This article was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on the 27th January 2018 versus St Mirren. Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on my website.
Dunfermline defender Lee Ashcroft has played nearly 150 senior matches in his career to date. However, he may not be at East End Park today if it wasn’t for the janitor at his school tipping off Lee’s local boys club about the former Killie player’s talent at a young age.
Ashcroft didn’t go through the traditional route of pro-youth football before he joined Kilmarnock on a full-time deal.
“I was the same as most of the boys I know – I just wanted to play football and it is what I done every day at school. My old man played Junior football and played a bit of semi-pro with Albion Rovers, so, I got to see him and that maybe helped me start playing as I went up through primary and then secondary school. It was actually my janitor that recommended me to my local Boys Club. I played there for most of my youth and then ended up signing for Hillwood Boys Club when I was 15 for a year. They were a good Boys Club at the time, as we got to the Scottish Cup Final at that time: unfortunately, we got beat. Then, I got a phone call from Alan Robertson at Kilmarnock to come in and do pre-season training. After a month or so, he told me he wanted to sign me.
Myself and my brother chose to go to a lot of my dad’s games when we were younger as my mum worked at the weekend. Junior football is a totally different ball game, it is a bit mad at times, but, I would say we are pretty similar in terms of position and style of play. He had a bit about him, to be fair; nobody would mess with him! I would like to think I am calmer while out on the pitch. I think I have been very lucky to go from where I was, to full-time football with Killie: I owe a lot to Alan Robertson who supported me quite a bit. I just enjoyed playing football when I was younger, just kicking a ball around with my mates. I was never under any pressure from my family or myself. I wasn’t the best in school – I could have been but I enjoyed playing football with my mates too much and I didn’t do as well as I should have done, I would say. I would like to think I was lucky because I left school and basically went straight into full-time football, barring a few months when I was at college. I left school in fourth year, but, I didn’t complete the full year of my college course so I didn’t receive any qualifications. I was doing a sports based course – one of my coaches at Hillwood got me involved with that, but, when I got the offer from Kilmarnock I thought “why not?” and I gave professional football a bash. I did enjoy the course, but, I probably wasn’t interested in it enough as what I should have been…I am very lucky the way it has worked out as I was needing to find a job and then the contract with Killie came and I started to bring an income in.”
Ashcroft worked his way up the ranks as he broke into the Killie first-team under current Pars player Dean Shiels’ dad, Kenny.
“It was a bit of a surprise when the offer came, to be honest; I actually played a couple of games for Ayr when I was with Hillwood so I had joined from their big rivals! At that time, Ayr and Hillwood had a little link with the college but I didn’t really enjoy it, as, like I have said, I preferred Boys Club and just playing with my mates. They were more interested in signing me than I was at the time, my head wasn’t really in it to be frank. Then, my dad got the call from Alan Robertson and everything went from there. I think in a lot of ways, I am more determined because of that upbringing as, a lot of boys I have played with have come through the Pro Youth system their whole youth career and things haven’t worked out for them. I would never change the way it happened to me; we played a few Pro Youth sides when I was at Hillwood and we beat a couple of them, so, it wasn’t as if they were a lot better than us. I think when you do Pro Youth, you have more pressure on yourself, so, I am glad the way I done it and thankfully in the end it all worked out for me.
Making the transition into full-time football was definitely something I had to get used to. I was never lacking fitness, I have always been a fit boy. I was never worried about that aspect of it: it was nerve-wracking as at that time, when I first went in, it was Mixu Paatelainen who was the manager and he was an intimidating guy. Then, as a young boy, when you get called up to come and train with the first-team, it is never easy. It is good experience to get though, as you get older and you continue your development. I relished the opportunity to play in the Under-20 games and challenge myself. I enjoyed trying to get better and progressing; every year I felt I was getting bigger and stronger. I had a lot of ups and downs – I felt at times I had a good chance of being in the first-team squad and it didn’t happen and you question if playing professionally is going to happen. It is a hard time when you are that age, it is easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself as one week you might be in the squad and the next you aren’t – a lot of it can come down to “if’s” and “but’s”: it just takes someone taking a chance on you and luckily that happened for me.”
Ashcroft played and trained alongside many well-known, and experienced, players such as Kris Boyd, James Fowler, Paul Heffernan and Sammy Clingan.
“I played a lot of games with the Under-20’s and you could play 5 overage players so that benefitted me a lot as well. We had a good team when I was with Killie’s Under-20’s so it was always good competition and easy to learn from these matches, for myself, personally. I felt these matches were a big part in helping me progress so it is a shame that not every club can afford one, but I understand finances are tight at most clubs these days. I was always dipping in and out of the first-team squad under Kenny Shiels; I done a lot of humming and hawing as I really started to wonder if this was going to start happening or not, but, then I got an injury to my knee which resulted in me needing to get keyhole surgery. I missed a lot of Under-20’s matches but, maybe slightly fortuitously for me, results had went against us, so, I think that had went in my favour once I had come back to fitness.
We were into the split [in the Scottish Premiership] by this time and we were already safe so it got to a stage where a few of us would be given some game-time. That wee bit of experience was great as there was no pressure on: my first start came against Hibs and the other couple of games I was able to enjoy too. I was meant to be involved in the match-day squad prior to that, ironically against Dunfermline at East End Park. I was definitely on the bench but I wasn’t sure if I would be playing or not. I remember travelling up and being quite nervous, as it was a day to look forward to. Once we arrived, the fog had covered the pitch and the match was called off which was gutting as I thought I had a real chance of playing or at least getting brought on. It is just one of they things and for me, it was frustrating as the next week, one of the centre-halves were back fit so I dropped out from the bench.”
‘Ashy’ finally made his senior debut as an 81st minute substitute away to Dundee in a 3-2 victory for Kilmarnock.
“I wouldn’t say it was a surprise; I remember I saw Kenny Shiels and Jimmy Nic [Jimmy Nicholl] talking at the time as, I think, their plan was to give me a wee run-out, as I think the big defender [Mahamadou] Sissoko was struggling for fitness at the time, before I played from the start in the next game, as we had Hibs away midweek. I remember my first touch was from a corner. I remember, too, that it was going in until one of our own players, Rory McKenzie, blocked it on the line! My very first touch in senior football was nearly a goal…even though I was only on for around 10 minutes, it was really good. Then I started against Hibs, so it was good experiences for myself. I think that is the hardest thing as a defender, when you have to come on as a substitute, especially if you are winning the game as then there is a bit more pressure on you as you think “if we end up losing this game, I hope it isn’t my fault!”, but, this isn’t just the thoughts of a teenage defender – even the experienced pros I have spoken to have said it is very hard to come on as a centre-half and get up to the speed of the game. It was quite nerve-wracking, but, we held on, which was a great feeling at the end.
I would say I didn’t feel too bad coming up against Hibs, to be honest – obviously you are a bit nervous, but, Kenny Shiels took me aside before the game and told me to enjoy it. We were already safe in the league, so, that helped me too. My mum and my dad were down to watch the game, but, unfortunately, we got beat 3-1. I can’t remember making many mistakes; it certainly wasn’t my worst game! I was lucky enough to get my senior goal too, scoring past Big Murdo [Sean Murdoch]! I don’t really remember much about my goal, to be honest. As a player, it is all a bit of a blur as, after you’ve scored you have still got a job to do so you are just focused on that and it isn’t until after the game you fully realise you did score. What I do remember though is that when it did go in, I didn’t know what to do as a celebration and I think I ended up just running about like a complete dafty!”
The season’s end came at the wrong time for Lee, but, he was determined to keep his place in the starting eleven the following campaign.
“That was the hardest part [that the season finished], as I just wanted to keep kicking on. I think that was the main point though, that it was the latter part of the season and I was able to get that wee taste of things prior to the break. They gave a few other boys who were in the Under-20’s beside me a chance, too, so, I think it was good for us as they were games I could go out there without any pressure on me and just enjoy the whole experience. We lost both matches I started 3-1, but, I don’t feel we should’ve lost either match, but, that is something I learnt from. It gave me the boost to go away for the summer and keep my fitness up so I can come back into pre-season flying, which I did so. When I came back, it was Allan Johnston who had came in as manager; I was still a young boy at the time and I didn’t get many matches. It was around half-way through the season, after we had been on a run of bad results, where the gaffer through me in – away to Ross County – and from then on, I played well enough and kept my position for the rest of the season. We picked up some good results and it was another good season for me, personally. We played Hibs on the last day of the season, only needing a draw to avoid the play-offs and it was just another amazing day for me. I was happy to sign a 3-year-deal with Killie at that time; it gave me a bit of security, as well, as giving me time to improve. I never played many games at first, but, once I did get another chance, I took it and really showed myself that I can do this and that I can fight for my place. I didn’t get too down as I knew I was still a young lad and it was a new manager. I just kept fighting away, and, at that time, it was Darren Barr and cracking players like that, that I was up against, so, when I got my chance I was just glad I done enough to keep myself in the team and picked up some good results. We never went on any really bad runs or kept losing so I didn’t really give the gaffer an excuse to take me out of the team: I feel it was a really successful year for me. Until I started playing consistently, I didn’t really feel I was a first-team player. It was possibly in the second part of that season where I ended up playing every game, I think, maybe apart from one, from December, so, I then knew I was good enough and able to compete.”
Ashcroft feels he has always been a mature defender despite coming into the senior game late-on.
“I have always had a good disciplinary record. I wouldn’t say I am a nice guy when I am out on the pitch, but, I won’t go sticking the head into people or giving away stupid fouls to get silly bookings. I think it is a part of my game and I don’t think it is a bad thing, to be honest. It was hard at first, it is never easy when you come into full-time football. In the first couple of years, Kenny Shiels put a lot of reserve games on for a lot of the boys who hadn’t had much game time and things like that, so, with me being so young, this helped me learn so much and I wouldn’t change any of that upbringing. To play in those games, against experienced boys and good teams, it was enjoyable but hard. I knew I had a lot to learn, I made a lot of mistakes and I still make mistakes now, but that is part and parcel of future. It was good for me though as I wouldn’t of progressed as much as I did if I didn’t get that exposure to make those mistakes to allow me to learn from them.
Back then, we weren’t doing too great and a top six finish would have been a good achievement as a club, so, I think it is fair to say I have been involved in a few relegation battles, but, as I keep saying, I wouldn’t change that for the world as I have learnt so much from it. These games are hard, especially as a young lad when the fans are on your back, but, this is how you learn; I am glad I have went through a tough time like that as a young lad, especially as we always kept the club up in the Premiership. It was hard to see Allan Johnston go, especially as he had given me such a good run in the team, but, it Gary Locke was his assistant at that time and I got on with him really well, so, it wasn’t too hard to transition at that time.”
After former Hearts and Raith manager Locke took charge at Rugby Park, he placed Ashcroft as captain for a match against Motherwell.
“I remember it came to me as a completely surprise. He called me into his office on the Friday afternoon after training and I was thinking “oh no, what have I done wrong?”, but, basically, he asked me if I was okay to be named as captain tomorrow and of course, I am not going to knock a chance like that back. I am grateful for being given that opportunity and I enjoyed captaining the boys for 5 or 6 weeks. It was another great experience for me, it gave me a lot of confidence, especially being such a young age. We had quite a young team, back then, too, so, it helped me that I had been captain at youth level a few times, too. It does come with a wee bit more added responsibility, but, you can only take it in a good way as it shows the manager has a lot of belief in you; the team back then was full of great lads while also having quite a young team, so, it was good to feel almost as if I was an experienced player helping the boys through the games as well. That year was more up and down for myself, it wasn’t an easy time. It can be slightly frustrating, but, it happens to everyone. I was still confident within myself that I was good enough to play with Kilmarnock.”
Unfortunately for Lee, his final season at Killie was a frustrating one which saw him pick up his first red card, as well as being out of favour under Lee Clark.
“It was the first time I had been sent off, and, to be honest, it was a stupid foul as we were getting beat at the time and it was right at the end of the match. I remember committing the foul and then realising it was a pretty stupid second booking as the game was almost done. I think I made it worse for myself by getting sent-off, but, that was another experience in which I have learnt from and I feel I wouldn’t do that again. It was my fault as I was the one who made the foul and I had to miss the next game; now, I would think to myself – even if we are getting beat – that I just need to keep my composure, bite my tongue and not make anything worse for the team and the manager. The boys had done okay at the time, so, I just had to bide my time until I got back into the team again. On the back of a bad game and having been sent-off, it is difficult to not get straight back out there and make it right. There is nothing harder when you are sitting on the bench or in the stand as you want to get out on the pitch and help the boys, but, as a young defender it is just one of they things; you know as a young defender it is highly unlikely you will get on a substitute, so, you just need to be patient.
Lee Clark was very, very, different to what I had experienced before. He was different in his methods and his approach to training and things like that. Every manager is different, and, to be honest, we didn’t really get on; I didn’t play much under him. I don’t have a problem with him, he just didn’t fancy me for whatever reason, so, I began to think at the end of the season I was leaving so I started to set my eyes on other things, before, out of nowhere he asked me to play in the play-offs for him. I spoke to him, but, I think he knew I wanted to leave by then and he was nice enough to let that happen. The boys, even the experienced players, said it was hard to adjust to what he was trying to implement, but, at the end of the day he is the boss and we just do as we are told. He had these new ideas, such as training at different times depending on the kick-off of the next match, but, to be fair to him, his training was really, really, good. We just needed to get used to it.”
Ashcroft was a focal point in the defence over the play-off matches which kept Kilmarnock in the Premiership at the expense of Falkirk.
“I think it is always in the back of your mind, that you are near the bottom of the league, and that makes things harder. Personally, I wasn’t playing much at the time, so, I wasn’t really thinking about it as much as I was looking for a new club as I wasn’t sure if Lee Clark would be interested in keeping me. I was mainly just training until I got asked to play right at the end of the season. I felt I done well and it was great to end my career at Killie on a high and a positive note. The matches against Falkirk were hard: there was no way, however, that we deserved to be 1-0 down after the first-leg. The fans were frustrated, we were frustrated, the manager was frustrated…it does play with your head as you do question if things just aren’t going to be, but, heading into that second-leg, we knew what we had to do and all the boys were brilliant. It was a hard season for the Kilmarnock fans, as well as for us as players, so, it was great to keep the club up in the end.
I think we had a wee bit of a siege mentality, heading into that final match at home. We had a massive home crowd, and Falkirk brought a large following as well. With us being the Premiership team, we had to wait for the games to be played due to the Championship teams having to play their matches first, so, it was a long couple of weeks, but, once we got back out playing – and even though the first result wasn’t ideal – it gave us a massive boost knowing we were playing the second-leg at home: we started the game on fire and then we were 2-0 up after around 5 minutes. I didn’t want to end my career there with a relegation on my CV, so, it was good to finish up the way it did. I had a lot of tough matches over the first few years of my career, but I think I have improved as a professional football player and I have learnt a lot from them. I have survived relegation battles, I have won the play-offs, so, overall, I think I done quite well. I don’t want to over-celebrate, too much, though, as obviously it was still a poor season for everyone associated with the club and from a personal perspective, I didn’t play that many matches. I would much rather I left the way I did than having played a lot more matches but have gotten relegated as that would have been much harder to accept.”
After leaving Ayrshire in the summer of 2016, Ashcroft signed for the Pars.
“I think the manager here knew I was wanting away and he was quickly on the phone to me. We had a few conversations, but, I already knew Dunfermline were a massive club. I had played there a few times for the Under-20’s and I had been involved on the bench with the first-team, too, so I knew it had a cracking set of facilities and stadium. When the gaffer approached me, I had a good feeling straight away and knew I wanted to join. I knew the gaffer was keen on signing me, which is always a good feeling. I wouldn’t say it was a step-back for me; I knew the league and I knew that there were a lot of good teams in the division, such as Hibs and Dundee United, at that time. I felt then, and still do now, that a lot of the teams in the Championship can easily compete with most sides in the Premiership: it is a matter of fine lines. I think a club as big as Dunfermline would be a brilliant addition in the Premiership and that is where they should be. We played Hamilton in the Scottish Cup last year and we outplayed them in both games; we definitely should have won through the tie and it just showed how little is between the two divisions.
I remember in my first league match for the club we were 4-1 up against Dumbarton and everything felt comfortable. We were almost just waiting on the final whistle as we were seeing the game out. Then we gave away a penalty and it went 4-2. Then I got sent-off after giving away another penalty, which they scored to make it 4-3, but, I was just thankful the boys held out to get the win as it was a disappointing start to last season and it was something I had learn from; I had to take it on the chin and I was just relieved that Dumbarton weren’t able to get a draw or anything like that or it would have been worse. Usually you have to go back into the changing rooms and get yourself showered, but, because there was so little time left I just stood inside the tunnel and I was just happy when the referee blew for full-time!”
Lee has scored 10 goals in his career to date, which allows the defender to affect the game in both boxes.
“I would say I have done not bad, in that regard, considering the amount of games I have played, but, I still feel, and I know the gaffer feels, that I can still do better in this area. The manager is always encouraging me to try score more goals and I know as a centre-half, that is something I am capable of doing, especially when I go up for set-pieces. It is just another part of the game I need to try improve on as in the Championship, corners and free-kicks can be a big part of a match. We didn’t start the season well last year but we did end it strongly. We have had a wee sticky patch about a month ago now, this season, after a flying start to the league, which is hard, as, once you’ve began good, the expectations rise; you get used to winning, so does the fans, so, when it doesn’t happen, it becomes frustrating for everyone involved with the club. Every team will go through a wee sticky phase; hopefully that is ours past and we can kick on again now. We have a massive game tonight against St Mirren. If we can beat them, it will really close the gap on them at the top, so, hopefully we can pick up a positive result tonight.”
The centre-back made 46 appearances for Dunfermline last season and has made 28 this term, the most consistent run in a side Lee has ever experienced so far in his career.
“I think the more you play, the better you get. The more you play, the fitter you get. The fitter you get, the more consistent you are, so, I definitely think last year was a great season for me. I think if we had a better start to the season, last term, then we could have made the play-offs and I think we learnt from that heading into this campaign. We have had a wee blip and hopefully that is ours out the way and now we can kick on. Staying on with the club was always something I wanted to do and thankfully we managed to get the contract sewn up pretty quickly in the summer. I missed the Dundee United game through illness and I think that was the first game I have missed in terms of, not being involved in the match-day squad, at all. I was better off staying away, to be fair, as I had a bit of the man flu!! It was difficult for me, though, as I am not used to missing many matches since I have been here but I have just had to keep my head down and try get going again. You get to know boys in training and it isn’t hard to play with either Cal [Callum Morris] or Big Jean [Jean-Yves M’Voto]. When you go out there onto the park, you first and foremost concentrate on yourself and that partnership at the back as our main aim is to keep that ball out of the net. Both of them are great to work alongside; we work together as a team and help each other along.
I have played a lot of games in my career now. I have loved every minute of it. I have played in a lot of tough matches, but, that is football and it is what you play the sport for. I just want to keep playing as many games as I can; stay injury-free and see where my career takes me. The fans here have been brilliant with me and there are so many good people behind the scenes, involved with the club. It is a brilliant place to be at and it is probably my favourite couple of years playing wise. I love it here and I am glad I made the decision to come. I think we are in a reasonable position – if we hadn’t went through that wee blip, I think we would be right up there with St Mirren, to be honest. We got a great result here the last time we played, so, hopefully things go well tonight and we can repeat that scoreline. Fair play to them, they have created that gap between us, but, on our day, we can definitely beat anyone in this league. We are in a good position and there is a long way to go: we just need to keep doing what we are doing and hopefully we can pick up as many points as we can between now and the end of the season to see how St Mirren and Dundee United cope with that pressure, as well as creating our own wee gap between ourselves and the teams below us.”
To conclude, Lee wants to thank the fans for their continued backing.
“The fans have been brilliant, the way they have supported us this season. We are confident we can get a result against anyone, particularly at home with the backing we have. Obviously, it was disappointing to lose on Saturday to Morton as we know that we can play much better than that. However, the supporters continually stick by us and we just want to do our best for them. We hope we can get a big win tonight which will really ramp up the pressure on the two above us as we all want to get the club back up into the Premiership, where it belongs.”
This article was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on the 27th January 2018 versus St Mirren. Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish my article on my website.