Chris McGrath: Cole keeps up appearances, even if his image needs work

While he turns 30 in December few will be in the slightest hurry to hasten the succession given the paucity of cover available at the left-back position

Fabio Capello is not one of those managers you see helplessly pointing in the vague direction of the opposition goal. Instead you tend to see him hoarsely commanding the attention of a specific miscreant, clarifying his sometimes perplexing English with some wholly unambiguous gestures. He must have considered it instructive of the trying evening ahead, then, that the only player comfortably within earshot during the first half was Ashley Cole. For here, he knew, was one of the very few men in his service last night who could be relied upon to do his job without being reminded what it was.

This was Cole's 86th appearance for England, putting him level with Kenny Sansom as the nation's most capped left-back. From the moment Mirko Vucinic failed a late fitness test, it became clear that Cole's defensive duties against Montenegro should prove entirely perfunctory. Admittedly the presence of Ashley Young, making his first competitive start farther up the wing, would require him to tether his own marauding instincts.

Even so, it reflected ominously on England's collective endeavours in the first half that Cole was the only man to cause a fleeting embarrassment to the visiting goalkeeper, Mladen Bozovic – albeit, on this occasion, he might have been better off slipping the ball to Peter Crouch than stabbing it towards goal. More auspicious was the fact that he owed the opportunity to the wit of his namesake, Young. In fact, it was the two wide boys – two of the new boys – who were proving uniquely immune to the thick layer of invisible treacle apparently poured across the Wembley turf by the visitors.

Every nation, of every size, has promising young players. Montenegro, for instance, have found a lad named Stevan Jovetic among their 650,000 citizens. But his exciting form for Fiorentina has been cruelly interrupted by a knee injury, and with Vucinic also sidelined, the visitors were perfectly within their rights to pull up the drawbridge at a stadium where England had scored at least twice in each of their past 18 matches.

The perennial mistake is constantly to hail each emerging star as the kernel of some new gilded generation. Ultimately, unless you can replicate the grassroots environment that has nourished the current Spanish squad, or the emerging German one, you will depend on the volatile or atrophied experiments of Capello, and his successors.

All you can say for now is that Adam Johnson, once again, looked entirely at home on the international stage. You can only pray that he does not end up seeing his vocation the way Cole did a little while back when he said: "It's more of a job now than something I love."

Cole says he plays best when he's angry. To that extent, mind you, perhaps all those people who have spent the past decade stoking the fires of his resentment should be congratulated on a priceless service performed for Arsenal, Chelsea and England.

It was only when he was injured, last season, that people finally came to reproach themselves for an offence still more grievous than the many they have perceived in Cole himself – and that was in ever having taken him for granted. The alternatives proved so inadequate that the most callous among his compatriots even muttered a grudging debt of gratitude to John Terry, for hastening the international retirement of Wayne Bridge. Funnily enough, the most eligible heir to Cole's place in the national team is considered to be Kieran Gibbs – who is being nursed through the ranks, just like Cole and Sansom, at Arsenal.

But while Cole turns 30 in December, few will be in the slightest hurry to hasten the succession. In all likelihood, in fact, Cole will some day overtake David Beckham himself as England's most capped outfield player, at 115 – a moment that would surely invite a fresh appraisal of the relative substance in their achievements and reputations. For if Beckham is a technicolour photograph, Cole is the negative of the self-same image. Their silhouettes are identical, delineated by the dimensionless culture of celebrity, even to the extent that both men married pop stars. But the rest of the image has been completed very differently, in each case – one by gaudy, clumsily unmixed brushstrokes, the other with ghostly, inside-out, X-ray smears.

It is not terribly difficult to see why that should be, of course. Cole guaranteed himself eternal infamy with the gauche candour of his admission, in an autobiography recklessly produced at the age of just 25, that he had nearly swerved off the road in disgust when learning that Arsenal had offered him "only" £55,000 a week.

It was to that egregious miscalculation, above all, that Cole can trace the vilification that reached unmistakably brutal depths here a couple of years ago, when a ghastly back-pass let in Kazakhstan for the only blemish in a 5-1 win. Surely even a society as vapid as our own cannot produce football fans pretending some grievances on behalf of a player's wife. If so, after all, they would have to explain how such a paragon should have come to choose him in the first place.

If Cole has tested the patience of England fans, from time to time, then they should consider the landmark he reached last night. And, in doing so, they must be wary of some day causing Johnson and his peers to turn sour, too.

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