Sam Wallace: Just as Ashley Cole reaches the elusive century, he is no longer England's best left-back
Talking Football: Leighton Baines is quick enough to attack, strong on his right foot; he can shoot and take free-kicks. What’s not to like?
There is plenty for the Football Association to concern itself about when it comes to the thorny issue of Ashley Cole earning his 100th cap for England on Wednesday night. Will he play ball and speak to the media about it? Will he crack a smile for once, having been more inclined to scowl since about 2006? Will #BUNCHOFTWATS start trending at a critical juncture in the FA's 150th anniversary celebrations?
So much to worry about for what should be a joyous occasion in the life of any footballer. But here is the most curious thing about @TheRealAC3, the most-capped left-back in the history of the England team: he is, for the first time in more than a decade, no longer the pre-eminent English left-back.
International football is a strange beast. The picture can change very quickly and the limited number of games make it seem that opportunities expire much faster than they do in club football. A landmark that appears easily obtainable, like Sir Bobby Charlton's record of 49 goals for England was at different times for both Gary Lineker and Michael Owen, suddenly drifts out of reach. Scott Parker, England's 2011 player of the year, is not even in the current squad and as a result was not at St George's Park last night when the 2012 award was handed out.
Cole, 32, is a brilliant footballer in so many ways. It is sad, when compared to the other England centurions, that the public perception of him is so negative – an outcome partly, but not entirely, his own fault. Now, on 99 caps, and about to join a select group currently comprising only six men, he has finally been overtaken on the field. If Roy Hodgson had to pick the best current English left-back to face Brazil on Wednesday, that would be Leighton Baines.
It may be that Hodgson does select Baines ahead of Cole. Or he may feel that there is not much in it and that it would be just so much easier to get Cole's century over and done with now. He may believe that the shirt is still Cole's to lose. But whatever happens, the certainty around Cole's place in the England team has gone.
He has been the default choice at left-back for England since around September 2001. He has been to three World Cups and two European Championships and he was England's player of the year himself in 2010. That Chelsea have given him a new one-year contract suggests that, despite his ankle problems, they believe he still has much to offer.
But Baines, at 28, and almost exactly four years younger than Cole, has stepped it up a level from the performances that once put him at the front of the queue simply to be Cole's understudy. At times, Baines is Everton's key player, and that is quite an achievement for a left-back.
The full-back has always been an awkward position to fulfil well: too small to be a centre-half, not sufficiently trusted to be a winger and a man who must always guard against the possibility of being on the periphery. Or, even worse, being extraneous to the good parts of a team's performance and culpable in its worst.
If Dani Alves represents one end of the scale, as the classic wing-back, the bomber-on, then Cole is probably the best at the other end – the master at defending against the modern goalscorer who likes to start out on the wing and cut in. As it stands, Baines is demonstrating an expertise in the ying and the yang of the role as well as anyone.
His two goals against West Brom on Wednesday in an Everton team battling above their station when it comes to the finances showed just what an exceptional player he has become. He is quick enough to attack down the touchline, he is strong enough on his right foot to cut inside. He can shoot. He can take free-kicks. What's not to like?
By the mid-point of last month, Opta Stats calculated that Baines had created 76 goalscoring "chances" – as per their definition of the term – for Everton this season, more, at that point, than any player in the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga or Serie A.
And then there is something else about Baines. You can see it in his old-school goal celebrations. He raises one arm to the crowd but already he is turning away from them and back to his team-mates for the jog up the pitch. He does not have any tattoos. He is not on Twitter. Not that there is anything much wrong with either, but, well, with Baines it just fits the mood of quiet achievement.
It is not just the sideburns and the haircut – which, paired with his Movember effort, set him squarely in The Beatles' Sgt Pepper era – that make him look like he could belong to a more innocent, less lucrative time in English football. It is the attitude too. He is not as outspoken as Sir Bradley Wiggins, but he has a touch of Wiggins about him, in that he appears more determined to remain an ordinary bloke the more successful he becomes.
Baines, like Cole, prefers to keep his public profile low, although with rather more success. He has a very dry sense of humour, although unfortunately he is followed around by the "homesickness" line that convinced Fabio Capello to leave him out the 2010 World Cup squad. What he was trying to say was that, like anyone, he would miss his family while he was away, but coming from a quiet Liverpool lad it just came out wrong.
But that is in the past now. Baines will surely be on the shortlist for both the Professional Footballers' Association's player of the year award and that of the Football Writers in the next few months – and that is no mean feat for a left-back. On Wednesday night it will, in all likelihood, be Cole's moment. But when it comes to the future with England, this is Baines's time.
Qatari cash would sully Beckham's good deed
It does make you wonder if those who advised David Beckham to announce that his Paris Saint-Germain wages would go to charity had just assumed that would be the end of it and no one would pose the question of, er, exactly how he is going to get paid.
Which brings us to Qatar. The latest suggestion is that Beckham will become an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup there and play some part in the Qatar Stars League for PSG's Qatari owners. This is the same World Cup finals that will either be played in 40 degree summer heat or wreck the domestic calendar for years by being switched to winter. No one's decided which yet.
Beckham was in Zurich in December 2010 for the Fifa 2018 and 2022 host decisions. He knows as well as anyone the whole thing stank. Now joining forces with Qatar? Say it ain't so, Becks.
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Every time Paul Gascoigne hits rock bottom, the finger gets pointed at the usual suspects – the Football Association and the Professional Footballers' Association – and the question asked: what are they are doing to help in this very sad, troubling story?
The FA has done what it can, and the likes of Gary Mabbutt have helped out too. It is not obliged to but it clearly feels it has a moral obligation given Gascoigne's part in the story of the national team. Among those who never get asked what they might do to help Gascoigne: those who made money out of his talent and fame and those fellow carousers who bathed in the glow of his celebrity.
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