Ashley Cole and Other Guilty Pleasures…

20 Sep

Everyone has a guilty pleasure in life.  Whether it be a crafty cigarette last thing at night, taking the wife for a spot of swinging or even, God forbid, watching rugby union once the curtains are drawn.  We all have a little something we seek elicit enjoyment from.  My guilty pleasure is Ashley Cole.

I’ll happily admit to regularly being out of touch with the sentiment of the nation.  The opprobrium that the general public reserves for Ashley Cole I do understand, though.  He’s not exactly a tour de force in public relations.  But watching children less than half his age shout expletives at him every single time he took a throw-in at Old Trafford the other week reminded me that I don’t actually mind the fella all that much.  I really don’t.

Discussion on England’s number one “No. 3” tends to surmise two things.  One, that he’s quite a dislikeable character; and two, that he’s a fantastic fullback.  I’m going to make the case that, one, he’s not really that dislikeable (at least, not within the somewhat forgiving context of being a professional footballer); and, two, that he is a fantastic footballer but not for the reasons most seem to think.  I suspect Cole’s number will soon be up for the national side[1], so now seems as good a time as any to take a look back over his career.  As a left-back myself, I’m going into bat for a fellow brother-in-arms.

Girls

Let’s get the non-footballing side out of the way first.  Cole’s epitaph is not going to refer to as him as an award-winning husband.  He’s a naughty lad and we ought not to try to defend him on this.  While wedded to the lovely Cheryl, Ashley was caught dancing the Underpants Charleston with more than one woman who was not his bride.  Of course, he’s not exactly the first professional footballer to have been caught with his trousers in absentia.  If Cole is to be judged by his peers, let’s at least be aware of whom his peers are…

The game is littered with sinful romancers but fans rarely seem to pass judgement[2].  Horny quadragenarian, Ryan Giggs, is the only thing that stands between Ed Miliband and the title of “Britain’s Worst Brother”.  Yet the randy Welsh swordsman is nothing short of revered throughout the footballing community.  John Terry seems to experience something of a Pavlovian reaction whenever he sees a team-mate’s girlfriend and Wayne Rooney will grab anyone so long as they’re at least ten years older than Giggsy.  Even Sir Becks once had a moment of weakness with the nanny.  The point being, if we are to pluck our heroes from the narrow spring that is faithful professional footballers, we’re going to have some rather slim pickings from which to choose. 

Money

Then there’s the suggestion that Cole’s greedy; premised on the now infamous quote from his autobiography that he “nearly swerved off the road” when he was informed of Arsenal’s offer of £55k/week during salary negotiations.  It is a testimony to Ashley’s gripping prose and well-crafted writing style that this quote has become so well known, since the book itself sold a meagre 4,000 copies. 

While we can all reach pragmatic conclusions on the merits of a millionaire publicly complaining about his weekly wages, Cole was at least expressing an honestly held view that is unlikely to be unique (if, indeed, a view more often kept private).  So at what point does it become vulgar to complain about money? 

If you earn the average UK wage that already puts you in the top 1% of earners worldwide.  I suspect this wouldn’t stop many of us from aiming a few metaphorical “teacups” at a few figurative “walls” if our paymasters offered us a salary that was barely half of our expected earnings based on the industry standard.  Certainly, the staff writers at Too Good would have my head on a stick if they weren’t rewarded handsomely for their journalistic prowess.  Prince or pauper, people want to feel fairly compensated.

Football

So let’s turn to the important bit.  Cole’s playing abilities.  We can certainly all agree on one thing.  He is an excellent (a consistently excellent) footballer.  One of England’s finest.  I’m not sure it’s always fully appreciated why, though. 

He’s not a complete left-back.  And he certainly isn’t a wing-back.  In fact, he isn’t really fantastic at going forward at all.  He isn’t a goal threat[3] or, for that matter, a man with a great many assists to his name.  Despite being a striker in his youth, Cole just doesn’t have the attacking instinct that for years some people seemed to suggest he had (probably explaining why he never did get that “confirmed kill” when taking aim at the summer intern).  His forays in opposition territory certainly aren’t up there with some of the great attacking full-backs of the past 20 years (Cafu, Lahm, Alves, Carlos, Maicon).  The role of full-back has been redefined in recent years but Cole’s actually quite traditional in his employment.

Where he does deserve enormous credit is his defensive capabilities.  Cole’s level of anticipation in dispossessing strikers is unsurpassed.  He’s world class at double-bluffing a winger into taking a particular path and then pouncing on the ball.  Again and again he will fake interceptions only to retreat to where he has tricked the attacking player into going.  The preconceptions in his movement are almost as disingenuous as some of the compliments people hand out on Facebook photos.

He’s also a great last gasp defender.  Cole might not have notched many times in his career (bedposts notwithstanding) but you can count a great many goal-line clearances to his name.  He has a parkland animal’s ability to sense danger and scurry things into a safe position.  Balanced and never caught on the wrong foot, Cole is able to move with great haste but never in great panic.  If an expensive champagne flute was carelessly glanced off a table edge, the smart money would be on Cole being the one to catch it.

He’s blessed with great health too.  Only once managing less than 30 games in a domestic season over a fourteen year career.  Last year, aged 32, Cole played his most ever – a colossal 51 games in 6 different domestic and European competitions.  It is a testament to Cole’s longevity that he has clocked up over 600 professional games and is still going strong.  He’s a bit like Bruce Forsyth.  Timeless.  Not to everyone’s taste.  But you know what you’re getting and you can’t fault his commitment.

—–

Cole may never quite have been the best left-back in the world.  But England have had one of the best defenders going for the past decade.  We should celebrate that.  His views on the Football Association don’t make for polite reading, but he’s there at every training camp and every England game putting in consistently fine performances.  Unlike some of the fool’s gold in the golden generation, Cole always plays well on the big occasions.  He’s the one defender who consistently frustrated the greatest player these shores have ever seen, Cristiano Ronaldo.

So well done, Ashley.  Over a hundred England caps.  A European Cup.  A UEFA Cup.  One wounded intern.  Three league titles and more FA Cups than you can shake a stick at.  Here’s to a career that’s been rosier than your ex-wife’s posterior.  The Full-Back’s Union salutes you!

—————————————————————————————————————————

Ashley was careful to caveat his marital vows.


[1] And I don’t think it will be Leighton Baines taking his place, either.  Luke Shaw looks to be the real deal.  Brazil 2014 will probably come a touch too early for Shaw (and Roy’s boys are doing their level best to balls-up qualification in any case…), but Too Good can easily see him as starting left-back for the European Championship qualifiers thereafter.  

[2] My favourite story of footballing adultery comes from north of the border in a wee town called Glasgow.  Andy Goram’s wife found out about his womanising when she discovered a lady’s footprints on the inside ceiling of the family car.  Such hatchback horseplay certainly didn’t deter Rangers fans from voting Goram as Rangers’ greatest ever goalkeeper, though. 

[3] Cole’s never scored a goal for England in his mightily impressive 100+ cap haul.  In fact, he’s only ever scored 17 career goals.  Barely a goal a season.

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