The following article isn’t for those with a short attention span, but the story of how Ian Ashbee became a bonafide City legend justifies lengthy prose.
Hull or Barnet? I know of two people who have been faced with this choice. One is myself. I ended up in Barnet, purely for career reasons. The other is Ian Ashbee. Happily, he chose Hull, albeit reluctantly. I think it’s fair to say that Hull got very much the better of that particular deal.
It seems almost unthinkable that the summer of 2002 saw Ian Ashbee as good as admit that he wanted the Underhill club to come in with an offer to match Hull City’s three-year contract so that he wouldn’t have to relocate from his Barnet home to Yorkshire. He also didn’t seem averse to staying at Cambidge should they offer him better terms. However, both teams refused to budge so Ashbee had to. One Wembley appearance, two career-threatening injuries and three promotions later, Ash must have looked at Barnet’s position at the end of any given season – rarely veering outside of the 90th and 94th positions in the English football pyramid – or Cambridge’s plummeting through the leagues, and allowed himself a wry smile at the hand that fate had dealt him. For both player and club, that simple offer of three years of employment was to result in the wildest of journeys.
You may be expecting this story of a captain who led a success-starved Hull City to three promotions, the latter of which saw the club promoted to the top flight for the first time in its then-104-year history, to be gushing in its praise of our greatest of leaders. You’d only be partially right. Ash was the lower-league plodder made good. Given what his chief talents were – winning tackles, physical domination, leading men – his career could easily have remained in English football’s third and fourth tiers; such qualities are ten-a-penny in English football. With every promotion that came Hull City’s way, questions would inevitably be asked about whether Ash would be able to cut it at the next level. When he was leading the celebrations after our 2-1 victory at the Emirates, after spending 90 minutes snuffing out any threat posed by Cesc Fabregas, Ash had, somewhat emphatically, answered his doubters.
Ash was born in Birmingham and raised a Blue. However, it was the Baseball Ground and not St Andrews where he served his football apprenticeship. He was only to don the white shirt of Derby once against Southend in what was to be then manager Roy McFarland’s last game at the club. New manager Jim Smith’s continental style didn’t seem to have a place in it for Ash and he was shipped off on loan to Icelandic club IR Knattspyrnudeild, where he enjoyed an uncharacteristic goalscoring streak, finding the net three times in eight games. His form with Knattspyrnudeild didn’t escape former manager Roy McFarland’s notice, however, and Ash was soon heading for the Abbey Stadium and the heart of Cambridge’s midfield to be reunited with his erstwhile boss.
McFarland was in the process of doing an excellent job of banishing the anti-football stains that John Beck had left at the Abbey, and hard as it seems to believe given their current predicament, for a good while at the turn of the century Cambridge were one of the more progressive, ambitious clubs in the lower leagues. In 1999, the U’s were promoted to whatever the third tier was called in those days, with Ash a fixture protecting their back four. While Ash’s standards didn’t drop, Cambridge never quite kicked on from this promotion, and McFarland was sacked in 2001 after he’d been forced to sell key assets such as Trevor Benjamin and Martin Butler.
John Beck returned to the club for a brief spell in 2001 before, with relegation looming, U’s legend John Taylor took over the managerial reigns. The club was starting on a journey that was to see it flirt with relegation to the Conference South, and Ash, with his contract expiring in the summer of 2002, was attracting the attention of other clubs. Ambitious Hull City, flush with new chairman Adam Pearson’s cash and with great things expected of new manager Jan Molby, made their interest very clear. So did Barnet. Thankfully, our interest was greater than theirs.
It seems odd that Ash played for City sans the captain’s armband, but that’s how his career in East Yorkshire started. In Ash’s debut for City – a 2-2 home draw at Boothferry Park against Southend – the calamitous Greg Strong led out the Tigers while Ash’s most notable contribution to the afternoon’s events was to receive his second booking in the 85th minute for a fairly tame foul. City were 2-1 up at the time but were to end up drawing the game. An inauspicious start, then. It wasn’t to get much better either. Jan Molby’s reign at City was little short of a disaster, even though he signed three players that would be so instrumental in our back-to-back promotions in Ash and Stuarts Elliott and Green. Ash seemed to embody everything that Molby was about: big on reputation and ego, little by way of anything to get excited by on the pitch.
Ash was pretty dreadful in the two games that effectively put paid to Molby’s managerial reign at City: a 3-1 home defeat to Macclesfield and a 1-0 reversal away to Kidderminster, the club from which we had poached the spherical Dane. The only game during this time in which Ash gave us a glimpse of what he was capable of was in a 4-2 home defeat to Leicester in the League Cup, in which the Tigers had taken a team two divisions higher than them into extra time and were unlucky to lose.
Molby went, and Peter Taylor came in, but still Ash was behind both Justin Whittle and Marc Joseph in the Hull City captaincy pecking order. His role was that of midfield enforcer, and it was one that he eventually began to show he was pretty good at.
In truth, however, the first season at City for both Ashbee and Taylor was a non-event. Neither seemed entirely comfortable in their new surroundings, and while there were some real high points – such as the first ever league game at the KC in which we beat Hartlepool 2-0, a 4-1 win at Torquay in which Ash netted his first league goal for City with a quite astonishing volley, and a few thrashings meted out later on in the season to the likes of Carlisle, Kidderminster and Bournemouth – there were some pretty grim lows, none more so than a 3-0 defeat to 10-man Southend at Roots Hall in which it seemed that Peter Taylor’s managerial style wasn’t going to work at City. Alas, Ash wasn’t seen after March in that most forgettable of seasons, as he was injured late on in a 0-0 home draw against Oxford. In his next game he was to captain the club for the first time, and it was almost as if his Hull City career proper was about to start.
That game was a 4-1 home win against Darlington on a sunny August afternoon at the KC. City were irresistible, and the performance set a template for a season that no fan will forget. Ash barely missed a game as we tore the division apart, looking every bit the captain that a team could follow, who would seek out and dispense retribution to any defender taking liberties with any of our more skilful players, and who wasn’t a bad footballer too. If City and Ash had spent the previous season treading water, we got off to a flyer in August 2003 and established ourselves in the top three of the table, a position we rarely looked like relinquishing.
The flair that we showed – Danny Allsopp and Ben Burgess up front augmented by Elliott bombing on from the left wing, Jason Price from the right, and Stuart Green posing an attacking threat from central midfield – should have put a strain on our sole defensive player outside of the back four, but Ash was a colossus, ending opposition attack after attack while it was still in the formative stages. Fans, team-mates, management and opposition alike all seemed to be in awe of Ash, a captain in every sense of the word.
As the 2003/04 season drew to a close with City well placed to go up, nerves set in. An error-strewn 3-2 home defeat to Northampton at Easter was followed a few days later by a memorable 3-2 win at Swansea, but City seemed to be making hard work of reaching the finishing line. We developed a knack of snatching frustrating draws from the jaws of victory, all of which led us to that game at Yeovil looking nervously over our shoulders at Torquay and Huddersfield, both of whom were closing in on City in the automatic promotion spots.
Before continuing on the Yeovil game, a little context is required. Most of you won’t need it, but it never hurts to be reminded. Going 19 years without promotion is a hell of a feat in English football for a team that had spent its entire history outside of the top flight, especially one with the potential of Hull City. The club had spent the 1990s living on something of a hand-to-mouth existence, run by the inept, the hideous and the downright criminal. We’d played more ‘last ever’ games than anyone could care to remember as threat of closure or eviction never seemed to linger far from Boothferry Park. But these bleakest of times were, somewhat cruelly, interspersed with periods of hope.
The Lloyd/Hateley regime started with euphoria and ended in tears. The form that had seen us avert what looked to be inevitable relegation from the Football League in our Great Escape came to nothing the following season. Brian Little had led us to the fourth-tier’s play-offs in another season that had the bailiffs hammering at the door, but would never be able to recreate that magic and would soon be shown the door. Even under Adam Pearson, the money splashed out initially on his arrival and then again once Jan Molby was appointed had simply seen us become the league’s big-time Charlies, big on stadium and transfer fees, low on character and points tally. As John Cleese said en route to Hull in the film Clockwise: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand,” and so it had proved at City.
To an outsider, going into the Yeovil match it looked as if Hull City couldn’t screw it up; an inevitable promotion was finally going to be achieved. To a couple of generations of Hull City fans, all we’d known was that if there was anything that could be screwed up, Hull City would find a way to do it. Promotion was anything but a formality. Yes, we hoped, but we’d hoped before, and all we got in return was despair.
Another draw loomed going into the final stages at Huish Park. City had started the better team and taken an early lead courtesy of a Stuart Green penalty, but then we’d tried to sit on the one-goal advantage, only to concede from a set-piece converted by Yeovil’s giant centre-back, Hugo Rodrigues. With various misinformation being spread around the City faithful about the fortunes of Huddersfield and Torquay (no smartphones in those days) it seemed as though we were destined for a nail-biting final day of the season, and therefore the potential for yet more despair. Then, in the 76th minute, up stepped Ian Ashbee.
There are some moments in your life that you can’t really remember in precise detail yet you know that you’ll never forget. I’m not going to cheat and watch it on YouTube or read old match reports, I’m just going to tell it how I remember it. We launched the ball to the edge of the Yeovil penalty area and they didn’t clear it properly. It falls to Ash in a bit of space about 25 yards out, he shoots at goal and then the ball seems to hang in the air… The next thing I know, the weight of a few dozen City fans propels me to the front of the terraces of the away end at Huish Park. Not that I mind one bit.
Football has never made me this happy, this delirious, and I feel this way because Ian Ashbee has scored the most beautiful, amazing, brilliant goal that I’ve ever seen yet can’t remember in any precise detail. Twenty or so of the most gut-wrenching minutes imaginable later, and we’re celebrating a promotion that for a good decade of our existence had seemed about as likely as the council building us a stadium worthy of the Premiership.
With promotion came what was to turn into an annual summer sport among certain sections of City fans: that of questioning whether Ash would be good enough to deliver on our ambitions in the coming season. In the summer of 2004, these were simply murmurs, murmurs which Ash was soon to make look stupid. League 1 looked just like League 2 had, in that we were too good for it. An up-and-down start had seen Ash sent off, somewhat stupidly, in a miserable home game against Chesterfield for a trademark (very) late challenge.
One of the games he missed in his three-match suspension was our 3-0 home victory that put paid to Luton’s unbeaten start to the season, but such was Peter Taylor’s high opinion of Ash that he went straight into the starting line-up in our next game at Wrexham. This was the start of an incredible run of form that propelled us to the top two of the division. Typically, Ash’s more noteworthy contributions in this spell were two of his trademarks: a long-range goal to set us off on our 6-1 demolition of promotion rivals Tranmere, and a red card in January in a miserable game at Doncaster.
City cantered to promotion, with fewer alarms than had been encountered the previous season. Ash was generally now being partnered with a more defence-minded central midfielder – more often than not Junior Lewis or Andy Hessenthaler – but remained the rock around which the team was built, the man to do all the ugly stuff while Elliott, Barmby et al went about deconstructing the best that the league’s defences could muster. In our fourth from last game of the season, Ash was again leading the promotion celebrations, this time after a 0-0 home draw against Swindon. But he was a lower-league journeyman, wasn’t he? Surely he wouldn’t be able to cut it in the Championship…
Ash barely had chance to extinguish these doubts before he was facing the prospect of never playing football again, and perhaps never walking again. He’d looked more than good enough in the first few games of our return to second-tier football before fracturing his knee. What seemed like a nasty but not too serious injury developed into something a whole lot more sinister.
Ash had a degenerative bone condition called osteochondral defect that meant that the bone would waste away and not fuse back together. Rumours circulated that he was on the verge of retiring, that he’d been seen in a wheelchair, that Dr Richard Steadman in the US had done his best but given up. It turns out that much of this gossip wasn’t too far wide of the mark. As City took up permanent residence in the middle to lower reaches of the Championship, Ash looked on wondering if he’d ever don the black and amber again.
That he did is testament to a fighting spirit that was all too familiar to City fans. I may be taking a bit of artistic licence, but I would imagine it’s a near certainty that when the bad news about his knee was delivered, Ash clenched his fist, snarled, won a 50/50 challenge with the bearer of the bad tidings and then tried to run the condition off. Ash was to return. And what a return it was…
Well, it was eventually. In the summer of 2006, Peter Taylor – a manager who had made Ash his general on the pitch, the captain willing to make clear what fate would befall any player whose performance level dropped or who wanted to veer too far from the script – left the KC, convinced for some reason that Crystal Palace offered him something we couldn’t. Phil Parkinson replaced him, and, as luckless as he was hapless, got off to about as bad a start as was imaginable. Picking up one point from his first five games, Parkinson’s side looked rudderless. The players seemed to be bereft of confidence, low on spirit and confused by our manager’s tactics. Who better, then, to enforce things on the pitch than a returning Ash?
His first game back was, fittingly, at Birmingham as the boyhood fan played at St Andrews for the first time. Though City were to lose this game, we looked a whole lot better for Ash’s presence. This defeat was followed up by our first two league victories of the season, at Leicester and then at home to Sheffield Wednesday. But just as it looked as if Ash was going to help turn around Parkinson’s fortunes, eight games passed without another victory. It was being whispered that Ash, a hugely influential presence in the dressing room, was the main critic among a group of players that didn’t appreciate the methods of Phil Parkinson.
Whether this contributed to what was probably the most stupid of his sendings off at City – a late, waist-high tackle on a Southend player in an otherwise memorable 3-2 victory at Roots Hall (think Paul Gascoigne on Garry Parker in the 1991 FA Cup final) – we cannot know, but after an initial surge, Ash’s performance levels dropped, and City took root in the Championship’s relegation spots. A couple of catastrophic defeats at the hands of Colchester and Southampton saw Parkinson receive his P45, and rumours were rife that he had lost the dressing room. Given that Ash was the club captain and one of our most influential players on and off the pitch, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was something of a kingmaker within the club.
Regardless, Parkinson’s time was up and his recently appointed number two, Phil Brown, was given the task of saving City’s Championship status. We achieved this task in a too-close-for-comfort manner, capable of the odd stirring victory, but still putting in some pretty horrible, toothless displays that saw us unable to establish daylight between ourselves and the bottom three. During this time, Ash’s popularity among the City fans plummeted to an all-time low.
His performances were often below the required standard, and the stray passes that had been of little consequence in the lower leagues stood out like sore thumbs in the second tier. Whenever City put in an anaemic performance – such as the home defeats to Leeds, Norwich and Ipswich, the latter of which saw the Portman Road side put five past us, and away defeats at Wolves, Sunderland and Coventry – Ash seemed to bear the brunt of most of the criticism. He was, if his critics were to be believed, failing to inspire his team and out of his depth at this level.
Possibly a nadir in Ash’s relationship with the City fans was reached in a night match at Barnsley. City had spent the 90 minutes playing with no fight or passion. We’d seemingly turned up to lose the game, something we went on to achieve with aplomb. The massed ranks of City’s fans, expecting us to display some sort of desire given our precarious position, vented their collective spleens at the players as they left the pitch. Some of the players still applauded the fans, others just kept their heads down. Ash looked at the fans and shrugged his shoulders.
Why, only he knows. It could have meant many things: a gesture of apology, his way of saying “these things happen”, or maybe even one of “what can one person do about it?”. Of course, City fans who’d trekked across Yorkshire to witness such a miserable display translated it as Ash’s way of displaying his indifference to our battle against relegation – a reaction that was as irrational as Ash’s initial gesture had been ill-advised. Four days later he put in a commanding performance as we swatted aside promotion-chasing Birmingham in a 2-0 victory at the KC.
One man who hadn’t doubted Ash’s abilities and value to the team was Phil Brown. Made our permanent manager after we’d averted relegation, Brown seemed no more likely to dispense with Ash’s services than Peter Taylor had been. In the early stages of the 2008/09 season, however, Brown and Ash didn’t really do too much to quell the doubts that many City fans had voiced about the duo in the previous season.
Another gesture by Ash – looking at the East Stand at the KC and shaking his head as the fans, to a man, gave oncoming substitute Jay-Jay Okocha a standing ovation on debut – drew further criticism. The back-to-back promotions seemed a long time ago now, and while a goal in a televised game against Blackpool showed that Ash still had qualities worth harnessing, the team didn’t seem as reliant on its captain as it once had.
Indeed, City’s most impressive performance in the first half of that most glorious of seasons came without Ash. A red card in a home game against a vile, vile Charlton side, for his role in starting a 20-man brawl, saw Ash suspended for a few games and replaced by David Livermore. It was hard not to notice just how slick we looked without Ash’s somewhat limited passing abilities slowing down the momentum of our attacks. A 3-0 victory at home to Barnsley saw us play our finest football since our return to second-tier football, and brought with it the uncomfortable truth for many City fans that we looked better without Ash in the starting XI than with.
Thankfully, one man who didn’t agree with that assessment was Phil Brown. As soon as his suspension was up, Ash was straight back into the starting line-up with captaincy duties fully restored. Unfortunately, City’s form remained patchy. After a miserable 4-0 defeat at St Mary’s to Southampton, City looked for all the world more like relegation candidates than a team on the verge of taking the division by storm, and Ash’s performance and captaincy could best be described as listless. Phil Brown even felt the need to defend Ash in the local media, explaining to the fans on more than one occasion how Ash’s ProZone stats were as good as anyone’s at the club. But Ash’s critics, who trusted their eyes more than they did a computer print-out, didn’t seem convinced. Then something clicked.
City fans’ opinions of when they realised that the 2007/08 season was about to become the greatest in our history will generally differ. My initial moment of realisation was a 1-1 draw at Charlton. Back then, Charlton were still thought of as a Premiership team slumming it, regrouping before an inevitable return to the top flight. Except that day City played them off the park and Ash was magnificent. The bad blood from the home game a few months earlier had lingered into this pre-Christmas clash, something that Ash seemed to be relishing.
A more mature approach seemed to envelop our skipper, and he expertly wound up Danny Mills until the ex-City loanee could take no more and foolishly got himself sent off. Though City were to only draw this game, it seemed to mark a changing of our approach, and key to it was Ash. He was at the top of his game again, having reworked out how to play to his strengths while not allowing his weaknesses to be exposed.
City were still in the bottom half of the table at this point, but then went on a run that was to defy belief. We were going to the grounds of the league’s big hitters and matching anything they could do, most memorably in a 2-1 win at West Brom. At home we were playing a style of football that few could remember coming from the club. Home victories against Burnley and Scunthorpe saw us serve up a passing game that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Netherlands in the 1970s. This was all done with Ian Ashbee, the lower-league clogger, in the team. It would be foolish to pretend that Ash was the focal point of this dazzling football, but he was, as he had been most notably in our League 1 promotion, doing the job of two men in midfield to allow our attacking players the freedom to do what they did best.
But that’s not to say that Ash wasn’t contributing at the business end of the pitch. While getting into the top three wasn’t easy, the task of staying there seemed to eat away at the nerves of some players. In truth, we had a bit of a wobble in the final five games or so of the league season, but it was in these games where Ash thrived. Yes, he scored two important goals – both outstanding headers from corners against Barnsley and Crystal Palace – but more importantly he seemed to relish the challenge ahead. The scarier it got for the fans, and some of the players, the harder Ash tackled, the higher he jumped, the more inspirational he seemed.
He embodied on the pitch the extraordinary self-belief that Phil Brown had somehow instilled into this group of players. Nothing, it seemed, was going to take away from him this one shot at promotion to the top flight. And nothing would.
The play-off semi-finals were horrible, fraught things, despite the eventual gulf in scoreline between us and Watford. Ash was superb in the away tie at Watford, continuing his form from the end of the regular season. While Ash had won the battle of the midfields in the first half as City went 2-0 up, snuffing out the threat of Watford talisman John Eustace in the process, the home team had dominated the first 15 minutes of so of the second half, repelled only by the brilliance of Boaz Myhill. However, Eustace – no doubt tired of Ash snapping at his heels every time he got the ball – could contain his frustration no longer and foolishly went for Ash when a minor melee broke out.
Ash simply backed away, knowing his job was done. Eustace saw red, Ash didn’t, and we got to play against 10 men for the remainder of the game. This put the Hornets on the back foot, and indeed had Fraizer Campbell or Nathan Doyle finished at least one of the trio of straightforward one-on-ones that fell to them, the game at the KC on the Wednesday would have been a mere formality. As it turned out we had the sickening half-hour or so between Darius Henderson’s opener and Nick Barmby’s equaliser before we could start planning our weekends in north-west London.
On May 24th, 2008, Ian Ashbee became the first captain to lead out Hull City at Wembley. Ash was again one of City’s better performers on the pitch that day, doing an excellent job in effectively quelling the not-inconsiderable threat posed by Marvin Elliott and Nick Carle, and was in his element in those final agonising 20 minutes when every Bristol City attack seemed to only be prevented by a last-ditch tackle by one of our defenders or our indomitable skipper.
When the final whistle blew, the national media’s attention fell primarily on Dean Windass and Nick Barmby. This was understandable, as both were local lads whose names were known in towns and cities west of Goole and south of Barton, whose stories were pretty incredible by any standards. Ash, on the other hand, seemed to fall below the radar.
His achievement of captaining the club to three promotions – the first player in English football ever to do so – would get the odd mention, but that was it. Nothing on the fact that he’d fought back from a potentially crippling injury, on his background of little but lower-league football, on his constant rebounding from being written off every time City moved up another level. But while the national press may have ignored Ian Ashbee, Hull City fans didn’t.
The fact that he was born in Birmingham was little more than a geographical accident. He was Hull, 100%, and embodied everything that we loved about our club and our city: he was unfashionable, written off, ignored, would shrug off the knocks and come back stronger. He was our captain and with him leading us nothing seemed impossible. Indeed, during the second half of 2008, impossible seemed to be one word temporarily erased from the dictionaries in Hull.
The annual sport of writing off Ian Ashbee in a close season didn’t happen in the summer of 2008. We were all going to be out of our depth in the Premiership, not just Ash. But the man who had led us to the summit was not going to be denied a shot at ‘the biggest league in the world’. Seeing off positional rivals had never really been a problem for Ash.
The more defensive, combative midfielders that came and went during Ash’s time at Hull City numbered Dean Keates, Junior Lewis, Andy Hessenthaler, Curtis Woodhouse, Michael Keane, Keith Andrews, Jason Jarrett and David Livermore, but none of them ever really looked like prying the number four shirt from his grasp. And while City signed experienced Premiership campaigner George Boateng in the close season, there never really seemed to be much doubt that Ash would lead us out for our first ever game in the top flight.
Ash didn’t just lead us out, he flew out of the traps. As Hull City hurtled uncontrollably towards what looked for a while as if it could only end in world domination, Ash didn’t look in any way out of place pitting himself against the likes of Xabi Alonso, Luka Modric, Frank Lampard and Cesc Fabregas. Indeed he was a key figure in our unlikely victory at the Emirates, not giving Fabregas room to breathe all game and thus going a long way to quelling the Gunners’ attacking threat. After that most incredible of games, you couldn’t help but ponder – as unlikely as it seems now – how Arsenal would have been so very much improved if they had simply imported our spine of Myhill, Turner and Ashbee to replace the feeble Almunia, Kolo Toure and Denilson.
Ian Ashbee, the man who only six years previous had been the subject of the most low-key transfer tug-of-war imaginable between two teams that seemed glued to the lower reaches of the fourth tier, was now taking his team to the finest stadia in the land, competing against some of the finest players in the world and coming out on top. Finally, some of the recognition that had been denied Ash in the summer was coming his way too, with a special award being given at the PFA’s annual beano in recognition of his unique captaincy feat and Piers Morgan naming him his British Football Personality of the Year in his Daily Mail column, an accolade that seemed to genuinely touch Ash.
You know what came next, how it all fell apart, how our runaway train-style momentum came hurtling off the tracks. But even as we were found out, as Phil Brown started to struggle under the weight of expectation that he’d heaped upon himself, Ash still thrived. As it became more apparent that we were becoming embroiled in a relegation scrap, Ash’s combative qualities came to the fore.
He gave possibly his finest performance in a City shirt in a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in February 2009, a game in which City were the better team and Ash nearly capped with a late winner as he hit a peach of a volley which went narrowly wide. A month later he was to become the only player of our fabled four – Myhill, Andy Dawson, Ryan France and Ash – to both play in and score in every division for Hull City with a late strike that gave us hope in a 2-1 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers. Sadly, as relegation loomed, we were again to be denied the services of our skipper.
In a game in early May at Aston Villa, the team most hated by Ash presumably, our captain fell awkwardly, twisting his knee in the process. Like a true hardman, Ash tried to run it off. The injury he was trying to run off would see him miss not just the rest of that season, but the whole of the next one too. Ash had played his final game of Premiership football. The injury to his posterior cruciate ligament had aggravated the osteochondral defect, and Ash was to spend yet another lengthy period on the treatment table. Except this time he would have a team-mate to keep him company. That team-mate? Jimmy Bullard.
That the final 18 months of Ash’s time with Hull City are so intrinsically linked with Bullard is a crying shame. The two were regularly seen around the bars and clubs of Hull, sometimes with a gaggle of the club’s younger players in their company. When question marks were raised about Bullard’s conduct and his commitment to the club, when his fleeting appearances on the pitch made it clear that he was not going to be our saviour, and the astronomical wages he was doing nothing to warrant made him seem more like the anti-christ as we struggled under a mountain of debt in the Championship, it was hard to disassociate Ash from it all.
One of the most heroic figures in our history and one of the most villainous seemed joined at the hip. When a Sunday newspaper showed pictures of Bullard getting up to some ‘high-jinks’ in Las Vegas, it was Ash stood grinning in the background (cruelly described in the caption only as ‘a friend’ by a sub-editor whose interest in football obviously begins and ends with Soccer AM). As rumours of rifts within the dressing room at the KC circled around Hull in Phil Brown’s final days, and Bullard got into a very public bout of fisticuffs with the saintly Nick Barmby, it was hard not to ponder what Ash’s role within it all was.
When Ash finally made it back onto the pitch, it was hard not to notice that he was carrying a few extra pounds. A goal on his first game back in the opening game of the 2010/11 season against Swansea meant that any questions over his fitness were delayed, but not for long. Two awful away defeats at Millwall and Doncaster saw Ash playing as badly as he ever had done for City. His touch – limited at the best of times – had gone and his ability to get around the pitch was nothing like what it had been the last time he’d donned the black and amber. In short, in those first few games back he was a liability. And while arguments that we should cut a little slack to a player who had been out for so long were not without merit, it was hard for many City fans not to associate Ash’s condition with the social antics and questionable attitude that Jimmy Bullard had displayed.
The first third of that season was miserable as Nigel Pearson went about stripping the club of the excesses and poor attitude that had seen us relegated from the Premiership, and replace it with a disciplined, youthful side that could match the best the Championship had to offer. For a time it looked as though Ash, whose performances improved as the season progressed, would be part of those plans. But then Preston appointed Phil Brown as their manager and City signed Corry Evans.
Rumours had started at the end of 2010 that Preston were going to make a move for Ash, but most City fans just figured that a few over-eager internet trolls were putting two and two together to make five. The stories refused to go away, however, and with Ash’s contract running out and Corry Evans coming from Manchester United’s reserves with a very good report from Warren Joyce, it soon became apparent that we were to lose Ash. Brown needed a general on the pitch at Deepdale and presumably a presence in the dressing room, so in late January 2011, eight-and-a-half years after he’d signed, Ian Ashbee left Hull City.
Regardless of the associations with Jimmy Bullard, regardless of the, ahem, tightness of his shirt in that final half season, regardless of anything else anyone could think of, it was a sad, sad day for the club. We’d gone through so much with Ash, and to contemplate him wearing a shirt that didn’t bear the Hull City crest was uncomfortable. That we’d have to see him doing it in a few weeks’ time made matters even worse.
Our home game against Preston in February 2011 was a strange affair, with Ash lining up against Hull City for the first time since he’d scored a 90th minute goal for Cambridge in a 2-0 win at the Abbey in March 1999. Commendably, everyone involved in the game saw it as three points being up for grabs and nothing else. We’d had time to get used to Phil Brown no longer being part of the set-up at the KC, but seeing Ash in a Preston shirt just didn’t sit right. While Preston looked ten times the team we’d beaten only four months earlier, Ash’s reaction at the final whistle of a 1-0 City victory was to sprint straight to the changing room. It would have been nice for the fans to be able to give him the send off he deserved, but he’d just been beaten and it wouldn’t have impressed the Preston fans to be seen lapping up any sort of adulation after a defeat. Sentiment is for fans, not players.
Ash’s time at Preston didn’t come close to emulating his time with Hull City. Though Preston’s form improved in the second half of the 2010/11 season, they were still relegated, and Ash never endeared himself to the Deepdale faithful. Indeed, in the 2011/12 season, as Preston took up residence in the middle to lower reaches of League 1 and Phil Brown’s popularity among the fans plummeted, Ash – out injured from October onwards – was generally lumped in with his former manager when it came to any criticism that was being meted out.
Neither had been able to reignite the magic they’d created at the KC, and both were seen as little more than expensive failures. Fewer than two months after Brown was sacked from the Preston job, Ash had his contract with the club paid off. It was a sad way for such a legend to see out his career. Within a few months, Ash – no doubt mindful of what he’d put his creaking knees through – was working in a high-end jewellers in Hull, attending games at the KC. His retirement hasn’t been given anything like the fanfare it deserves.
This isn’t a rise and fall story, however. Ash’s Hull City career perhaps tailed off a bit, and his time at Preston barely warrants footnote status in his grand list of achievements, but that does not taint his legendary status within Hull City or football in general. Few players in their mid-30s can match the feats of their mid-20s. It’s a shame that Ash couldn’t wind down his career at Hull, carried around the pitch on his team-mates’ shoulders after his final game while a packed KC gave him the send-off he deserves, but football rarely works like that. In Ash we’d had a captain in the truest sense of the word. He didn’t just shake his opposition number’s hand and toss a coin before the kick-off. At his best he cajoled, harassed, enforced and downright terrified team-mates and opponents alike into doing things his way, a way that saw us win games.
He was as comfortable holding the fort in front of the back four as we stuck three or four past some hapless opposition defence as he was throwing himself into tackle after tackle as we ground out a 1-0 win in sub-zero temperatures in mid-January. With Ash, the armband took on a significance that is all too rare in any sport. Despite the wobbles in form, despite the question marks over his ability, Ash would never disappear from a game, never shirk from his responsibilities. He’d have bad games, but never quiet ones. His commitment and bravery meant that even when you were frustrated by a misplaced pass you could never stop admiring the guy. And you never, ever should.
So there you have it: 264 appearances, 13 goals, six sendings off, three promotions, two career-threatening injuries… there’s only one Ian Ashbee, and it was a privilege to have been led by him on as thrilling, enthralling and rewarding an adventure as football is likely to throw up anywhere in the world.