Tonight Ashley Cole will be wearing the captain’s armband and leading England out on to the Wembley turf for the FA’s anniversary friendly with Ireland. Not much to get het up about there, you might have thought – long-serving full back is given the honour of captaincy to mark his hundredth cap, where’s the controversy in that? But it is news sufficient to set the moral arbiters of football fulminating. Cole, you see, is not reckoned to be of the right stuff.
Never mind that the manager Roy Hodgson has said this is a one-off. Never mind that in reaching his century, the player has demonstrated a commitment to his country that perhaps deserves some sort of recognition. This is Ashley Cole we are talking about. So obviously the very idea of him being given any kind of prominent position is symptomatic of football’s rapid descent towards hell atop a handcart.
“Roy’s in a Cole hole” shouted the headline in the Daily Star. Which seems an unnecessarily anxious way to greet the manager’s expression of respect and generosity. But that’s what happens when Cole is involved: the collective lip moves upwards into a sneer. We all decided long ago that he is not officer material.
In truth, though his mum would no doubt argue, Cole has not presented us with much to love about him. His autobiography set the tone, presenting as it did a portrait of a spoiled and money-obsessed young man. With his whining about how Arsenal’s offer of a contract worth £50,000 a week was “taking the p***”, Cole has been subsequently characterised as the very epitome of the rapacious greed enveloping the game. And the few things that have leaked about him thereafter – the white Roller and Miami Vice suit in which he was married, the shabby treatment of the nation’s sweetheart, the shooting of a couple of interns at the Chelsea training ground with an air rifle, the whining about the FA’s disciplinary procedure – have not softened the wider view that he is, well, a prat. One, moreover, who appears to approach a game of football with all the joy and enthusiasm the rest of us display on the dentist’s chair. That scowl he wears every time he steps out on the pitch is not the most endearing of images.
And Cole has not made any attempt to soften that negative impression. Understandably he refuses to engage with a press he reckons institutionally biased against him, so there have been no in-depth interviews or lengthy re-assessments. He has no wish to inform us of his daily round via Twitter. As Hodgson explained when announcing his captaincy, Cole will not even undertake the standard expectation of the skipper tonight and attend a press conference. Instead, that duty will be fulfilled by Frank Lampard, one of nature’s captains.
None of us, therefore, really knows what Ashley Cole is like as a person. We have an idea fixed in our mind of preening self-satisfaction and sneering disrespect. But we have no clue as to its accuracy.
All we are properly entitled to judge him on is his performance. Which is how it ought to be. And on that, there can be no argument he deserves his evening of national acknowledgement. Cole has been without question the most consistent footballer of his generation. He is never short of excellent. His wider character may be questioned, but nobody could doubt his standards on the pitch: in a national game not exactly overwhelmed by world class practitioners, he is the one member of the current England squad who might have won the occasional cap for Germany or Spain.
I had the task of watching him closely during a Chelsea game this season. And he was almost faultless. His pace and strength were brilliantly corralled to the cause. But what really stood out was his football intelligence. His positioning was uncanny, always there ahead of the forward, always there to provide cover when his defensive colleagues faltered. His use of the ball was exemplary. Only once across the course of 90 minutes did he give it away cheaply. And when he did, he growled at himself for about five minutes, grumbling and grouching in a manner which suggested that, never mind the headlines, Ashley Cole’s most severe critic is Ashley Cole.
It should, perhaps, be enough to endear him to a wider audience beyond the denizens of Stamford Bridge. But instead we prefer to boo him for his presumed character flaws (and the fact he is mates with John Terry). Instead of respecting someone who does exactly what we hope every player should do, we sneer at him for the fact he doesn’t appear to be a nice bloke. Though the fact is, even as we wonder what on earth is happening to the world if Ashley Cole can be appointed England captain, we all secretly wish he were left back for our club.