Throughout the 2013/14 season Grimsby Town have been asking fans to write about ‘Marmite Men’ – players fans either loved or loathed. This is my article on the Mariners’ record signing, Lee Ashcroft, which was published in the Braintree match day programme on Saturday 14th September.
For many Town fans, he’s the striker that never provided a satisfactory return on a record-breaking investment. To others, he was a player of undoubted skill that simply struggled to find the form that justified the price tag.
Or, to use a culinary analogy (which seems appropriate given the rumours that he supported the town’s pastry industry), he was like a frustratingly average main course at a restaurant famous for poor puddings.
Record breaking fee
Lee Ashcroft arrived at Blundell Park in the summer of 1998 from Preston for the princely sum of £500,000, paid by Alan Buckley to today’s current Manchester United boss David Moyes. At 26-years old, he joined to bolster the Mariners’ attack to consolidate the club’s place back in the second tier. By the age of 30 he’d be playing non-league football.
In many ways, the transfer was always going to fail. Town had never committed so much money to one player before. It was also a signing that broke previous conventions from the Buckley era. Had he arrived from a lower league’s reserve side for just a few thousand pounds, the fans may have been more forgiving.
But at half a million quid – and with the Mariners still riding on the crest of a double Wembley wave – Ashcroft came with a weight of expectation never seen or felt before in these parts. A mixture of injuries and inconsistent form meant that he failed to command a regular place in the starting XI, which made it difficult for the majority of fans to warm to him.
Sharp, strong, willing, cultured… but frustratingly inconsistent
Ashcroft was neither tall nor fast. In that sense at least, he was a typical Buckley striker. Sharp with the ball at his feet, and strong with his back to goal, Ashcroft crafted opportunities from his willingness to run the channels and take centre backs into areas of the pitch they didn’t want to go.
His debut goal was a cultured one, full of the poise and technique that Buckley was so happy to pay that sum of money for. It came in a 2-1 home defeat to Barnsley when, after receiving the ball from Tony Gallimore with his back to goal, he played a quick one-two with Jack Lester before rolling his marker and sweeping the ball home.
His strike at Bristol City later in the season – when he struck an effort into the top corner from 30 yards out – underlined his obvious talent and demonstrated his ability to conjure something out of nothing. In January 2000 he put in an immense display against Forest, out-witting an experienced back line to lead the Mariners to an epic 4-3 win.
Sadly, such outstanding performances were all too fleeting in his Town career. Sporting a tuft of scruffy dark hair and stubble before David Beckham had made it trendy, Ashcroft often coupled his untidy appearance with untidy performances. One week he’d kill the ball with an excellent first touch; the next week his close control would end up in the main stand.
The partnership with Jack Lester
Given the transfer fee, it was all too easy to demand 20 goals a season. However, Ashcroft was never an out-and-out striker. His most productive season was his second at Town, when he and Lester struck up a particularly fruitful partnership. His accuracy from the spot was constantly tested as Lester enjoyed a typically assiduous campaign hitting the floor in the box. Ashcroft never missed from 12 yards.
And just as that partnership was establishing itself as one of the division’s best, Lester moved to Forest for £300,000. It was a massive blow to the team, the fans and the partnership, and it signalled the beginning of the end of Ashcroft’s career as a Mariner.
The slide into Non League
Although he finished the season as Town’s top scorer with 13 goals, he was sold to third division Wigan for a reported £350,000 in July 2000. The fact that he joined a town famous for its pies was one not lost on Town fans.
Sadly it was the same story at the JJB Stadium. After a decent first season for the Latics under Bruce Rioch he fell out of favour in the second. Unsuccessful loan spells at Port Vale and Huddersfield was followed by his release in February, and he saw out the season playing for Southport in the Conference.
His rapid decline through the leagues following his departure from Town wouldn’t have come as a surprise to some. However, to those who saw the glimpses of the quality he had (which includes me, a handful of other Town fans and the England Under 21 bosses that gave him an international cap in 1992) it tells the story of what happens when gifted individuals fail to translate their latent ability into results on the pitch.
Today Ashcroft manages Northern Premier League first division north side Northwich Victoria following six years at the helm of Kendal Town. He was in the news earlier this year for abusing a female opposition coach, which led to him receiving a 10-game ban.