Sam Wallace: Ashley Cole deserves applause, not abuse – but some will never separate player and persona

Talking Football: For Cole's detractors, there will be no rehabilitation. Yet there cannot be many top footballers who'd drive to Leicester to support a young team-mate

Monday 07 February 2011 01:00
Cole won the award voted for by fans
Cole won the award voted for by fans

There was an unexpected visitor to the Walkers Stadium on Saturday afternoon, although Leicester City fans may have wondered what interest Ashley Cole had in their game against Barnsley. He was actually there to lend some moral support to Patrick van Aanholt, the 20-year-old Chelsea left-back who has been sent on loan to the Championship club for the rest of this season.

It was an insight into the character of a man whose status as one of the nation's most vilified public enemies is so entrenched that he has long since stopped trying to change anyone's mind. Cole has taken some fearful stick over the years and in return he has locked the door and pulled the curtains long ago.

As far as his detractors are concerned, there will be no rehabilitation of Cole. Yet you cannot help thinking there are not many Premier League stars who would bother driving to Leicester the day before one of the biggest games of their own season to lend their support to a little-known academy graduate.

As ever it is important to make the distinction between Cole's caricatured public persona and Cole the footballer – and this week it is Cole the footballer who approaches another milestone in a great career. Providing Cole plays against Denmark in Copenhagen on Wednesday he will become the most-capped England full-back of all-time.

The man whose record he will surpass is Kenny Sansom, the 1980s stalwart who, like Cole, played for Crystal Palace and Arsenal. One more cap will give Cole 87 in total, moving him up to ninth in the all-time list and within touching distance of the magical 100 caps if he plays up to and through Euro 2012 – of which there is every chance.

Of the current England squad only Steven Gerrard has more caps (89) than Cole. There is no doubt that when the Liverpool captain reaches his personal century Wembley will rise to its feet to acclaim him, and rightly so. But what reaction can Cole expect when he reaches the same number?

Certainly Cole's career merits a standing ovation. Only 30, he can be regarded as one of the best left-backs in the world of the last ten years, arguably the best for the last six or seven. He has played for England through three World Cups and Euro 2004 and performed brilliantly at times. The end of next month will mark ten years since he made his England debut.

But the capricious Wembley crowd have in the past chosen to judge Cole on the basis of the stories they have read rather than the performances they have witnessed. Certainly the way in which they turned on him for a dodgy pass that led to a goal against Kazakhstan in October 2008 suggests that they prefer the caricature to celebrating the man who has marked Cristiano Ronaldo better than anyone else.

Only when Cole finally calls it a day and the England manager has to find a successor will some people truly recognise what a good player he was. Leighton Baines, who has had a great season with Everton, is the latest candidate to get a chance but succeeding Cole is comparable to succeeding Gerrard or Wayne Rooney. They are big boots to fill.

Yes, Cole has made some mistakes but, goodness knows, this is not a man who is ever permitted to forget them. If every person who has ever quoted that ill-judged passage from Cole's autobiography about his reaction to Arsenal's contract offer in 2006 had actually bought the book he would have sold more copies than Nelson Mandela shifted of his life-story.

For all that Cole is pilloried it is worth remembering that the man whose record he should pass on Wednesday was far from perfect too. Sansom was, by his own admission, a functioning alcoholic with a gambling addiction while he was still a player. In his autobiography he admits that he was once so drunk he refused to fly to Spain for Arsenal's pre-League Cup final training camp in 1988.

That is not to condemn Sansom for his addictions which he says were a result of a traumatic relationship with his father but it puts the criticism of Cole in perspective. He might not be everyone's cup of tea – and for Arsenal fans that would be understating it – but he has never been anything short of professional in his service of club and country.

So why is he disliked? First of all, everyone seems to be an expert on Cole's failed marriage which is really no one's business but his own. Secondly, being a very talented footballer during the sport's financial golden age has made him a very rich man who also happens to have dated a lot of attractive women. Which some people seem to have difficulty accepting. Are they jealous? You bet they are.

In fact, most would rather excuse Sansom for being a hopeless drunk than Cole for being talented and famous enough to move from one primetime television beauty to the next. Even though, as far as we can tell, his lifestyle has had no discernible effect on the standards of his performances on the pitch. Unlike poor old Sansom, whose own addictions sent him downhill fast.

Perhaps we will get a taste on Wednesday of what England's support think of Cole should the Wembley stadium announcer choose to mention the fact he will break Sansom's record. If the response is as negative as it has been in the past then Cole might wonder why he should stick about to find out how they react to him reaching 100 caps. That would be a shame. But who could blame him?

Di Matteo's sacking the strangest yet in a bizarre season

This season with West Bromwich Albion, Roberto di Matteo won at the Emirates, he got a point at Old Trafford, beat Manchester City in the Carling Cup and was two points clear of the relegation zone until he was sacked yesterday. In a season that has featured some really bizarre managerial sackings, this one was right up there.

So the League Managers' Association have their latest martyr and West Brom chairman Jeremy Peace can look back with pride on the last ten days. He signed one loan player (Carlos Vela) and, er, nobody else in the January transfer window. Then six days after it closed, he sacked the manager despite having no replacement. Great work, Mr Chairman.

MPs must call on game's big-hitters to give inquiry punch

The public hearings of the parliamentary inquiry into football governance start tomorrow and with respect to the academics and former administrators giving evidence this week it would be fair to say that the MPs have not got the sport's big hitters in the hot-seat.

As this inquiry moves on it will be fascinating to see whether the committee has the courage to call in any of the people that make the big decisions. Select committees only have the power to summons UK citizens but in the past they have also called foreign nationals to account like Xavier Rolet, the French chief executive of the London Stock Exchange. Would they do the same with Roman Abramovich or Joel Glazer? We wait in hope.

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