Sam Wallace: Sad thing about Ashley Cole is that it never had to be like this
Bright and cheery, he was once the Arsenal press office’s go-to guy
By the time England play Brazil at Wembley in February, the chances are that Ashley Cole will have passed the 100-cap mark and joined an elite club that currently includes just five men: Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright. All of them, in their own ways, occupy a place in the hearts of England fans.
In a different life, Cole would take the applause of the adoring Wembley crowd on that February night. He would shake Football Association chairman David Bernstein warmly by the hand and accept whatever trinket the FA had served up to mark the occasion. He would wave to his devoted wife Cheryl in the crowd. Then when it was all done he would stroll into the press room to chat with the reporters who have covered his 11 years in international football.
Sadly for Cole, somewhere along the way it did not quite work out like that. Instead, he approaches his century mark as an isolated, angry figure shouting sporadically from the sidelines and then, as he was again yesterday, forced into hasty apologies.
As a footballer, he has it all. Well, almost. He has never won anything with England but then neither have the rest of his generation. He does, however, have a Champions League title, three Premier Leagues and seven FA Cup winners' medals to his name.
It was with some sadness that yesterday the man who has won more FA Cup finals than any footballer in the history of the game was reduced to abusing on Twitter the same governing body that conceived of that trophy 141 years ago as a #BUNCHOFTWATS.
The FA is not perfect, no doubt about that, but as a riposte to a carefully crafted legal document put together under great pressure by an independent commission to deal with an immensely complex issue of race, Cole's response was woeful. It was the kind of inarticulate, yobbish bark that induces a cringe in those of us who believe the current generation of footballers are not as bad as some assume.
The sad thing about the situation which Cole finds himself in – poster boy for the excesses of modern football – is that it never had to be like this. His story is, in many ways, inspirational. He is the mixed-race boy from a single-parent family in east London who grew up to be one of the most decorated footballers in the history of the English game.
For many years before his move to Chelsea, and all the public relations blunders he and his agent made along the way, Cole was a different character altogether. Bright and cheery, he was the Arsenal press office's go-to guy who would always be prepared to turn up for an event and turn on the charm, or speak on the club's behalf.
Post-2006 he was never the same. Most recently, he has simply closed the door on the prospect of any in-depth interviews, maybe considering himself beyond redemption in the eyes of many. Yet in spite of a persistent ankle problem his performances at the elite level have hardly wavered, although at times he seems to play as a rebuke to the rest of the world.
In a rare post-match television interview in Munich after the Champions League final in May he declared "Now no one can say nothing [sic] to me, this is the reason I came here," in reference to his move to Chelsea. The anger was not far from the surface, even on a joyous occasion.
Cole apologised for abusing the FA yesterday, just as he once apologised for petulantly turning his back on referee Mike Riley in a game against Spurs in 2008 or, one year later, he apologised to the police officers he abused when they arrested him outside a nightclub.
Experience tells us that this might not be the last time he has to say sorry.
On Tuesday, the FA will open St George's Park, its new football centre, with the England squad in attendance. Cole, likely to reach 100 caps the following week in the World Cup qualifier against Poland in Warsaw, should be one of the stars of the show, feted as the kind of elite player which the nation yearns to produce.
Instead, he will doubtless be lurking on the margins – wary, scowling and with the poor old FA officials wondering how the hell they are going to commemorate his forthcoming century of caps without inviting another diplomatic incident.
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