There is one episode in the career of Ashley Cole that sums up his worth. It has nothing to do with Arsenal, or England, or winning the Premiership or FA Cup, or playing in the Champions' League or, at just 23, being one of the country's most vibrant, coveted and committed footballers. Instead it's all about Crystal Palace. "Just brilliant," is Cole's verdict on his two months at Selhurst Park, aged just 19. "It changed me as a person and made me more motivated to get into the Arsenal team. Steve Coppell did wonders for my confidence."
So much so that when the FA Cup draw is made every December, Cole "prays" for an away tie against Palace. "I love them, the fans were unbelievable to me. It would be great if they were in the Premiership," he says. And yet it could have been so different. "Two weeks before I went to Palace on loan I had a fight in a youth team game. It was 11 versus 11. We had a real scrap." Arsenal's opponents then? Palace, of course.
"I was a bit worried as to how they would react," says Cole. His concerns were unfounded. David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, made his feelings plain. "Take good care of him, he's our crown jewel," he said of the only home-grown player subsequently to command a regular place at Highbury.
Cole does, indeed, shine like a diamond. Luminous and sharp. And his lustre is increased by a passionate clarity. Cole just wants to play. Take the idea of a winter break. "I just love football," he says. "Yes, I do get tired. It'd be nice to have a rest and get rid of the knocks, but I just want to play."
Cole had his own break this season with a three-match ban for being sent off after a reckless tackle on Leicester City's Ben Thatcher. Even now Cole shudders at the memory. It proved a seminal moment. Following the dismissal, Arsène Wenger called him in. "He just told me to go away... he probably wanted to strangle me anyway!" Cole says in his self-deprecatory manner. "I did enjoy the break - but not the suspension. I went to Tenerife with my girlfriend and just relaxed. It was good for me to get out of the country. I just thought it was going to be a 50-50 challenge. I knew it was stupid and it was a bad tackle straight away."
The criticism was fierce, despite his apologies. As it had been over Cole's raison d'être, with questions over whether he could defend. "I've made mistakes, but people don't give you recognition in the same way," he says. "They don't say, 'Yeah, he's defending well now'. They never say when I've had a good game.
"But I've got two great managers - Arsène Wenger and Sven [Goran Eriksson] - and they've both been behind me and said, 'Don't worry, you're good enough and that's why you're playing'. It did affect me, but the support I had made it easier."
The brickbats hurt. "Trust me, it's hard. Sometimes it seems like the whole stadium is looking at you - just because they write in the newspapers that you can't do this and that," he says. "And maybe you start thinking you can't do it. Now I stay back and defend people are saying I don't attack any more. So I can't win!
"When people are on your back you don't feel good, and after a while I wasn't playing well. But the manager said, 'Look, play the way you know you can', and he said to me before I went on the break that I don't get the recognition I should. It gave me a big lift."
As does the fact that Arsenal are flying high in the Premiership without, Cole claims, playing well. "Last year we played really well - like Brazil, they were saying - and didn't win it, but now we're top [until yesterday's victory by Manchester United] and haven't played the way we can. We'll take that. That's the scary thing - if we hit the form we can there'll be a lot more to come."
The arrival of Jose Antonio Reyes has created excitement. "I've watched him - and he's a great player," says Cole. "He was training today for the first time, it's nice to have a new face. We had Jens [Lehmann] but no one else has come in, so to get another player now gives a buzz. Everyone is hyped, motivated. You want to prove to him how good the team is."
Reyes may not speak English, but football is its own language. "You just need a ball," says Cole, although he's aware of the difficulties of being so young away from home. "If it was me, I'd be really scared - I'm quite a shy person, and he looks a little shy as well, so it must be intimidating - you don't know what to think. But he's used to being a top name so I'm sure he'll settle in."
The arrival does, however, cause some apprehension - not that Cole feels under immediate threat. "If Roberto Carlos was coming in then, yeah, I would be down a bit, but we need a big squad because of all the games," he says. There are challenges on the horizon - not least the emergence of Gael Clichy. And yet his approach to the crop of young players is impressive, not least in the support offered in the Carling Cup. "Hopefully we'll stick with the young ones and they'll do it," he says of attempting to overturn the first-leg semi-final deficit against Middlesbrough. But if they do - and get to Cardiff - he doesn't expect to play. "Gael deserves it. It would be sad if I just stepped in - if I was in his position I would be disappointed if that happened."
Experience beyond his years. "Sometimes I don't realise how young I am either, especially considering how many games I've played and what I've won," Cole admits. The highlight, unsurprisingly, was clinching the championship at Old Trafford two years ago.
The emergence of Arsenal's youth means much - knowing that he was the only one from his generation to make it. "I got a lucky chance," Cole says with candour. "Silvinho [the left-back] got injured. If it was any other position, I would not have been playing. I know it's hard for some to even get that chance, because the players ahead of them are so fit and the squad's so big that maybe they won't get the chance the way I did."
Cole's place in the Arsenal firmament appears secure. "We've worked together a long time. Thierry [Henry] wants to stay here for life, I want to stay here for life and the others feel the same. That helps, knowing that everyone shares that. It's such a great club and it makes you more enthusiastic to win things."Reuse content