Deano geared up for Premier League return

As West Ham United prepare for the opening match of the new Barclays Premier League season this afternoon, one man will be looking forward to the occasion more than most.

Exactly 12 months ago, Dean Ashton was laid up at home as Hammers kicked off their campaign against Charlton Athletic, having suffered a badly broken ankle just days earlier while on international duty with England.

After a long and demanding rehabilitation programme, the 23-year-old is now finally back to full fitness and, as he reveals in this exclusive interview, can't wait to enjoy a taste of the Premier League again…

Dean, you must be delighted just to be playing football again?

"It's brilliant. I know people are going to be analysing everything I do at the moment, but that's not how I'm looking at it. I'm just going out and really enjoying playing football again. Just the simple things like being able to knock a ball around with the lads and getting myself ready for matches - it's a wonderful feeling.
"Obviously there is pressure when a new season starts but I honestly can't see myself feeling too much pressure any more after what I've been through. I put a bit of pressure on myself to do well, but I just really want to enjoy playing football from now on."

Does it worry you that the spotlight is going to be on you now that you have returned?
"No, because any player who has been out for a year is going to have a hawk-eye on him. I know people are going to be looking at my every move, asking: 'Is he alright?' or 'Is he as good as he was?' and all that sort of stuff, but the last thing I need to be worrying about is what others are thinking.
"I know I'm right, I know I'm fine, it's just a case of getting used to the everyday aspects of playing regular football again."

Are you happy with the progress that you have made since returning to action?
"Yes, very happy. I know I've still got things to work on, but I'm not worried about the football side of things - that is just going to be a matter of time.
"If you are out for two weeks, you can come back and be misjudging headers and things like that, so to come back after a year out makes it even harder, but to be involved in the pre-season build-up was just a bonus in itself.
"That's why I was so pleased to get through my first 45 minutes at Dagenham in our opening friendly of the summer. That was only my 10th day of actual football, so it was still very early days for me in terms of the comeback.
"In your head, you think 'yeah, I'll soon be back to where I was previously' but it really isn't that simple. It is going to take me some time to get back to where I was, although that isn't going to stop me progressing.
"Physically, I am better than I was last year - I'm as fit as I have ever been. But you can just run all day - that doesn't recreate a match situation. Playing football is what I need to do now, and it's a great feeling to know that I am back doing what I love."

Has your outlook on the game - and perhaps life in general - changed now?
"Definitely. After this experience, there is nothing in football that could worry me. The whole situation has changed my outlook massively and it has made me appreciate what I've got. I also think it has made me a lot stronger mentally.
"It may sound a bit daft but, when you can't walk, you suddenly realise what life is like for people who have to suffer that permanently. I now appreciate just being able to run freely and kick a ball - and I want to do that for as long as possible."