The last occasion that Ashley Cole spoke to the press was in Jakarta on Chelsea’s pre-season tour, which was one of those sponsor-driven occasions with around 500 people in the room and not much of an opportunity for a forensic examination of his recent career.
The chances to speak to @TheRealAC3 are all too fleeting these days, for reasons that, well, would be a whole different column in itself. One feels that even when his career ends the chances of him ending up on the pundits’ couch are roughly on a par with Richard Dawkins offering to take mass. Perhaps Cole will surprise us. He would be an intriguing voice.
In Jakarta, the meaningful questions from the locals were few and far between, but one of the English reporters present did manage to ask Cole what he made of Jose Mourinho’s return and his answer was a jolt of the old straight talking typical of the younger Cole. “Having the manager back now from 2006 when he bought me, I still feel I owe him something,” he said. “I didn’t play as well as I could back then, and as well as I have for Chelsea since.”
Mourinho later dismissed the notion Cole was indebted to him and paid tribute to a player whose signing in 2006 probably represents the most embittered transfer saga of the Chelsea manager’s career. When he was at Real Madrid, Mourinho tried to sign Cole once again. Which makes it all the more significant that now, for the first time, Mourinho has started leaving Cole out of the Chelsea team.
That in turn re-awakens an old debate that stirred at the turn of the year. It is a personal view that Cole, England’s 105-cap marvel, the man who has been a fixture in the England team since September 2001, can no longer be the first-choice left-back. That position must surely now belong to Leighton Baines who, one month short of his 29th birthday, has finally won his battle with Cole.
It had to happen sooner or later, and there is no shame in it for Cole who should still, fitness permitting, go to the World Cup finals next June as Baines’s understudy. For all the noise around Joe Hart ahead of the friendlies against Chile on Friday and Germany four days later, the major decision confronting Roy Hodgson is whether he keeps Baines in the team.
Of course, the forthcoming friendlies are about a little experimentation and chances for some of the fringe players. But at left-back, there is no doubt about the international pedigree of either candidate. Baines has waited long enough to be installed as the main man. He simply needs to play. There is an argument for giving Kieran Gibbs some game time but, that aside, this is the chance for the first-choice England defence to play together.
The great international footballers – and Cole is one, in England’s case – become such a fixture in the team that it is possible to become complacent in the assumption they must always play. In this case the change has been afoot for some time. Baines has built up a sequence of performances, culminating in those against Montenegro and Poland, while Cole was out with a rib injury, that have made his case irresistible.
Against Poland he was arguably the stand-out performer, a relentless attacking force who crossed for Wayne Rooney to score the tension-breaking first goal. Since the end of Euro 2012 no outfield player has figured more for England than Baines, who has 13 caps in that period. He made six starts in the World Cup qualifiers, as opposed to Cole’s four. The picture has been changing for some time.
As for Cole’s position in the Chelsea team, he was first left out on Wednesday against Schalke, with Mourinho preferring Cesar Azpilicueta to switch flanks. The Chelsea manager has done that before. He took that option again in the draw with West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, saying that Cole had paid the price for his performance against Newcastle.
He hinted at the significance of leaving Cole out when he said: “He [Azpilicueta] has played very few matches but was always a great professional. Sometimes you have to show the group that this is important and I think he deserves to play.” As for Ryan Bertrand’s hopes of succeeding him, the latest suggestion is that Alberto Moreno of Seville could be a Chelsea target.
Mourinho has never flinched when it comes to leaving out big players, regardless of the relationship he has had with them. Hodgson will be well aware that in international football you never know when the dominance of one particular player is about to ebb and that is often dictated by his club form. While Hart, for example, has little serious competition with England, Cole is up against a man who could claim to be the best left-back in the Premier League. Certainly, all things considered, the most sought-after.
In recent years, the quality of Cole’s football has never wavered until now. At times it has felt like the football has been his salvation, pure and simple, given what has gone on in other areas of his life. It will be interesting to see how he handles the last few years of his career. He will only be 33 come next summer when his current one-year deal at Chelsea expires.
“It’s a tough one for the manager because if you were in his shoes, you’ve got such a great player already in Ash, and it’s that thing of, if it’s not broke, you don’t fix it.” That was Baines in October before the Poland game. Applying that logic now, Hodgson would have to select Baines come Friday. Cole might be in possession of 105 caps, but Baines is in possession of the shirt. Like the man said, if it ain’t broke...
BT deal will keep the big games out of many homes
The story around the great BT Sport Champions League rights coup has so far concentrated upon the consequences for BSkyB who – to draw an analogy – now feel rather like Manchester United 10 years ago when Roman Abramovich came on the scene. That, and incredulity at the £897m they paid for the deal.
Yet the worse part of it all for those many homes in Britain who do not have the resources to pay for television channels above their TV licence is the loss of any free-to-air games in the greatest club competition in the world (and the Europa League) after ITV were blown out the water too.
BT Sport have promised that the finals of both competitions will be free-to-air to all, beyond their broadband subscribers. There is also likely to be a shift in viewing habits by 2015 with the Freeview box. Yet even so, it feels like something has been lost with ITV’s disappearance from the scene – and, let’s be honest, can you see them ever coming back?
European football nights are a rare treat. You can show your age now by talking about “the continentals” but even as the big foreign European sides have become increasingly familiar to the watching British public over the last 20 years it has still been an important part of our national football life which, for many, will disappear in 2015.