It looks as though Ashley Cole will go on to produce a record far more memorable than any of his ex-wife’s. After becoming England’s most-capped full-back with his 87th international appearance this month, just a few weeks past his 30th birthday, the Chelsea man is on target to break David Beckham’s outfield record of 115 caps, and possibly even Peter Shilton’s overall record of 125. So why, then, when Ashley is probably the best left-back in the world, is he just about the most unpopular player ever to wear the Three Lions?
Well, partly it’s because of his split from the saintly Cheryl – but, let’s face it, I don’t know of any man in any walk of life who has won a PR battle against a woman in the event of a divorce. And then there’s the fact that Cole failed to read his own autobiography – a crime committed by pretty much every footballer past or present!
The ghost-written book earned him the nickname Cashley and this passage describing his wage negotiations with Arsenal’s David Dein has gone down in football infamy: “When I heard the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He is taking the p***!’ I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger.” Had Cole read the manuscript and thought about it properly, he would never have allowed that passage to be made public.
Privately expressed, I don’t believe Cole’s comments were particularly out of order. He was a genuine world-class player, yet several of his team-mates were earning a lot more. But those words were disastrous for his image. I don’t know why today’s players sign book deals when they earn as much as they do. I can’t see why they are worth the trouble. They all say ‘It’s important to me to get my side of the story out there’ but it’s usually just for the money. I’ll happily admit that this was my motivation when I sold my life story to this very newspaper at the grand old age of 18!
In one of my later books, I said that the Tottenham team I was playing in was better than England – an observation which would not be controversial in this day and age when most people accept that top club football is superior to the international game. But back then it was considered almost treason and I got a hell of a lot of stick for it.
So I have a certain amount of sympathy for Cole. I have never met him, so I know little about his off-field personality except for the fact that he is very handy with a camera-phone! But on the field he is up there with the best England full-backs, including Jimmy Armfield, Ray Wilson, Phil Neal, Stuart Pearce and Gary Neville.
Jimmy was the first true overlapping full-back. He would play behind Stanley Matthews at Blackpool – Stan would often take out a couple of players with a dribble and slip it through for Jimmy to whip in a cross. Full-backs were all about defensive duties until Jimmy came along, but your modern full-back, like Cole, would have a lot more in common with Armfield.
For purely defensive qualities, Wilson was the best I played with. Yet Cole bears comparison with any full-back I’ve seen – and, unlike Mr Beckham, he has started and finished pretty much every international he has played in. Who knows, should Ashley ever hire himself a good PR man, he might even earn a little of Beckham’s popularity one of these nights. But I won’t be holding my breath.