By Ed Aarons
It is not hard to understand why Chelsea defender Ashley Cole divides opinion so much.
As he approaches a century of caps for his country, the 31-year-old left-back should be already assured of his place in the pantheon of the greatest players to ever wear the Three Lions' shirt.
And yet if an England fan saw Cole on the street or in their local pub, they would be just as likely to hurl abuse at him as ask for an autograph.
Chelsea’s magnificent triumph against Bayern Munich in Saturday’s Champions League final told you everything you need to know about Cole the player.
A tireless defensive display against two of the world’s best wingers in Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and a coolly-taken penalty in the shootout was absolutely fundamental to his side’s heroic victory.
Ashley Cole's career honours
|3||Premier League titles (2002, 2004, 2010)|
|7||FA Cup wins (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012)|
|1||League Cup trophy (2007)|
|1||Champions League medal (2012)|
|93||Senior caps for England|
He was, of course, referring to the long-running feud with fans of his boyhood club Arsenal – who he left in acrimonious circumstances back in 2006 after rejecting their 'insulting' offer of a new contract worth £55,000-a-week.
Six years and six major trophies later, the decision to move across London certainly seems justified, although his willingness to gloat so publicly will have done nothing for his reputation.
Not that Cole will care in the slightest. Years of negative newspaper reports about his private life and the rocky relationship with wife Cheryl has meant England’s most-capped left-back has developed the thickest of thick skins, almost to the point where he now relishes the criticism that comes his way. And therein lies the rub.
Just as David Beckham has carefully cultivated his 'Goldenballs' personality to become one of the world’s most marketable sportsmen, Cole has embraced his reputation as the man everyone loves to hate. But that is no reason for England fans not to recognise how important he has been for the national team.
The aftermath of the embarrassing exit from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa spoke volumes about Cole’s relationship with the media.
As his approachable namesake Joe spent more than half-an-hour facing questions in the mixed zone following the 4-1 mauling against Germany in Bloemfontein, the Chelsea left-back was conspicuous by his absence after sneaking past the assembled throng of journalists to the sanctity of the team coach.
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Two years on and he will be one of the first names on Roy Hodgson’s England teamsheet for the Euro 2012 opener against France on June 11 having seen off a stern challenge from Everton's Leighton Baines.
If all goes to plan, there is even a chance Cole could win his 100th cap in the final and become only the sixth Three Lions player to reach that landmark.
Some heroic performances in the 93 appearances since making his international debut at the tender age of 20 have shown that this is a player who is totally committed to the national cause.
A monumental tussle with Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-finals of Euro 2004 – when Cole once again showed his nerves of steel by converting from the spot in the penalty shootout - has been described as one of the best displays ever by an England international and he has maintained that level of consistency ever since.
Yet the boos that rang out around Wembley back in 2008 after his calamitous back pass gifted Kazakhstan no more than a consolation goal in a routine 5-1 England victory was an indication of how easily opinion can turn against him.
It is little wonder then that Cole now rarely sanctions an interview, although his plea "to be judged only on my football, not my private life" in a BBC feature broadcast last summer was most revealing.
Because call him what you like - and many have - there is no doubt Ashley Cole is a player any supporter in the world would want in their team.