Sam Wallace: It is sad and strange that Ashley Cole is English football's great outsider

It is more than a year now since Cole’s last cap for England, against Denmark on 5 March

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The Independent Football

At Chelsea, they tell a story about Ashley Cole that might take you by surprise when reflecting on the reputation he acquired, hard-won at times it should be said, for being the poster boy for the worst excesses of English football.

When the Chelsea squad returned to Gatwick in the early hours of Wednesday or Thursday mornings after a Champions League tie, the squad would be rushed through the deserted airport and on to the coach which would take them back to the Cobham training ground. From there, they would pick up their cars and head home. Having been overtaken on the A3 by a few of them on the way back from Gatwick in the wee hours after one of those midweek trips, I can attest to how keen they were to get to their beds.

Cole was different. Once back at Cobham, he would wait for the kitmen who were responsible for the steel bins of training kit, playing kits, boots, towels and flip-flops; for the fold-down massage tables, tactics boards, bags of balls and everything else that is carried around by a modern football club. That kit was kept in the plane’s hold and the kitmen would have to collect it from the airport carousel, returning later to the training ground in their own bus.

Cole would be there to help them unload the gear and only once that was done would he climb into his car for the journey home. He considered the kitmen his friends and was happy to help them on their late shift. There are officials at Chelsea who saw him do this many times, not just on Champions League nights but also when the team returned from domestic games via Gatwick earlier in the evening.

 

It is a striking image, the 107-cap England footballer who had won every trophy in the game – including seven FA Cups, more than any player in history – sitting waiting on his own in the middle of the night to shift some sweaty kit. You could hardly accuse him of doing it for the publicity either, given that it happened at about 3am behind the gates of a training ground that treats security so seriously it maintains a Pentagon-style “threat level”.

It is more than a year now since Cole’s last cap for England, against Denmark on 5 March. As it stands there are no plans for him to travel north from his home outside Rome to watch his former team-mates play in Turin tonight. It ended awkwardly with Roy Hodgson: the manager called Cole to tell him he was not in the World Cup squad last May and Cole responded by retiring from international football on the spot.

The left-back’s move to Roma has not worked out as he might have hoped in terms of playing time. In his last four games, for example, he has been an unused substitute. He had a hard time against Arjen Robben at home to Bayern Munich in the 7-1 Champions League defeat in October and was substituted at half-time, with the Germans leading 5-0. That tends to be the game that stands out for those who have watched him, although he has had to play in a Roma defence that has gone through a lot of changes.

According to those who know him well, he loves his new life in the Italian capital, away from what he regarded as a hostile British press. He has enjoyed it to the extent that one of his associates said yesterday that Cole might just stay there when his time at the club comes to an end, although he already has another year on his deal after this season.

The sad thing is that Cole, at 34, and with 13 major trophies to his name, remains the great outsider in English football. He still feels like the teenager who has just slammed his bedroom door shut and turned up the music, rather than the man waiting patiently to help a group of friends who earn considerably less than him unload a bus in the middle of the night.

There will be many who regard Cole’s chances of building a career as a manager or a coach as roughly similar to the prospect of Jeremy Clarkson returning to the BBC as a CBeebies presenter – although you can never be completely certain. Equally, he would be fascinating to watch as a television pundit, but given that so much of Cole’s career post-Arsenal has been about sticking two fingers up to what he considers his enemies in the media, it is doubtful whether his heart would be in it.

There has to be a good chance that when finally he finishes playing, Cole will close the door on it all. There might be one more move in him, perhaps to Major League Soccer, or he might just, as has been suggested, simply never return, living a splendidly eccentric exile across Europe as the Premier League generation’s answer to Lord Byron.

As the English Football Association tries to find a way to harvest the expertise of a generation of players, bringing Cole back into the fold looks like one of the tougher challenges. My guess would be that his strengths would lie in relating to young footballers who would, at the very least, have to go some way to shock him. Chelsea have already welcomed back Jody Morris, who had some ups and down in his playing career, as an assistant Under-18s coach.

Of course, not every footballer wants to make a career in the game post-retirement and not every man who called the FA a #BUNCHOFTWATS on Twitter, and was fined £90,000 for it, will want one day to work with it. Yet Cole remains a great enigma in English football, and the various components that make up his career can at times seem irreconcilable.

It is a personal view that he embodies the dysfunctional nature of English football. A brilliant footballer who enjoyed success and longevity; an individual whose impulsive tendency to lash out mostly damaged himself above all; a kind man in private who never forgot where he came from. Understand Cole and you might just get to the heart of the English condition, although you would first have to convince the man himself that it was worth all the aggravation.

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