Speaking in an exclusive interview with 888sport, the talented forward, whose own career was tragically cut short at 26 due to a long-term ankle problem, acknowledges injury remains a concern for the Manchester United striker but, should he be declared fit, his experience will be key.

“Kane has to start. I’d like to say I was a similar player to Kane and that’s probably why I like him so much, someone with an all-round performance who can be strong and hold the ball up and link the play but is deadly and greedy in front of goal,” said Ashton.

“I would have Rooney behind him if he’s totally fit. He absolutely deserves to start, Wayne Rooney, with his track record for England. Yes, he might have slipped down slightly at Manchester United, but his England performances have always been very good. And we need some experience because if we go with all the inexperienced players we might get found out. So you need experience in there and then you’ve got the pace of Vardy and Sturridge off the bench.”

It may be an opinion that goes against the present grain but that is typical from the straight-talking but highly likeable 32-year-old, who is now carving out a successful career in the media following his enforced retirement in 2009. His views on another forward, however, are much less contentious and will presumably only be met with widespread agreement.

West Ham United’s Dimitri Payet has rightfully been lavished with praise this season following a sensational introduction to the Premier League and, as his team prepare for a crucial hosting of Arsenal this weekend, Ashton has enthusiastically joined the French winger’s long line of admirers. By insisting he is now up there with Upton Park’s revered idol Paulo Di Canio in the fans’ affections, it might even be the biggest compliment yet.

“I would say he is. Already he has done things that have put him into cult status. That’s what West Ham fans love, things that shock you and you’re in awe of and he has done maybe five or six special moments like that this season. That’s why West Ham should build their team around him. He has that affinity with the fans already and loves the pressure of being the big player at West Ham which is something Di Canio had as well.”

Aside from terrorising defences with his blistering pace, those special moments have primarily come from set-pieces, with Payet’s ability with a dead ball defying the laws of physics on occasion. His free-kick expertise has even brought favourable comparisons with another such specialist, though here Ashton draws a line in vanishing spray.

“I trained with David Beckham and stood and watched him practise his free-kicks and it was pretty incredible. Payet has done it recently but Beckham did it so consistently over the years so it would take something special to take over that mantle. But then look at the goal he scored at the weekend. No keeper would have saved that with the dip he got.”

It was indeed little short of wondrous and was yet another highlight in an incredible campaign for the Hammers that has seen them sustain a credible challenge for a Champions League berth. Should that be attained, Ashton is excited about what might lie ahead for a side rejuvenated beyond recognition under Slaven Bilic.

“Any team that makes the Champions League suddenly has doors opened and the chance to attract big names, and the attraction of playing in a new stadium as well would pull players in. I’m pretty sure every West Ham fan would love to see Ibrahimovic come to the Olympic Stadium. I know there have been rumours, and what a signing he would be. He brings experience and flair, and he’s the type of player West Ham fans love who can produce something from nothing. He would be incredible.

“Of course money is a factor with his age but it’s not as if you buy Ibrahimovic and he’s going to flop. He’s just not that type of player. He has already shown he doesn’t need lightning pace, he can just drop back and lead the play and he still scores so many goals.”

Such is the Swede’s stature, we can assume several of the Premier League’s leading clubs will be clamouring for his coveted signature this summer, including West Ham’s opponents this Saturday lunchtime Arsenal. The Gunners need for a 20-goal-a-season hitman has been a long-running saga that has exasperated observers for many a year. Ashton believes it has cost the north Londoners dear.

“We’ve all been saying it for years now but Arsene Wenger is determined to do it his way and he’s not going to answer to anyone. He’s got himself into that position due to his track record at Arsenal but without a doubt they would be better off with a top class striker. If you put Aguero into that team you can’t see how they wouldn’t have won the Premier League this year. Ozil said similar and to be honest it does ring true. They’ve missed their chance. I don’t think they will catch Leicester now with the form they’re in and in any other season if City or Chelsea were up there Wenger would have got away with it. But if Leicester win the league the spotlight will be on Arsene.”

So does he expect the stubborn professor to rectify his team’s shortcomings in the next window?

“I’d say yes but you literally don’t know with Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. He could be linked with all these names again and nothing will happen, then he’ll say he’s keeping Welbeck, Giroud and with Iwobi coming through now he’ll say that’s enough. I personally think they do need to go out and get a Higuain or a Cavani type of player who can really take them on to the next level.”

A Dean Ashton in his prime and free from injury would improve the Gunners no end too, though you feel his allegiance to his beloved Hammers would have prevented such a move occurring anyway.  Last week during a testimonial for Mark Noble we were reminded of what English football was cruelly deprived of when he scored an acrobatic ‘worldie’ at the packed and celebratory surroundings of the Boleyn Ground. It was a goal that put a big smile across social media from fans of every club.

“It was great to be asked to honour Mark Noble’s career, but the side thing for me was to be able to produce something like that at West Ham in front of a full house and my kids, who have never seen me play. That was special. My eight-year-old absolutely loves football and I constantly tell him that I used to be a decent player but he never believes me. Finally he gets it, that I wasn’t a bad player. “

Dean Ashton’s quickfire questions

  1. Who will win the Premier league?
     Leicester will go on and win it.
  2. Who will finish top four?
     Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City. With Aguero in your team if can’t finish top four there are serious problems.
  3. Who will win the Golden Boot?
     Harry Kane. He’s on a roll.
  4. Who will win the Champions League?
     Barcelona. How can you stop them three?
  5. Who will win Euro 2016?
     England of course. 
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