James Lawton: Cole's defence of the indefensible a bitter reminder of football's long fall from grace

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The Independent Online

When the novelist Graham Greene lost patience with the authorities in his adopted town of Nice he wrote a stinging attack entitled J'Accuse. Perhaps this was the inspiration for the latest addition to the literary firmament, Ashley Cole, when he felt an irresistible urge to go public with his complaints about the injustices heaped upon him by Arsenal Football Club, the most shocking of which was a proposal to raise his wages from £25,000 a week to a mere £55,000 - or, to put it in its full grotesque perspective, just £2.86m a year.

In language that Mr Greene perhaps might only have envied had he swopped his usual lunch -time Perrier for several vats of absinthe, the author of My Defence is spectacularly withering about this outrage.

He says that Arsenal were "taking the piss" and despite the fact that he had given his "heart and soul" to the club they had done "jack-shit" to retain his loyalty.

Some might say this is a heart-rending, important story even if the telling of it may have a few rough edges, and certainly they will find agreement on the editorial board of the Times, who on the anniversary of 9/11 chose to flag the book across across their front page. Explaining their decision to publish this vital document, the Times wrote, "This is no ordinary football book - for once we are taken into the mind of a footballer who is not afraid to speak his mind [sic], to reveal his innermost thoughts and expose the furious rows at one of the world's biggest clubs."

Speaking for oneself, the excavation of an ancient sewer might have been somewhat more uplifting.

Cole is a fine footballer, one whose improvement has been increasingly impressive over the years, especially on the international stage for England, for whom in several recent games he has been the difference between a kind of respectability and desperate humiliation, but as a chronicler of the mores of the modern game he carries us to the heart of the ever-deepening disillusionment of so many who have supported the national game for so long.

Consider, for example the trials of everyday life that afflict ordinary people, some of whom still battle to pay the prices required to gain entry to Stamford Bridge, Cole's new home and the Emirates Stadium, where before his betrayal he was due to continue a career which had been nurtured by Arsenal since he was a boy, and set them against the crisis that came to our hero as he drove to his mother's house in Chigwell.

"It was a good job I was well away from it all," writes Cole, "as my agent and the vice-chairman [David Dein] locked horns in an office in Central London. Somewhere along the North Circular Road [Greene's locales were generally more exotic] one phone call changed everything about how I viewed and felt about Arsenal. 'Ash! Are you listening' said a virtually hyperventilating Jonathan [agent Barnett]. I'm here in the office and David Dein is saying they aren't going to give you £60k a week.

"They've agreed £55k and this is their best and final offer. Are you happy with that?'

"When I heard the figure of £55k I nearly swerved off the road. I yelled down the phone, 'he's taking the piss, Jonathan'. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger..."

We know the likes of Cole live in their own bubble, and if football society has allowed its creation, there's not much to be done about it, and so perhaps we shouldn't care less when they dress up in their white wedding-suits and flog off the ceremonials to a celebrity magazine and forget to submit to drug tests and boast about how many bottles of Cristal they can get through of a night and talk about the respect that is their due - win, lose or draw. But the problem does kick in a little more seriously when they apply to their lives the same emotions and the trials of people living rather tougher lives with the degree of gallantry that is involved today when working people try to look after their families.

There is not much point in recalling how a beautiful old player like Wilf Mannion had to sit on a cardboard case in the corridor of the third-class section of a train taking him home after he had helped fill Hampden Park with 120,000 fans. Or Tom Finney being told by a director of Preston North End that he could forget about the interest of an Italian club and just go on collecting his few quid a week. Or Hughie Gallacher throwing himself off a railway bridge in despair. Or Tommy Lawton, one of the best strikers the English game has ever seen, being splashed by the Rolls-Royce of a Notts County director when he stood at a bus stop and then being prosecuted for passing modestly sized bouncing cheques.

All that's been said and done and it belongs in another age but sometimes you do have to wonder if someone like Ashley Cole ever had the remotest clue about the good luck he enjoys in relation to the men who went before him and built the traditions and the glory from which he now so strikingly benefits.

There is not much of such reflection in the pages of My Defence. Only a relentless self- justification and certainly no apology for, not even a sense of its effect on those who follow the club he allegedly once loved, for his meeting with the Chelsea heirarchy while he was still under contract at Highbury. He could not help making comparisons between the treatment he received and that given to Thierry Henry. "The club made Thierry Henry feel wanted with their special wooing of him, wining and dining him, speaking in public about how much they wanted him to stay, going on a deliberate charm offensive to win their man. But me? I didn't have one dinner, one meeting or one phone call. The truth is that the Gunners had done jack-shit all season to hold on to me."

There was another title Ashley Cole might have borrowed from Graham Greene. It was The End of the Affair. But then that was about fractured love rather than greed, and there is not much evidence that the author of My Defence is aware of the difference.

Pardew takes brave stand but club must come clean

There are few limits here on the admiration for the work of Alan Pardew (right) at West Ham United. He was a nomination for manager of the year last season after surviving so impressively in the big league and coaxing his team to a brilliant contribution to an unforgettable FA Cup final.

But then when he declares his determination to protect the identity and the integrity of his famous and deeply respected club, you have to suspect he may one day regret such an undertaking. It is, after all, one which can only be based on transparency, and until his club reveal to their following the precise nature of the contracts that brought Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano to Upton Park, Pardew will have to live with a degree of scepticism on the terraces.

It is the same story in almost every corner of today's football, but Pardew is the only manager I know who has put his head over the parapet to say that he will make a real difference. It is a brave, some would say foolhardy undertaking, when the fear must be that the damage has already been done.

Federer joins Woods in history fight worthy of Ali

The warm collision of Roger Federer and Tiger Woods at Flushing Meadows on Sunday night carried, in its inevitability, a certain echo of Livingstone and Stanley. These are, after all, men who have explored the limits of their particular ambitions with unfaltering brilliance and character.

Most impressive of all is their understanding of the challenge they have faced. It is not merely to be the best of their day, but of the ages. Federer's beautifully pitched defeat of a fired-up Andy Roddick for a third straight US Open unquestionably puts him on the same level as Woods as he pursues Jack Nicklaus' record mark of major titles.

Less extrovert than the unique Muhammad Ali, they certainly share his conviction that anything can be achieved if you have enough nerve and courage and talent.

Hugh McIlvanney, who charted the career of Ali so eloquently and has elected himself among the warmest admirers of Federer and Woods, once wrote that the great fighter "dreamed himself anew each morning" and then fought with everything he had to inhabit the dream. His conclusion was confirmed by Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, who said: "Every time he gets off the stool he thinks it's an Oscar."

It's plain now that Federer has joined Woods in that same lust for the red carpet.

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