The greatest captain in Hull City’s history celebrated his 40th birthday on Tuesday. We barely need an excuse to wax lyrical about his phenomenal career with the Tigers between 2002 and 2011, but hey, we’ve got one. So, we’ve selected five things that epitomise the colossus that is Ian Ashbee…
1: That goal at Yeovil
Ashbee wasn’t ever a prolific scorer from midfield but was also not expected to be, with his tenure as City captain coinciding with the hiring of some fine natural strikers and decent goalsniffing midfielders. Yet when he did score, it was often memorable. His header at Barnsley in the 2007/8 promotion season, the similar one that won a tight game against Crystal Palace shortly afterwards, his strike on the opening day of 2010/11 against Swansea after a year out with injury. But when we think of Ashbee and goals, we can only think of his curling shot at Yeovil, 2003/4.
It would have still been a brilliant, brilliant goal even if City had been mid-table nonentities and 4-0 down in the game, let alone chasing a first promotion since 1985. But it was a goal that iced a particularly delicious cake, as City finally dragged themselves out of English football’s putrid lowest division after eight unforgiving and, at times, embarrassing years.
What made it all even better was that Ashbee’s goal directly took City up. It was the winner in a 2-1 victory in Somerset. And it’s a goal nobody will ever tire of watching again and again.
2: That spat with Danny Mills
You imagine a character as abrasive and self-satisfied as Mills could start an argument in an empty room, so crossing Ashbee would have been very simple for him indeed. Mills was, of course, an effective loan signing when he turned up early in the 2006/7 season but whatever talent he showed on the pitch didn’t equate with his popularity in the dressing room, the domain of Ashbee and Ashbee alone.
The disagreement between two of football’s stronger personalities continued in a game at the Circle against Charlton the following season when, after an 18-man brawl, Ashbee got his marching orders after Mills opened his sizeable gob to implicate the skipper to the referee. Ashbee continued the row with Charlton assistant manager Phil Parkinson – the man who brought Mills to East Yorkshire when manager of City – as he headed down the tunnel and, presumably, plotted his revenge.
He didn’t have to wait long. Ashbee’s clinical, professional and delightful baiting of Mills in the return fixture at the Valley was a joy to witness as Mills trudged off the pitch, dismissed for abusing a ref when booked for simulation. One cannot imagine Ashbee and Mills meeting for ale and reminiscences much to this day.
3: That exclusive scoring record
We’ve already said Ashbee shouldn’t be remembered for his goalscoring activities – he only got 12 throughout his time with us. But he is unique among City players as the only one to score in all four divisions for the club – something he completed innocuously against Blackburn in 2009 when volleying in a close-range consolation in a 2-1 loss.
But of the three outfield players to feature in all four divisions for City, Andy Dawson somehow failed to score in the League One promotion season and Ryan France hardly had a shot during the Premier League era, so once again it was down to the captain. It turned out to be the only Premier League goal he would ever score.
4: That ability to bounce back
Ashbee missed all bar the first six games of the 2005/6 Championship season after the degenerative bone condition he had previously endured was re-diagnosed, threatening his future mobility, not just his footballing career. City had to make do with Keith Andrews anchoring the midfield and to say it wasn’t the same was something of an understatement.
Back he came early the following season, picked still impossibly early for a game at Birmingham, but City were struggling under Phil Parkinson and drastic measures were needed. With Phil Brown taking over as manager and Ashbee leading again on the field, City avoided relegation, got promoted to the Premier League and, finally, stayed up.
Ashbee missed the finale of the Premier League season, however, when a cruciate ligament injury at Aston Villa ruled him out for initially six months, which eventually became a year. A whole 15 months passed before he played again, thereby missing the entirety of the 2009/10 season, at the end of which City were relegated back to the Championship.
It isn’t beyond the wit of many to surmise that City might have had a better chance of staying up if Ashbee had been even partially fit.
5: That sense of belief
Whenever a new manager was appointed – Ashbee was acquired by Jan Mølby, and subsequently played for Peter Taylor, Phil Parkinson, Phil Brown and Nigel Pearson – they bought immediately into the Ashbee legend. Only as Ashbee began to age and his form dipped did a manager dare consider the skipper’s future, and Pearson was aided by a bid from Brown, now at Preston, to take his former batman across to Lancashire.
Ashbee didn’t get along with Parkinson but it was obvious the manager needed him desperately as things nosedived during his five months at the helm. Meanwhile, either side of the Parkinson debacle, Taylor and Brown could not praise him highly enough and the very idea of dropping him was a non-starter.
Finally, that sense of belief applies to Ashbee in himself. It’s a strong man who battles back from two injuries that would scupper many a lesser career, and Ashbee’s strength was his, well, strength. His belief also extended to his ability, as well as his fortitude – every time City got promoted, questions were raised about whether Ashbee was up to the task of competing in a higher division. Every time, he proved comprehensively he was.
Ashbee wasn’t perfect, and our definitive account of his City career details a handful of downs to accompany the many ups his eight and a half years in black and amber experienced. But as a midfielder, a captain, a leader and just as a man, we have never had, and will never have, anybody better. The achievements and standing of Ian Ashbee will be forever without parallel.