England in the US: Great expectations bring a rare smile to Cole's face

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The Independent Football

After a season in which his club trailed in the Premiership, his integrity was impugned and his wallet lightened by £100,000, it might seem that Ashley Cole has little cause for satisfaction.

After a season in which his club trailed in the Premiership, his integrity was impugned and his wallet lightened by £100,000, it might seem that Ashley Cole has little cause for satisfaction.

But while his domestic situation appears in turmoil, his international career continues to prosper. Having been regarded as one of England's best performers in Euro 2004, Cole was the only player to feature in all 11 internationals this campaign. Even before Wayne Bridge was injured his place at left-back was secure, and last week, after the conclusion of England's successful US tour, he looked forward to the World Cup with optimism.

"I think it's been a good trip," said Cole after England's depleted XI had defeated both the United States and Colombia. "I'm happy to see the young players come through, and the results have been good too. It's always good to win games, and we didn't have key players like John Terry and Frank Lampard here."

Cole played with two new centre-halves on tour, Zat Knight and Glen Johnson, an experience of which he said: "Sometimes it's hard to have new players next to you, but they did a good job. We trained together and they've been in the Under-21s, so they know the set-up. Young players like this who are coming through, the more games they get under their belt the better players they will be."

At 24, Cole is actually a year younger than Knight. As he has won 41 caps - all starts - since breaking into the England team in March 2001, in Sven Goran Eriksson's third match, it is easy to forget his relative youth. The same applies to Michael Owen (age 25, 70 caps), Steven Gerrard (25 last week, 36 caps) and Wayne Rooney (still only 19, 23 caps).

"There's a few of us with a lot of experience, even the young ones," added Cole. "That will help next summer as my first World Cup [2002] was a little bit scary, because you are in awe of the players and the atmosphere. But I did all right in the European Championship and I'm maturing all the time.

"Hopefully we can do well in the World Cup finals. I'd like to think the team are maturing nicely. We have quality players, great young players, and everyone appears to be coming into form."

But was Cole surprised at being the only ever-present, the sole player whose form and fitness survived a campaign that began on Tyneside, took in European travels from Azerbaijan to Spain, and ended in New Jersey? "Not really. I'm always here. I always want to play and some of the lads have had injuries."

Injuries were Eriksson's worry looking a year hence to Germany, but his concern was eased by the tour's demonstration of depth.

There appear to be few problems at centre-half, where Knight and Johnson were ninth and 10th in line respectively (after Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry, Ledley King, Jamie Carragher, Matthew Upson, Wes Brown and Michael Dawson, who was originally on standby for the tour ahead of Knight).

There would seem an increasing number of options in midfield, with Michael Carrick challenging for a place in the centre, Joe Cole cementing his position, and Kieran Richardson, Stewart Downing and Shaun Wright-Phillips emerging to push the existing squad contenders Jermaine Jenas, Kieron Dyer and Owen Hargreaves. In attack, Owen remains a potent finisher, with Jermain Defoe a promising understudy, while Rooney is developing at an awesome rate and Peter Crouch offers an intriguing option.

Although England's tour was heavily criticised in advance, not least by several Premiership managers, Eriksson can now send his players on holiday while other countries are playing World Cup double-headers. Knight, for example, can now take a break, while a US squad including his Fulham team-mates Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra were in Salt Lake City last night playing Costa Rica and will be in Panama on Wednesday. Similarly, after playing England in New Jersey, Aston Villa's Juan Pablo Angel travelled back to Colombia for yesterday's tie with Peru, then goes to Ecuador for another qualifier on Wednesday.

The tour was valuable in another field too - politics. As one Football Association official said: "If England are not prepared to travel outside Europe in odd, non-tournament, years, then we risk being isolated within Fifa."

The failure of the 2006 Word Cup bid pointed up England's lack of friends inside the governing body, a weakness they have since worked hard to rectify with a view to bidding for 2018.

Prior to visiting the United States, David James and Ferdinand were in Malawi working on an Aids-awareness project. It is, as David Beckham's appeal to celebrity-obsessed America highlights, a global game, and Little Englander attitudes are obsolete.

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