Cole taps into the vigour of his youth

Enthusiastic Arsenal 20-year-old has made the England left-back position his own

Tim Rich
Tuesday 04 September 2001 00:00

Bliss it was that night in Munich to be alive but to be young and, more importantly, in Sven Goran Eriksson's team must have been very heaven.

Ashley Cole is 20, the youngest player in a very young England team, which, if you excluded David Seaman, was on average three years the junior of the German side they destroyed in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday night. He was nine, growing up in east London when Stuart Pearce, who until now England have never properly replaced at left-back, missed his penalty against the Germans in Turin and a raw 15-year-old winger in an Arsenal junior team when Gareth Southgate did the same at Wembley in Euro 96.

Since he began playing professionally, Germany have not been a band of mythical Teutonic knights, but a rather ordinary and, now, distinctly rickety team.

And here he was, his face lit up by camera flashes, asking how it felt to have been part of a side which spread around the country the kind of feel-good factor it had not known since the summer of 1981 when the heroics of Headingley were followed by the Royal Wedding, when Ashley Cole was seven months old. How does it feel, Ashley, what does it mean? we asked him. And of course, he didn't really know. He agreed there had been nothing like this in his lifetime. "How could there be, because, after all, I've just started playing."

You would have to be a sociologist with a deep interest in football, and probably good enough to be in the team, to really know. Cole hadn't even seen the video of the match, although David Beckham, who at 26 considers himself something of a veteran, had seen the game several times and concluded that the England performance becomes better with repeated viewing.

Even at first glance, the most striking thing was the freedom with which England attacked down the wing in Munich, with Gary Neville on the right and Cole relentlessly probing on the left flank, where Christian Wörns and Marko Rehmer were stretched and broken. Even when Gerald Asamoah was put on to the left at half-time, Cole noted with satisfaction that: "We still kept the lid on the Germans".

At around the same time that Eriksson decided that Cole was the man to put on England's "problematical" left flank, Arsène Wenger was coming to the conclusion that he should be Arsenal's first choice ahead of Silvinho, although he advised Cole to concentrate on defending, rather than charging forward.

Cole admits it is hard for someone so naturally bent on attacking to change their game. He was a 13-year-old striker in Arsenal's youth team when it was recommended that he should be released because of his lack of height. Every person that Terry Murphy, then in charge of Arsenal's youth set-up, talked to advised him to let Cole go, except for Bill Hollingdale, the youth team scout. "I told him he had a lovely touch," Hollingdale recalled. "Terry gave him another year and Ashley hasn't looked back."

The other decisive moment in his career came when the Arsenal youth team was suddenly short of a left-back and Cole, pencilled in to play wide on the left, was pushed back. "I was wing-back so I could keep attacking; I found defending tougher but I wanted to play so I had to get used to it."

He is, so far, the only member of Arsenal's youth team to have broken into the senior squad under Wenger, although there are high hopes for Jermaine Pennant. Cole's big leap came when he was loaned out to Crystal Palace in February last year, impressing so much that Steve Coppell made a bid for him, one which Arsenal found easy to reject, presumably on the grounds that nobody knew what Palace intended to use for money.

He returned for the last game of the 1999-2000 season to make his Premiership debut in a 4-2 defeat at St James' Park, where tomorrow he will play against Albania, the team against whom he made his international debut, which offers a kind of symmetry.

There have been setbacks. Cole was troubled by Boudewijn Zenden, an opponent he rates as the toughest he has yet encountered, in the defeat by Holland and was accused by David O'Leary of diving in the encounter at Highbury last month that left Leeds with a 2-1 victory but reduced to nine men.

Steve McClaren would probably back O'Leary's claims as on the opening day of the Premiership season Cole rolled over without much evidence of contact from Middlesbrough's Ugo Ehiogu to win Arsenal the penalty that opened the floodgates to a 4-0 rout at the Riverside. He says he does not mind what people think but he is not a diver.

Eriksson said "the last thing Ashley Cole brings on to the pitch is fear". The player doesn't know quite what his manager implies but added: "I do know that when you go on to the pitch you have so much enthusiasm and it's because you're young."

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