So farewell then, Ashley Cole. His contract now wound down completely, Chelsea is finally saying their goodbyes to the man who has graced the blue shirt for the last eight years. In a club statement, they paid tribute to “a player who contributed enormously to the highly successfully period in our history in which we were crowned champions of Europe and won the League and Cup double for the first time”.
Cole has been so good, for so long, it’s hard to remember what we did for a left-back before him. Sure, there was Wayne Bridge, with his right foot that was really only good for balancing on and his worrying penchant for clearances which went straight to the opposition. But he seems like ancient history.
Cole spent longer at Chelsea than he did as a first-teamer at Arsenal, his first love. He made 338 appearances in all competitions for the Blues, more than all but 21 players in the club’s history. Until this last season, there was no question of anyone but him playing left-back as long as he was fit. The only season he played fewer than 40 games was the Double year, when he broke his ankle and was out for three months.
It’s a matter of plain fact to say that he was the club’s greatest left-back. He may well have been England’s greatest left-back too. At times, he had a fair claim to be called the greatest left-back in the world, without very much exaggeration. Anyone who has seen him put the best players – players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – in his pocket and keeps them quiet, knows just how awesome a defender he is.
What made him so good? His vision, his pace, his tackling, his covering, his link-up play with his centre-backs, his ability to forage forward almost at will while being able to track back at speed and prevent any attacker getting behind him – it’s hard to say what his most admirable characteristic was. But you always felt sure that, whatever the danger was, Ash had it covered.
He obviously had his faults. He was poor with the media, disliking doing anything for the press as he believed they had it in for him. Like many players, he had an eye for the ladies which caused disastrous ructions in his private life. He could be careless and stupid off the pitch, but more often he was shy, withdrawn and uneasy with attempts to try and repair his public image.
He never really recovered in many people’s eyes from the unfortunate phrase in his autobiography about how he “nearly swerved off the road” after learning about a contract offer from Arsenal that he regarded as unacceptable.
It was taken as a sign of his greed, a symbol of all that was wrong about modern footballers. Yet the back-story – that Arsenal’s chief executive David Dein had reneged on a promise of a much better deal and that it was the lack of faith that had upset Cole – was conveniently forgotten by the media and opposition fans alike. Thus was the “Cashley” myth born? In truth, Cole was not particularly motivated by money – never seeking a lucrative move to Real Madrid, or latterly to Manchester City or PSG, that would have been his for the asking. Instead, Cole has played his entire career for just two clubs and been involved in just one (admittedly controversial) transfer.
In his last season or two at Chelsea, there were signs that his pace and reliability were not all they once were, though his assured performances when called upon in the Champions League semi-final seemed to belie any idea that his talent had in any way diminished. He could probably have gone on for another couple of years at the top level, perhaps not playing as much, but still as reassuring a sight on the left of the back four as ever.
But it’s probably for the best that Blues fans don’t have to watch his inevitable slow decline from the peak of his abilities. Instead we can remember him in his prime. I’ll never forget the sight of him holding the European Cup on that night in Munich in 2012. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a footballer look happier. Thanks Ash – good luck wherever you go.