This article was published in the Official Dunfermline Athletic Football Club Match-Day Programme on the 11th August 2018, against Ross County. Thanks to DAFC for allowing me to publish this interview on my website
Dunfermline defender Lee Ashcroft is expected to lead the Pars out this afternoon as Ross County visit East End Park for the first SPFL Ladbrokes Championship match of the 2018-19 season for the Pars in front of their home fans.
After signing a 2-year extension to his contract with the Fife side, Ashcroft has been named captain following the departure of Callum Morris – to today’s opposition – over the summer.
“I’ve been at this club two seasons now and it has flown by so fast! I have absolutely loved my time with the club so far; I would say it has been the most enjoyable two years of my footballing career to date, to be honest. The fans, staff and players have been good with me, so, it was an easy decision to re-signed and I was delighted to commit my future for the next couple of campaigns to Dunfermline.
I would say it has been a successful spell for us so far, since I joined the Pars. We have been a bit inconsistent at times, but, I feel that is us just getting to grips with the league and what it is all about. In saying that, that has probably been our biggest downfall because the squads we have had should have been right up there challenging. It has been a big learning curve and while we improved again last year by getting to the play-offs, I feel we should have progressed further than we did: of course, that game up at [Dundee] United was a bit of a kick where it hurts for us all connected to Dunfermline as I felt we were the better side, especially ut Tannadice. It was gutting to get beat, but, overall, I would say we have done well over the last two seasons. The gaffer has improved the squad again this summer and we have all gelled really well, really quickly, as can be seen from our start to the season in the BetFred Cup and then the Championship last weekend. Hopefully we can carry this on and get as good a start, if not better, than what we did last year – we had a wee sticky patch in the middle but I would like to think we can eradicate that this term with the experience we have gained as a club and with the group of players we have in the dressing-room, as we all want to be up there and battling it out at the top of the league.”
Ashcroft admits it was a hard close-season following the massive disappointment of crashing out of Premiership contention in the play-off quarter final, but, had no reservations about re-joining the Pars.
“It was hard, but, we don’t want to dwell on that too much. The guys that are back again this term will definitely learn from that night – especially wee things like being 1-0 up at half-time when it really should’ve been 2 or 3-0. That is football, though, and they caught us out and went on to get another goal. We lost our legs a wee bit and we just couldn’t get back into the game, unfortunately. As I said, that was a steep learning curve for each and every one of us and we will bring that into this season to motivate us to push on again and make sure we go one better this time around and get promoted.
I think it’ll be hard to better our results from the first quarter of the campaign from last year, but, we will try. We have a lot of familiar €€€€€€faces in the squad this season and that has helped us hit the ground running this term, in my opinion. We had a great start by winning every match and topping the group in the BetFred Cup, so, it is about building on that now and kicking on in the league. We have started good, but, it is just the beginning and we have a lot of hard work to put in if we are to be successful this season.”
Lee missed a part of pre-season but has hit the ground running since his return to the starting line-up.
“Pre-Season is never an easy time for any player, at any club, but, Gary [McColl – Sports Scientist] is great and always keeps us ticking over across the summer break and I think that is the way of life these days: most boys generally keep themselves fit anyway compared to back in the day where you had to do a lot of running to get you fit. Now boys are coming back fit and raring to go from the off, even during pre-season, and I think that has shown with us and the results and performances we have put in so far.
I’ve felt great, myself, personally. I feel excellent, in fact, as I done a lot of work over the summer holidays too. It wasn’t ideal missing a couple of pre-season matches, but, I have been able to work my way back into the side. I have a few 90 minutes under my belt now, so, I am ready to go for the upcoming season. I’ve loved this season so far as we have a great squad and we are in a great position where we can change things up if needed, which keeps everyone on their toes. I think the 3 of us at the back [Lee Ashcroft, Mark Durnan and Danny Devine] have formed a great partnership together already, but, there will continue to be big tests asked of us over the coming weeks. We have also got Lewis Martin and Stuart Morrison around us, so, we know we can’t let our standards slip. The confidence is flowing through our veins right now and I hope that is being shown out on the park in what we are producing for the fans on the pitch. If we can continue to pick up positive results over the next couple of weeks, it will be hard to displace us and that has to be our motivation.”
Conceding only 2 goals during their BetFred Cup campaign helped the team pick up four wins out of four, heading into last weekend’s league opener.
“I think that is probably one of your biggest goals as a defender, to get a clean-sheet. The two that we did concede were easily avoidable as well; at the Brechin game, it was just a lack of concentration and the one against Stirling was a good move from their point of view but we could have done things better to stop them from getting a shot in, but, in general, we have all felt quite comfortable defensively so far and hopefully that can continue over the course of the campaign. With no disrespect to the teams we came up against in the BetFred Cup, but, they were comfortable, professional, performances: I know in 3 out of the 4 games we were favourites and I think we showed that on the pitch. I felt we played well, scored lots of goals and then, away to Dundee in our hardest match of the group, we came up against a strong team but we defended superbly and probably should have scored again too. We showed a good a team we are, in my opinion, but, we are not getting ahead of ourselves – we are just taking things one game at a time.”
After a 3-2 away victory against Csaba Laszlo’s Dundee United 7 days ago, Ashcroft and his team-mates now come up against Championship favourites, Ross County.
“I think it is going to be a very close division this year. Every team can pick points up against one another and there’ll be a few strange results each week. Nothing will surprise me with the Championship anymore. We just need to focus on ourselves and worry about our own results. If we take care of ourselves and are sitting at the top end of the table come Christmas time, we will take a lot of confidence from that and will hopefully kick on further.
I was absolutely delighted to be named Dunfermline Athletic captain for the 2018-19 season by the manager; he spoke with me a few weeks ago and told me he was going to be naming me as the skipper. I am very honoured to be given this role at this club and I have loved leading the team out so far. Hopefully we can keep this good form up as that’ll allow us to be successful come the end of the season. If I can help boys along the way then that can only stand us in better stead as a club: I will always give 100% and I am determined to be as good a captain as I can be this season to lead the club back to where they want they want and deserve to be.”
The captain’s armband isn’t a new experience for ‘Ashy’ who also marshalled his Kilmarnock team-mates during his time at Rugby Park.
“I had it for 7 or 8 games at Killie and a fair few times at this club as a stand-in too, so, it isn’t anything new to me. When I was first given it, I was really young, and, it was a privilege to be trusted at such a tender age while learning my trade in the Premiership, especially as we had hard matches in that spell against Aberdeen and Celtic. I feel I have always been a strong talker and communicator on the pitch and someone who has tried to drive others on around me when things aren’t going our way so I don’t feel it is taking me out of my comfort zone at all, I think I am ready for the challenge of leading this club on the pitch and I am positive we will do well this season.
That is the best way to look at it, from my point of view: just go out and play your natural game. Of course, I will have some added responsibility as captain, but, this won’t change the fundamentals of going out motivated every week, giving 100% and trying to win football matches for Dunfermline Athletic. I won’t play well every game, just like everybody else who will have the odd off-day, but, we have a strong enough squad to make sure we pick up results more often than not. Big Cal [Callum Morris] brought in the huddle last y year when things weren’t going well so I have these wee decisions to consider, but, the boys have been flying so far, so, I will just continue doing my job as I am just now. If results continue to go well and we keep doing what we are doing then it’ll be fine, but, if I can find anything which would help the lads ahead of a game or even during it then I’ll definitely implement that as and when required. They’ve been great so far, as I’ve said: we’ve got a professional squad and they all know their jobs so as things stand, they aren’t needing any added extras from me as they all know what they are doing and what needs to happen if we are to win most weeks.”
What is the overall remit for Lee and his team-mates this season? Is promotion the goal?
“I think, like at every club at this stage in the season, all the boys are confident that we can go and do something special this season. Hopefully we can get the club promoted as that is the goal. It is going to be a long hard season; there’s a lot of difficult teams in the Championship and a lot of teams will fancy their chances in this league this term, so, we will just keep ourselves to ourselves and make sure what we are doing is right, as, if we play well then we know we are more than capable of beating teams in this division. We need to make sure we continue to train right, prepare well and perform on the pitch – if we do that, we will hopefully see Dunfermline at the top end of the table: it’d be great to repeat what St Mirren done last year, in terms of consistently winning and building up momentum as that is what made the difference at the end of the season. Each game is tricky in its own way and we respect every side we come up against, however, when we saw the fixtures, we knew the first two matches [against Dundee United and Ross County] were massive games to kick off the campaign with. We are just looking to continue our run because, at the end of the day, we need to face these teams anyways, so, it is fine that we are facing them early on as if we can get another win and get a wee advantage against them this soon in to the league term then we will be buzzing with confidence, but, again, we know how hard this match will be this afternoon and we are under no illusions that Ross County will travel here to East End Park confident of picking up 3 points too.
We had a brilliant start last year and teams, I would say, got to a stage where they didn’t like facing us and they didn’t want to come up against us and hopefully that is the same right now.”
Callum Morris and Declan McManus will return to Fife this afternoon with the Staggies but Ashcroft will not be giving a helping hand to his mates on the pitch.
“You make friends in football, but, when you are representing your team and playing for your club, then, apart from the guys on your side, you don’t have any pals out there. For 90 minutes, you are only focused on winning the match and helping your team-mates out, until that final whistle blows. You can shake hands after it, but, while we are up against each other, there’ll be no love lost as I am sure they will be trying their hardest for their new club and team-mates, just like I will be doing today. We all play to win and I am no different.
If the fans can keep turning up in their numbers then that’d be great as we really appreciate the support and it really helps us while out there on the pitch. When the atmosphere gets going and the stadium is buzzing, it transfers on to the pitch and the players really do take a lift from that because we try our hardest for you each and every time we cross that white line. Even when things haven’t been going well, you’ve always turned up in your thousands: it is so encouraging to see around 3,000 Season Tickets being sold as that shows everyone how big a club this is: the away support once again last week was tremendous, like it always has been since I joined the club. If we can all stick together and continue this positive vibe which is around the place right now, I have no doubts that it’ll be a successful season for us all.”