Ian Ashbee: Pragmatist
One of the more surprising moves of the latest transfer deadline day witnessed Hull City stalwart Ian Ashbee cross the Pennines in order to rejoin old flame Phil Brown. Phil Ascough eulogises over a City career spanning nine years.
It was a must-win game. Not so much in terms of avoiding relegation but certainly in regards to easing the strain on a manager whose arrival a few months earlier had been welcomed by most Hull City fans.
A poor start to the season, some wretched performances and an increasingly restless and vocal minority within the fan base were all adding to the pressure.
A midweek draw at Leeds had been encouraging but not really enough given that Hull had lost their previous match at home to Scunthorpe. It was hard to see how Nigel Pearson would survive if City failed to win at Preston North End. Some message board posters were even advocating a return for Phil Brown.
That City went on to end their run of eight winless games was seen as evidence only of Preston’s own inadequacies. They were awful. Worse than Sheffield United, who had somehow managed to win at Hull the previous month. Between them the three sides were inspiring confidence in all the other teams at the wrong end of the table.
But as turning points go this was a significant one for the Tigers. They’ve lost only one League game since and now the talk is of a return to Wembley. The three Ps: Play-offs, Promotion, Premier League.
And one of the reasons for the rise has been the remarkable form of Ian Ashbee, club captain, midfield general, all-round superhero.
There is more to it, of course; principally the takeover that untied Adam Pearson’s hands and enabled him to shift a few players out and bring in the pace and trickery of Cameron Stewart, the physical presence and goal scoring threat of Matty Fryatt, and the tireless graft of Aaron McLean.
But in the middle of the field it was Ashbee who was holding things together, leading by example, getting stuck in, motivating his charges, collecting yellow cards. It seems strange to think that when Hull and Preston meet again next week he could be lining up for the opposition.
Opinion among City fans is divided, but then that’s football.
When Ashbee was signed from Cambridge United in the summer of 2002 a mate of mine who had played in all four divisions and as an international and really knows his stuff summed up what City had bought: “He’s just a clogger but fine for the bottom division.”
And so we all thought. I’m not ashamed to admit I wrote him off more than once, but Ashbee handled the next division pretty well, and the one after that – the Championship where proper midfielders lurked. Players who could pass a ball and beat a man. But everywhere City went, Ashbee raised his game.
Surely the Premier League would be a step too far? Not a bit of it. He played most of City’s games in that memorable first season in the top flight and his absence through injury for the second campaign was seen by many as a factor in the failure to avoid the drop.
My mate was half right. Ash isn’t the most gifted, cultured player. And he doesn’t score many goals. But he is one of the most determined and courageous players I’ve ever seen in more than 40 years of watching football. It’s that determination that enabled him to cope with whatever classier, more stylish opponents threw at him as he set a record by leading Hull City as captain in all four divisions.
It was Ashbee’s drive and desire that lifted less committed players and dragged City over the line in some vital matches, particularly in that first Premier League season. It was his heart and passion that enabled him to return from two career-threatening injuries to resume his duties.
So that’s what Preston can look forward to, and Ash can surely expect the warmest of welcomes and the fondest of send-offs when he comes back to the KC with Phil Brown next week.
There are disappointing rumours of a fall-out with Pearsons Nigel and Adam. There is talk of a row over the club’s decision not to offer a new contract, of Ash subsequently being tapped up by Brown, of City being short of midfielders.
But after again battling back from injury rather than heading for the golf course or the pundit’s chair, Ash has earned the right to play for as long as he can, wherever he can.
And if City are short in midfield it’s because of the culture change that these days means they are prepared to part with players at the right time rather than cling to sentiment.
Dean Windass earned immortality for his winner at Wembley, but he ended up staying too long and couldn’t deliver back in the Premier League.
George Boateng, a colossus during the first season at the top, and Geovanni, legendary match-winner at the Emirates, both came up short when City needed them in that difficult second season.
Under Nigel Pearson, Nick Barmby still makes an impact, but these days it’s from the bench and as a mentor to the young players. Jimmy Bullard has gone and Ash, now 34, has followed.
James Harper, too often a target for the boo-boys this season, stepped up to good effect against QPR. There are reports of a loan bid for Jonathan Greening.
Bring it on. The pair of them against Ian Ashbee, captain of Proud Preston. And while I’d obviously want City’s boys to boss the game, supporters should write off Ashbee at their peril.