Here’s why you’re wrong about Ashley Cole
Let’s not beat around the bush: for many, Ashley Cole is the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with modern football.
There was his betrayal of Cheryl Tweedy, the 104mph speeding fine, the swearing at police. Then he shot that work experience guy with an air rifle and released an ill-advised autobiography. Plus there’s the time he called the FA a #BUNCHOFTWATS on Twitter, even though it was a great hashtag.
Worst of all, in the eyes of the fan kangaroo court, was his perceived greed. Especially when he was left “trembling with anger” about a weekly wage offer from Arsenal – £55,000 – that most ordinary people can only dream of earning in a year.
Does he deserve such opprobrium? A little, perhaps. He admits that “half” of the tabloid tittle-tattle was true. And we wouldn’t want to be that work experience kid. But frankly, Cole has been wrongly maligned on pretty much everything that counts.
He may be a product of modern football, but where it really matters – performances – he’s one of the few English footballers of the last decade who can hold their heads up high.
Firstly, the money. Break it down for a moment. Premier League clubs are richer than Croesus: the last round of TV deals pumped five billion pounds into their coffers. Where would you like this cash to go? While there’s a conversation to be had about ticket prices, the fact is that the majority will always be spent on paying players.
Are wages insane? Yes. But the skills of such players are the reason the Premier League is successful, and therefore rich. Our continued interest in them is the only thing keeping the juggernaut going. It’s the same reason Tom Cruise keeps turning up in Mission Impossible films, despite the fact he’s consequently proven the missions are very possible.
The Arsenal transfer saga was Arsenal’s fault, not Cole’s. He was being paid £25,000 a week, got promised £60,000 by the board, but was then offered £55,000. Imagine this is your annual salary on the line, and another suitor was willing to offer you double. But then you’re suddenly offered far less than many of your colleagues. For Cole to feel undervalued by a team he’d supported all his life was natural. He was soon on £120,000 a week at Chelsea. Would you really act differently?
Meanwhile, the key reason supporters get annoyed with players – a level of commitment not matching their bank balance – could never be levelled at Cole. He’s always been the fittest, most non-stop member of any team he’s played for. One minute he’s plaguing the opposition down the flank, the next he’s bombing it back down the touchline to steal the ball from the toes of a nippy winger, so his talents were only as good as his energy levels, which were high.
His role for Arsenal’s Invincibles cannot be ignored. Wenger’s greatest achievement cannot be celebrated without mentioning Cole. He was one of their best operatives as they won two titles and three FA Cups, bolstering a strong left channel alongside Robert Pires and Thierry Henry.
Indeed, there’s a sense that Cole, who like most footballers started out because he loves the game, plays less for the money than some. He’s still plugging away at LA Galaxy, apparently earning under £4,000 a week, because he likes it. Many would have hung their boots up by now. “You love football, and you can’t believe you’re doing it professionally,” he says.
At Chelsea, meanwhile, he was nothing short of sensational – and he improved his defensive game under the pragmatic Mourinho. One of their most defensively reliable but offensively incisive players, he was first name on the team sheet for years, as the Blues scooped a title, four FA Cups (Cole has won more of those than any other player), a League Cup and the Champions League.
With his speed, anticipation and timing, he even occasionally made Cristiano Ronaldo look ordinary. From Manchester United v Arsenal to England v Portugal, the pair’s touchline battles were legendary for a short period. “He doesn’t give you a minute to breathe,” says CR7, who once named Cole as his hardest ever opponent.
More than just blocking crosses and bombing forward, during his Chelsea days, Cole made many crucial goal-line clearances (especially in their 2012 Champions League run) and volunteered for penalties when others hid, including in their 2012 Final shoot out.
Yet it’s for England that he should win the most credit. Cole was an international at 21. He’s the seventh most capped player of all time for the Three Lions, with 107 appearances – one more than Bobby Charlton.
“He’s the best left-back ever to play for England,” says Stuart Pearce, who should know. Gary Neville, Gary Stevens and Phil Neal have a case for best full-back, but none played as steadily, for as long, as Cole. He’d make the all-time England XI.
“I’m proud, privileged and overwhelmed to play for England,” he says. “From being a little boy from the East End, you would never think you’d get a chance to represent your country.”
Teammates say he’s a fine mentor to young players, and a great friend. Steven Gerrard called him the “most consistent England player of the last 12 years”. In an era when England constantly disappointed, Cole was one of the very few players you could not point at for letting the side down. He just didn’t have bad games.
Off the pitch he may have had the odd brainless spell. On it, however, he was always quietly effective. The staff loved him, too: he even used to stay behind and help the kit men unload after overseas away matches.
He seems to have learned his lesson from his spell as a textbook idiot, too. You never see Cole in the pages of Hello! any more. He even did the very un-English thing of expanding his horizons and playing in Italy, deciding to “experience a new culture.” Roma wasn’t a massive success but he gave it a shot, which is more than can be said of some of his compatriots.
He’s on social media, but he doesn’t get too involved, and hasn’t even revealed the name of his son, who he occasionally posts soppy pictures of. All in all, it’s time for a rethink.
In fact, Ashley Cole, we salute you. Just leave the air rifle at home.