A club record signing. A English striker in his mid-twenties. A player of precocious power, with more than enough ability to lead the line. A few England caps and some impressive moments at international level. A physical style that attracts foot and ankle injuries, injuries that seem to come with regularity. A debut season restricted to only 16 appearances due to said injuries. Which West Ham striker am I speaking about?
If you guessed Dean Ashton, you’re wrong but it’s a depressingly good guess. Andy Carroll, the £15 million record signing, is due to miss at least the beginning of the London club’s Premier League campaign for the second consecutive season. It’s a grating feeling of deja vu for the Hammers fans to have to endure. The striker played 16 times last season, scoring two goals. They have seen this before. In 2006, Dean Ashton was signed by West Ham, for a then club record fee of £7.25 million. He started his West Ham career well, scoring in his first few games and setting up what would be an inspirational run to the FA Cup final that year. He broke his ankle six months after his transfer, and his season was ended after 16 appearances. He would miss all of the next season because of it. The injury eventually ended his career at age 26. West Ham barely coped with Ashton’s permanent absence in 2006/07, avoiding relegation by a hair’s breadth on the final day, after having fought the lingering menace of the drop for the whole season. Last term, with Carroll largely absent, only an inspired February scoring run from Kevin Nolan saved West Ham from the relegation grind. Sam Allardyce’s side finished 13th, but the often turgid football that narrowly secured safety inspired mutinous reactions from the punters. The season ended with the club hunched under a dark cloud. The news of Carroll’s latest setback has only served to further lour the atmosphere.
It’s a conflicting position to be in, for both the club and the fans. As was true with Ashton, Carroll’s ability when injury-free and confident is thoroughly impressive. Although limited by his strictly traditional skill set, Carroll is the most effective aerial threat in the league, maybe in Europe. Arguments against the effectiveness and relevance of this approach as a whole are varied, numerous and often convincing, but it’s very difficult to deny that Andy Carroll wins the vast majority of the headers he contests. He is a beast in the air, it’s just a fact. 6 ft 4, with a majestic leaping ability, just look at the way he absolutely bossed the Swansea defenders around in that infamous game last season, a match only ended prematurely by an outrageous piece of acting from Chico Flores. Still, West Ham won that game because of Carroll’s dominance over the smaller defenders and, his red card aside, it was obvious to everyone watching that he can be an effective player for West Ham if used in the right way.
The issue is that, no matter how well Allardyce sets the side up to maximise Carroll’s talents, if his body can’t cope with the physical style he likes to play, then the whole exercise is all for nout. Carroll is a young man, only 25, but has spent most of his short West Ham career out injured. This is where the Ashton comparisons differ slightly; the sad story of Dean Ashton can be propped up around that tent-pole moment, the broken ankle he suffered while on England duty. It was a malady that Ashton would never fully recover from and one that stopped him from ever playing at the same level again. Carroll has had no such moment, no injury of comparable seriousness or significance. His has been more a tale of niggling problems, the inevitable side effects of his soaring leaps and shuddering landings. The heel injury that sidelined him last season had numerous false dawns. He was set to return, but then a setback would occur. He was reported to be training lightly, only for a related issue to crop up. It was less a matter of “no news is good news”, and more “any news is bad news”. When he eventually did return, he barely had time to warm up before the season was over. A lack of any quality understudies made last season particularly painful to watch at times, hence the booing.
Allardyce has made sure that a lack of positional depth won’t be an issue again, and has secured Enner Valencia and Mauro Zarate as replacement strikers, albeit ones with vastly different playing styles. If nothing else, this will ensure that the West Ham faithful won’t be subjected to the horror of seeing Modibo Maiga playing too many minutes up front for the club and, to a lesser extent, Carlton Cole. Hopefully the new men will flourish in the Premier League next season. But then what of Carroll, the record signing? Even if his recovery goes completely smoothly (which, if history is any indication, it won’t) he will still be unavailable for at least four months. How long can a player not play before he becomes a liability? Dean Ashton was forced into retirement at age 26, a year older than Carroll is now. So, though Carroll is still very far away from such a harrowing decision, for many West Ham fans his injury troubles are bringing to mind frightening echoes of crocked strikers past.