‘Ashley, sometimes you’re a little sensitive,’ Darren said as they sat playing Playstation one night. ‘Just admit it was birdshit and make some joke about it being lucky.’
Ashley was sensitive but he was also a victim. It was all well and good Fletch saying that he should lighten up but he was the one who’d told the press that Ashley’s best attribute was diving. That had really fanned the flames. The papers reported his new film franchise ‘Dive Hard’ and photoshopped him next to Tom Daley at the Olympics. At least they made him look like someone in demand. But what was he meant to do – wait for defenders to tackle him? No, there was no way his brittle bones could take that.
Ashley had watched the clip hundreds of times – it was definitely birdshit. It dropped from the sky just as he was moaning at a teammate, just as he reached the vowel in ‘ball’ and his mouth was at its widest. There were no two ways about it, but he wasn’t about to confirm the rumour and become even more of a laughing stock. Not when his United career was finally on the up again. Sir Alex and Moyesy had lost interest in his twinkle toes but LVG still saw potential. Like Gok Wan, he had plans for a makeover.
‘Let me be honest,’ LVG began, as if that were a novel idea. ‘I’d never heard of you. When I saw you, I assumed you were one of the youth players, quick but naïve, like a little lamb to the football slaughter. But Giggsy tells me you’re actually nearly 30. I laughed and then checked Wikipedia. It turns out he’s right. We need some older players and we need a left-back. So act your age and play where I tell you, and we’ll get along just fine.’
Ashley agreed to the transformation and now he was a starter, despite not giving up those impossibly large shirts. Sure, they’d lost to Swansea but Luke Shaw was always injured and Daley Blind was Mr Versatility. For now, his spot was guaranteed. They said birdshit landing on your clothes was lucky – well, surely birdshit landing in your mouth was extra lucky.
Tackling wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he worked hard and learnt his new role. He even got booked in his first two games. He was following in illustrious footsteps – Phillip Neville, Quinton Fortune, Alex Buttner and John O’Shea to name but four. No longer could he gallop wildly down the wing at will, cutting inside onto his right foot like clockwork. They used to call him the best crosser in the Premier League. He had as many England caps at Darren Anderton. At Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill had compared him to Messi and Ronaldo. That was seven years ago; those ‘other world-class players’ seemed a long way away now.
He had defensive responsibilities, especially with Tyler Blackett in the team. The United fans weren’t best pleased. ‘£60million on Di Maria and we’ve still got Youngy at left-back!’ they said. Their exasperation hurt but this time it made him more determined. Ashley wasn’t someone prone to self-analysis but he did think that perhaps he’d got a little too accustomed to life in the safe lane with the soft landings. Not anymore, however. Things had changed. He was a senior player now – LVG had said so. And Ashley would do anything to make the team, including eat birdshit.
The fans seemed somewhat disappointed when he picked up a groin strain. He wasn’t used to such adulation. Ashley vowed to come back even stronger; mentally, if perhaps not physically. On his return, he graduated to left midfield but he knew his role and held his shape. Occasionally, however, he showed signs of that attacking Ashley of old. Against Villa he got those twig-like legs going and beat the full-back to the byline. He fell like he’d been hit by a freight train but not before whipping in a perfect left-foot cross for Falcao to head home.
Ashley saved his best for the biggest stage of all. In the Manchester Derby, he scored United’s first and set up the second for Marouane. They were 2-1 ahead and they shared the hug of the redeemed. Heading wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he found himself in the striker’s position, six yards from goal with not a single defender’s boot to fear. With the pressure on, he panicked and headed limply into the floor. It looked like the ball hurt him and he seemed to ask for a penalty.
The new Ashley didn’t let that get him down, though. Instead, he whipped in a great free-kick for Chris Smalling to make it 4-1. The man of the match award was his and the champagne bottle looked huge next to his little pea head.
‘Youngy, remember when that bird shat in your mouth?’ Fletch joked in the dressing room afterwards.
‘Fuck off, mate,’ Ashley replied. He was thinking of having it added to his ‘ink’, maybe even on his inner lip like Lil Wayne.
In the summer, LVG sold Fletch to West Brom. He gave Ashley a new contract.