go with Ashley Young or Danny Rose? Ashley Young has had an excellent season for Manchester United, but Danny Rose was, arguably, one of the best left-backs in the world a season ago.
Then it’s whether he plays Marcus Rashford. He’s always done really well when he plays for England and he’s an exciting young player. Is Southgate able to fit him into the way he wants England to play or not?
DR: Is there an unsung player in this squad who could turn out to be instrumental during the tournament?
DA: I always think Jordan Henderson is that type of player. I think he’s always overlooked and just looked at as a player who just runs around, when actually he’s got more quality than that. I think his leadership qualities and ability to dictate games have got better as well. I also think Danny Welbeck could be a key player coming off the bench. He’s got a fantastic record for England.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
DR: If you were in charge, who would you build this team around?
DA: It has to be Harry Kane. He’s the only player we’ve got who would get in most world club sides because of his quality, and I think being captain shows Gareth Southgate wants to put his faith in Harry Kane and build a team around him. If you’ve got somebody like that who can spearhead your attack then that gives a lot of license to the players behind him to be able to have a bit of freedom and go and express themselves. That’s something we want from our young players.
DR: As a former striker yourself, how does Harry Kane rank among the top names in the game?
DA: I was lucky enough to play against Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer – two England greats – and I think he has the qualities of both of those players. His goal record speaks for itself, and last season you compare him to the best strikers in the world and he’s right up there in terms of the amount of goals he’s scored. But can he do it on the biggest stage any player could ever play at, a World Cup? That’s what will make a good player into a great player.
DR: What do you think is an acceptable performance for England at this World Cup?
DA: I think getting out of the group has to be seen as a success after the last World Cup where we failed to do so. What’s been an issue over the last 10, 20 years is that we think we’re going to win it, and that’s unrealistic. We haven’t played well enough, we haven’t looked as if we’re going to win it, so what would make us think that we should win it? We definitely have to go in with more of a humble attitude.
DR: Do you think the general public has begun to lessen their expectations?
DA: I feel as though I’ve seen a massive change in the public’s perception. We’re excited because we’ve got an exciting young squad, but I don’t think there’s that same expectation and that same pressure on this squad. That can only be a good thing. It gives the players more leeway to express themselves and hopefully play the way they do for their club sides.
DR: Putting you on the spot here. Who’s going to win the World Cup?
DA: If I had to choose, it would be France. I look at their squad and how strong it is in every single compartment and I would personally put France as favourites with Brazil very, very close behind.
My dark horse would definitely be Uruguay. Having watched Diego Godin for Atletico Madrid and the way he likes to organise his defence, I think they’re going to be hard to beat and physical. Then you’ve got the talents of (Edinson) Cavani and (Luis) Suarez to lead the attack. I’ve just got this feeling about Uruguay.
This interview has been edited and condensed.