Who's the greatest? Pearce v Ashley Cole

The ex-Forest skipper is measured against Chelsea's left-back, his successor as England's No.3 in the fifth part of our series comparing current stars with their nation's legends
By Graham Lister

You might be hard-pressed to find two more dissimilar football men than Stuart Pearce and Ashley Cole. One of them, Pearce, was so thoroughly grounded and down to earth that fans had no difficulty in identifying with him, a fiercely competitive patriot whose passion for and loyalty to his team seemed to ooze from every pore.

The other, Cole, has often seemed to epitomise in which the way the game has changed over the last 20 years, a regular habitue of night-clubs and gossip pages, appearing to many fans to live in a privileged bubble of celebrity - out of reach, and touch, with their own lives. Yet whatever they thought of the man, those fans would never deny the class and consistency of Cole the player.

Indeed, despite the contrasts between them, Pearce and Cole have one obvious thing in common: they have been the best in their position for both club and country. That position is left-back and, given that others who have worn the Three Lions' No.3 shirt include Ray Wilson, Terry Cooper and Kenny Sansom, the pair's pre-eminence among England left-backs is testimony to their excellence.


 798 games / 108 goals TOTAL GAMES/GOALS
646 games / 17 goals
100 games /0 goals
100 games / 1 goal
 2 League Cups
2 Full Members' Cups
1 Intertoto Cup
1 Football League Championship
1 Champions League
3 Premier League titles
7 FA Cups
1 League Cup
3 Community Shields
 Domestic Team of the Decade – Premier League 10 Seasons Awards (1992-3–2001-2)
Nottingham Forest Player of the Year (3): 1989, 1991, 1996
PFA Team of the Year (4): 2002, 2004, 2005, 2011
Uefa Team of the Year (2): 2004, 2010
Chelsea Goal of the Season 2009–10 v Sunderland
Chelsea Players' Player of the Year (2): 2008–09, 2010–11
England Player of the Year: 2010

Both were born in London, Pearce in Shepherd's Bush and Cole in Stepney, but their emergence into professional football could hardly have been more different, helping to shape their respective careers and playing styles.

Pearce failed a trial at QPR, then opted to train and work as an electrician and plumber rather than accept an offer from Hull City, instead playing as a semi-professional for his local non-league side, Wealdstone. He became their first-choice full-back for five years until Coventry City put in a £30,000 bid for him. His next move defined his career, Pearce being the makeweight in a £300,000 deal that took him and Ian Butterworth to Nottingham Forest, and the tutelage of Brian Clough, in 1985.

Cole trod a more typical path, joining Arsenal, the team he had supported as a boy, as a trainee striker in 1997. He was converted to left-back by his mentor, Arsene Wenger, who gave him his debut as an 18-year-old in a League Cup tie at Middlesbrough in November 1999 and sent him on loan to Crystal Palace to further his development before offering him his first professional contract in February 2000.

While Pearce was so lacking any pretensions about his future in the game that he advertised his services as an electrician in the matchday programme soon after joining Forest, Cole always seemed destined for the top, seizing his opportunity early in 2000-01 when Sylvinho was injured and establishing himself in the Arsenal first team so completely that the impressive Brazilian was forced to move on.

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Under Clough there was no danger of Pearce remaining anything other than grounded. He stayed at Forest for 12 years, mostly as captain, and, although nicknamed 'Psycho' by their fans in recognition of his committed, combative, never-say-die approach, he was hard but fair. He respected the authority of referees, as his manager demanded, and led his team by tenacious example. Uncompromising and fierce – Matt Le Tissier, for one, regarded him as his scariest opponent – Pearce was a natural leader whose Forest team-mate, Roy Keane, called him a "man amongst boys".

Pearce was not only resolute defensively but had pace to spare and used it to maraud down the left wing whenever he could. He also possessed a hammer of a shot which was deployed to telling effect at free kicks.

Cole's origins as a striker have always been evident in his impressive attacking attributes and, under Wenger and his assistant manager, former full-back Pat Rice, he allied them to sound defensive technique which, with his natural athleticism and competitive spirit, ensured rapid progress in the game.

Pearce won the League Cup and Full Members' Cup with Forest in 1989, helped them retain the League Cup in 1990 and scored with a trademark free kick in the 1991 FA Cup final, which Forest ultimately lost to Tottenham. By then he had long been established in the England team, having been recognised by Bobby Robson with the first of his 78 caps in 1987, his fourth year as a Football League player.

Cole was fortunate to be among some exceptional players at Arsenal, initially learning his trade alongside such stalwart defenders as Lee Dixon, Martin Keown and Tony Adams, then becoming an integral part of the 'Invincibles' with the likes of Lauren, Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell. Honours came thick and fast in the shape of two Premier League titles (2002 and 2004), three FA Cups (2002, 2003 and 2005) and a Champions League final (2006).

Cole's partnership on Arsenal's left flank with Robert Pires and Thierry Henry was one of the creative springboards of the Gunners' success in that period and he earned selection for the PFA Team of the Year several seasons running. Wenger said of him: "He is a defender who simply loves to attack, defends because he has to defend and because it is part of his job. Everybody loves to play with [him] because as soon as you won the ball back, he was up there to attack."

He also won international recognition, Sven-Goran Eriksson awarding him the first of his 100 caps in March 2001 after just four appearances for the Under-21s side.

One of the differences in attitude between the two players was illustrated by the way in which they reacted to adversity. In 1992-93, Clough's last season at the helm, Forest were relegated. Pearce stayed and helped them win promotion the following season, then helped Forest finish third in the Premier League and progress to the Uefa Cup quarter-finals a year after that. He eventually left the City Ground in 1997 and gave further excellent service to Newcastle (where he was again a losing FA Cup finalist), West Ham and Manchester City, with whom he won the Championship in 2001-02. He endeared himself to the fans of all three clubs.

He is a defender who simply loves to attack ... everybody loves to play with him because, as soon as you won the ball back, he was up there to attack
- Arsene Wenger on Cole

For Cole, however, the offer of an improved contract at Arsenal fell some way short of what he expected and he held clandestine talks with Chelsea about a move, eventually joining the Blues on the eve of the 2006-07 season after a protracted and acrimonious transfer saga. However, if that episode soured his legacy among Gooners, professionally it proved to be a masterstroke as his career blossomed further at Stamford Bridge. Cole has won another Premier League title (2010), four more FA Cups (2007, 2009, 2010 and 2012), a League Cup (2007 – against Arsenal) and the Champions League (2012) with the Blues.

Their contrasting personalties have also coloured the way in which they are perceived by followers of the England national team. 'Psycho' endeared himself to the fans while 'Cashley' often seemed to alienate them. The iconic image of Pearce in a Three Lions shirt is of his explosive, vein-bulging roar of joyous relief after successfully converting his spot kick in a penalty shoot-out against Spain at Euro 96. It finally banished the despair that he had experienced when missing from the spot against the Germans at World Cup 1990 and leaving the pitch in tears. Fans identified with both his pain and his salvation. They knew that England meant as much to Pearce as it did to them.

There has never been that emotional bond with Cole but what there has been, and still is, is a remarkable level of consistency that has seen the Chelsea man widely recognised as one of the very best in his position on the world stage, despite England's failure to add to their solitary 1966 success.

Cole's reliability, composure and positional know-how have made him one of England's most outstanding and reliable performers, a worthy heir to Pearce at left-back, albeit in a markedly different way.

The dedication and selflessness required to reach 100 caps takes some doing. He is the best left-back who has ever played for England by a country mile
- Pearce on Cole

Competitively, on Pearce's CV are England's heroic failure at the semi-final stage of Italia 90, the forgettable Euro 92 campaign under Graham Taylor and their rousing showing on home soil at Euro 96, which was again cruelly if inevitably ended by the Germans in a shootout. Meanwhile, Cole can point to being ever-present at World Cup 2002, a feat that he repeated at Euro 2004 in Portugal, where he was one of four England players voted into the 'All-Star Squad' for the tournament. At World Cup 2006 in Germany his contribution included an outstanding block to deny Ecuador's Carlos Tenorio and he appeared in all four of England's tournament fixtures in both 2010 and 2012.

But which of them is England's greatest left-back? Purely on world-class ability, you would opt for Cole – but Pearce is the man you might want alongside you in a battle, giving it everything. And Pearce himself has no doubts.
"People don't realise how dedicated and professional Ashley is but you only realise that when you are on the inside with him in a squad," the older man said of Cole after the Chelsea star had won his 100th cap. "The dedication and selflessness required to reach 100 caps takes some doing. He has also held his form for many years and in my eyes he is the best left-back who has ever played for England by a country mile. He is comfortable on the ball, he's quick and he has continued to improve over the years ... he has got everything the modern left-back needs."

And you wouldn't argue with Psycho now, would you?