In a playing career spanning almost a decade, an international Three Lions career and Premier League highlights, for Dean Ashton, playing in the League Cup is worthy of its place among his own personal pinnacles.
Although he fell short of reaching Wembley Stadium, Ashton, who featured in the competition for the likes of Crewe Alexandra, Norwich City and West Ham United, looks back fondly upon his memories of playing in the League Cup.
“I always thought it was a fantastic opportunity to play against some of the best teams in the country and some of the best players in the country,” he mused. “At that point in my career, I wasn’t able to, so those nights were very special. I remember playing against Manchester United in one tie – that was incredible playing against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
“As you go up the Leagues then it’s even harder to get your place in the side in a League Cup tie. I always saw the Cup competitions, especially the League Cup, as an opportunity to play, to score goals and to impress the manager.
“I love Cup competitions, so I wanted to get through and reach the dream that everybody wants. It never quite happened to me. It was a competition I always wished I’d gone further in.”
One of Ashton’s former teams, West Ham, booked their place in the 2021/22 Carabao Cup Quarter-Final in spectacular style, dumping defending champions Manchester City from the competition in Round Four.
The Hammers and the Cityzens took it down to the wire, with the hosts eventually seeing off dominant City, who hadn't been beaten in the competition since 2016 and on the verge of a record fifth-consecutive title, on penalties.
And David Moyes’ side have had to treat a particularly tricky path in order to reach the Quarter-Final, overcoming Manchester United in Round Three.
“There’s no doubt that West Ham fans, once that draw was made after they got through a difficult game against Manchester United to then get the four-time consecutive winners Manchester City, I can just hear the groans,” Ashton explained.
“David Moyes didn’t see it like that. He put out a strong team and they had a game plan which they executed very, very well. It was a special night. Already I’ve spoken to some West Ham supporters who said how special that was, and that’s what the competition can do – it can give lots of Clubs incredible nights and that was no different for West Ham.”
At the end of October, the Hammers found out their fate for the next round, drawing cross-city rivals Tottenham Hotspur away in the Quarter-Final and, although it won’t be an easy feat for Ashton’s ex-employer, the 38-year-old has tipped them to go all the way.
“If you’d have asked me right after they beat Manchester City, I’d have said that they’d be clear favourites but since Antonio Conte has come into Tottenham, I think it’s a different proposition,” he said. “It would surprise me if he rests any players with the way I’ve seen him put teams together for all different competitions during his reign.
“I really fancy their chances. For West Ham, this competition is a fantastic opportunity to get to a showpiece Final and win a trophy. I think they will edge out Tottenham. It’s going to be very, very close and I can see it being a high-scoring game - I think 3-2 to West Ham United.”
The Swindon-born forward, who was forced to hang up his boots in 2009 after suffering a career-ending injury, used EFL competitions to make his mark in the game, having also turned out in the EFL Trophy for the Alex.
And Crewe, who reached the Papa John’s Trophy Round of 16 last week, have a 100% record in the competition this season.
“I was so young when I first got in at Crewe that it was just a joy to play in these competitions. I saw it as an adventure. They still use this competition to strengthen the young players and give them the experience they need, which is why they’ve done so well in the competition.
“Maybe Crewe might just surprise a few. Because they’ve got such a good youth system, the young players that come through, like they did when I came through, are of a very high standard.
“I’d forgotten how fantastic the EFL is and how many current players come through the EFL, just as I did. To now be able to cast an eye over some of those players and see how they go on in their career is really special for me.”