The 32-year-old is not expecting an ovation from the Wembley crowd after a decade of controversy and bad PR, but his astonishing quality and longevity deserve recognition
By Liam Twomey
Some 12 years and 99 caps ago, Ashley Cole’s England debut – a 3-1 World Cup qualifying victory against Albania in Tirana – was marred in injury time when he was struck in the eye by a lipstick case thrown from the crowd as he celebrated namesake Andy Cole’s first and only goal for his country.
The fresh-faced 20-year-old was unhurt, but the incident was to prove oddly prescient of an international career in which every achievement has carried a bittersweet flavour.
His defining performance, brilliantly foiling a young, impetuous and frighteningly-talented Cristiano Ronaldo on a muggy night in Lisbon at Euro 2004, ended in all-too-familiar penalty heartache. Two years later at the World Cup in Germany he repeated the trick, once again in vain.
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Off the field, too, Cole has endured many more missiles in the years since Tirana; mainly metaphorical, in the form of taunts and insults from an unsympathetic public and less-than-favourable write-ups from a mainstream press who have often reciprocated his open hostility.
Admittedly, he has provided them with much ammunition and sometimes even returned fire – occasionally literally, as one Chelsea work experience boy will surely never forget.
It is no surprise, then, to learn that Cole’s induction to England’s prestigious ‘100 Club’ against Brazil at Wembley on Wednesday night may not be met with the same degree of fanfare as those who have marched triumphantly across the threshold before him.
Bobby Moore and Sir Bobby Charlton both boast World Cup winner’s medals. The legends of Billy Wright and Peter Shilton are enshrined in veils of nostalgia. David Beckham and Steven Gerrard have grown in stature with age and responsibility, and now give off almost statesmanlike auras. Cole alone remains a footballer, not an icon.
Not that he cares. For Cole has never given off the impression of being someone who spends much of his day pondering how he is perceived by others, either as a footballer or a man.
Many in north London will never forgive him for the way in which the courtship and consummation of the deal which took him from Arsenal to Chelsea in the summer of 2006 were played out in public, or for the misguided reveal in his autobiography that he “almost swerved off the road” in furious shock when informed of the Gunners’ ‘derisory’ £55,000-a-week contract offer.
For Cole the issue was less financial and more about feeling valued, but the ‘Cashley’ tag stuck. The chants have grown less persuasive in recent years, though, as Arsenal fans have watched their once-favoured son build up his own personal medal collection while their trophy drought stretches on.
The rise and fall of his relationship with Cheryl Tweedy also brought home to Cole the reality of losing the very notions of privacy and control over his image. He took revenge by shunning almost all media, and his stock gradually rose in the absence of negative publicity.
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But through it all, for better or worse, the 32-year-old has blazed his own trail, and overcome the controversy by virtue of his phenomenal talent and peerless consistency. He is still indispensable for England and, at a time of great change at Chelsea, remains the one grizzled veteran Roman Abramovich is loathe to discard.
Wayne Bridge, the same age as Cole and the other outstanding English left-back of his generation, was forced out of the Blues side and earned only 36 caps before fading into obscurity.
Leighton Baines has 13, and appears a more formidable challenger. He boasts considerable attacking prowess and brilliant set-piece quality. He also has form and confidence in his favour. But he has yet to shine outside the comfortable bubble of Everton, and cannot match the uncanny defensive positioning or big-game experience of his older rival.
Cole remains the man in possession, and he has no intention of going away any time soon. “I’m not going to quit just because someone is playing better than me or deserves to play,” he told reporters in a rare media appearance on Tuesday. “There will be a time when I’m not going to be first choice. Leighton is playing very well. He’s having a great season.
“It’s stiff competition, but I’ve had it so many times with [Wayne] Bridge and so many others who were going to take my place. I just keep my head down and keep fighting.”
In Brazil, Cole has an opponent worthy of marking his personal milestone. But will he get a reception to match from the Wembley crowd? For the man himself, whatever may come holds no fears. “I don’t want to sit here and keep going on about wanting to be loved,” he added. “I am here to play football. That is all I want to do.”
They might not admit it, but many England fans are hoping he gets his way for a good while yet.
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