Upon the announcement of Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad this afternoon, there was one notable, controversial omission – Chelsea‘s Ashley Cole.
In fact, the news had broke yesterday evening that the Three Lions centurion wouldn’t make Hodgson’s cut for the tournament in Brazil, instead favouring Southampton prodigy Luke Shaw as deputy to first-choice left-back Leighton Baines. Accordingly, the 33 year-old declined to be included on England’s stand-by list, and through his favoured medium of Twitter, announced that he would be retiring from international football.
There’s little place for the notion of misfortune in the beautiful game. Being a seven-time FA Cup winner and three-time Premier League title holder, the Blues defender would certainly be willing to vouch for that. But all things considered, Cole can count himself tremendously unlucky to not find himself Rio-bound this summer.
Admittedly, the current campaign has been arguably the stalest of the former England star’s career. Although his form has been as repetitively consistent as ever, it’s not been able to hold a candle to that of fellow Chelsea full-back Cesar Azpilicueta. Transformed from an adventurous right-back into one of the most defensively assured left-backs the Premier League has to offer under Jose Mourinho, the Spaniard hasn’t put a foot wrong all season in the No.3 berth, resulting in 44 outings in all competitions – including 29 in the Premier League – in comparison to Cole’s 26.
Likewise, Roy Hodgson clearly felt obliged not to ignore the meteoric rise of Luke Shaw over the past two seasons. Indeed, considering his senior career for the Saints previously had consisted of a solitary 15 minute outing in the FA Cup, the 18 year-old’s progress since Southampton’s Premier League promotion in summer 2012 has been astronomical.
Bearing in mind the coming World Cup has been considered a write-off for the Three Lions ever since Greg Dyke’s cut-throat gesture upon the announcement they would be facing Italy and Uruguay in Group D, it’s understandable that Hodgson has extended his theme of youth and potential, viewing England’s next international tournament as the real litmus test of where the national game is at in terms of quality, to the left-back role.
It’s the same hypothesis that has forced the England gaffer’s hand in refusing to offer Chelsea’s John Terry -undoubtedly the most in-form home-grown centre-back this season and partner at club level to Gary Cahill – a route back into international football.
Yet I’m of the firm belief that Cole still had a lot to offer England at the coming World Cup. Although he may have lost those vital yards of pace that for many years made him undisputedly the best No.3 in world football, when the task at hand is defending against what’s in front of him and that alone, the Premier League veteran is still up there with the global left-back elite. Recent showings against Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Norwich and Southampton (the latter harking back to New Years’ Day) are enough evidence of that.
Likewise, Hodgson will be taking an exceptionally young squad to Brazil and Cole’s experience in the England camp is only rivalled by Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. The fellow Three Lions centurions along with Rickie Lambert and Phil Jagielka compose a cohort of just four players throughout the squad that are over 30 years of age, yet the Southampton and Everton representatives boast just 28 senior caps between them.
Furthermore, the Chelsea full-back’s service for England over the last decade cannot be understated. Whilst the rest of the ‘golden generation’ have decisively fallen short of the country’s expectations, Cole has undoubtedly been the Three Lions’ most dependable performer, featuring in every major tournament and qualification campaign England have been involved in since the 2002 World Cup, even earning a place in the Team of the Tournament at Euro 2004 and named England’s Player of the Year for 2010.
All the while, he’s continued to put in top class displays despite spending much of his career as a public hate figure for his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 and revelations of extra-marital affairs in 2008, resulting in divorce from former spouse (and apparent national hero for being very, very pretty) Cheryl Tweedy.
Any other position on the pitch, barring perhaps central midfield, and Cole’s mixture of quality and experience – regardless of his ageing legs – would have easily been enough to see him make the grade for Brazil. England are lacking in every other department, except bizarrely at No.3.
And here is perhaps where the notion of poor luck rings loudest. The Blues defender has amassed 107 England caps since his debut thirteen years ago, in no small part due to the fact that in that time frame quality home-grown left-backs have been few and far between in the Premier League. In fact, tracing through the history of the national team, only Kenny Sanson has ever been discussed in paralleled positive terms to the Three Lions’ most recent retiree.
But now, Hodgson has one of the world’s best, modern-moulded No.3s at his disposal in Leighton Baines and one of Europe’s most impressive prodigies in Luke Shaw, not to mention Arsenal’s often-forgotten Kieran Gibbs and Tottenham prospect Danny Rose. Hodgson felt the need to make room for future stars, and in the most honourable fashion possible – admittedly in a rather welcome contrast to Cole’s usual public interactions – the Chelsea defender has accepted and embraced that decision.
The England boss has labelled his decision to leave out Cole as “one of the hardest calls of [his] career,” and understandably so. Any other major tournament, at the end of any other campaign of the 33 year-old’s long, illustrious, trophy-laden career, any other point between the cycle of generations than the one England finds itself currently in, and Cole would have been the first name on Hodgson’s squad list, just as he was for Sven Goran-Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello.
Yet football is a cruel mistress and every player, whether they boast world-class quality or that of League Two, must eventually accept their curtain call. It seems almost paradoxical branding an England centurion as ‘unlucky’, but Cole and Hodgson will both be well aware that rather than form, fitness or quality playing any significant role, a policy of youth combined with a rare spoiling for choice at left-back, has become the most vital factor in the England manager’s decision.
Most unfortunately however, most ironic in regards to Cole, this emphasis on youth has been spawned from England’s prior failing at major tournaments. Yet of all the Three Lions players who have tried and failed to meet our country’s expectations over the past decade, of all members of the ‘golden generation’ that continually came up short, the Chelsea defender is one of a rare few that can claim his performances never let England down.
He is now paying the price for the inadequacies of those who played around him throughout the last ten years, but has accepted that punishment as a gentleman.