All attention still on Ashton

CHRIS WISE Norwich City 1, West Ham 2: Dean Ashton is such a key figure at Carrow Road these days that he can take centre stage even when he isn't playing.

CHRIS WISE

Norwich City 1, West Ham 2: Dean Ashton is such a key figure at Carrow Road these days that he can take centre stage even when he isn't playing.

With Saturday's FA Cup tie between a under-strength Championship side and a solid Premiership outfit going very much to plan - and providing precious little in the way of thrills and spills - it was the appearance of the Canaries' team sheet some 45 minutes before kick-off that provided the biggest talking point of the afternoon.

During the build-up to the game there were no shortage of cynical fans around who were predicting that City's star man would be pulled out the fixture at the last minute to avoid him being cup-tied and becoming a less attractive proposition for the clubs said to be chasing his services.


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And, lo and behold, there was the Norwich line-up with the name Ashton conspicuous by its absence. The press had their story before a ball had even been kicked. And when journalists were told they would have to wait until after the game for an explanation it was no surprise that many reached the conclusion that a multi-million deal had been reached - and that the big striker had played his final game in a yellow shirt.

As a result rumours started to fly around like wild-fire, with Sky Sports suggesting that newly rich Portsmouth had agree a £7.5m for Ashton's services - and all and sundry claiming they had been told that the Canaries would be making “an announcement” immediately after the game. When the final whistle sounded to bring a less than memorable cup tie to it conclusion events on the pitch were quickly forgotten as we all headed hot-foot back to the press room and waited with bated breath for a long-running saga to be finally brought to its conclusion - only to be left with another speculative report to put together.

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City boss Nigel Worthington teased his expectant audience by opening his press conference with the words “He has gone” before quickly pointing out he was referring to Robert Green, who had been despatched to hospital after his head had come into contact with Marlon Harewood's knee during a late Hammers' attack.

After giving an update on his injured keeper's condition he returned to the burning issue as far the bulk of the press pack were concerned - and informed them that he had the scans to prove that Ashton had missed the game with groin injury picked up in training on Thursday, just after he had told the local press that his top scorer would be playing in the big game.

It won't surprise you to learn that not everyone in the room was prepared to take that particular statement at face value. And it won't surprise you to learn either that speculation linking the 22-year-old frontman with a move to the Premiership won't go away just because of Worthington's innocent explanation for his absence. After all, the fact remains that he is now free to play for another side in the FA Cup - and it's a fair bet that a number of clubs for whom the competition represents the best hope of European football next season will have taken note.

Maybe I'm getting less cynical as I get older - rather than the other way around - but for what it's worth I reckon City boss was telling the truth. He was been known to lead the press on a merry dance in his time - I well remember him shooting down speculation linking the club with Darren Huckerby and indeed Ashton himself in the past - but he is a canny individual and, as I see it, there's no way he would have trotted out the injury line if he suspected a deal was just around the corner. That clearly wouldn't have been a wise move.

I don't there is any doubt that the City boss is determined to hold on to his star asset and it would clearly take a massive offer, perhaps in excess of £8m, to prize the player away from Carrow Road. Promising striker though he is, I don't think Ashton is in that bracket just yet - so I think it's fair to assume that Worthington is expecting him to stay put.

As for the man at the centre of the debate, well he could still have a significant part to play in the ongoing will he, won't he saga. He may be contracted to the club, but contracted players have been known to move on in the past if they have got their mind set on playing at a higher level. At the end of the day you can't force an individual to play for you if his heart is not it - but I get the impression Ashton is a sensible young man, with his feet firmly on the ground, and I would be greatly surprised if he decided to hold the club to ransom, less than four months after signing a lucrative new contract.

I should imagine he will just sit tight and see what happens between now and January 31 - and leave it to the club to decide whether he will be moving on or not. In the meantime don't expect to read too many interviews with City's star striker - silence is probably his best option right now as his future continues to be the subject of frenzied debate.

One thing's for certain - City will have a gaping hole to fill in their squad if Portsmouth or Manchester City - the two clubs most consistently linked Ashton - do come up with “crazy money.”

There was no shortage of effort from his replacement Peter Thorne on Saturday - but without the massive presence of Ashton up front the Canaries rarely threatened to prize open a rock-solid backline - and, as a result, the hosts faced an uphill battle from the moment Hayden Mullins fired the Hammers into sixth minute lead.

There was little sign of the magic of the FA Cup after that as Alan Pardew's side took a vice-like grip on proceedings, limiting the under-strength hosts to the odd half chance while scarcely over-creating themselves, despite looking by some distance the better team.

The fans of both clubs could clearly see what was coming, and as a result the game was played out in an curiously tame atmosphere, with the visiting contingent even issuing a 'let's be having you' challenge to their opposite numbers. They were talking about a singing contest rather than something a little more physical, I should hasten to add.

When Bobby Zamora pounced on a rare error from Green to stretch West Ham's lead early the second half it appeared as though a lacklustre game was about to die a slow, painful death, but to their credit City put on decent show after that and fully deserved to pull one back courtesy of Paul McVeigh's well taken penalty.

The hosts then had 20 minutes or so to earn themselves a replay but they were kept pretty much at arm's length after that, with the lengthy break that followed Green's injury taking much of the sting out of the finale and the introduction of youngsters Michael Spillane and Andrew Cave-Brown failing to produce a fairytale finish.

In the end we should just be grateful that the City keeper emerged pretty much unscathed after a horrible looking collision that necessitated a hospital check-up. The welfare of player who had been pole-axed in the name of duty should really have been the main talking point after the game - but thanks to the ongoing Ashton saga that's not the way it turned out.

That's football, I guess . . .

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