by Andy Robinson

Browsing through the darker reaches of the football internet earlier in the week I came across a story about Andre Villas Boas and his departure from Chelsea.

It is a widely held belief that player power not for the first time at that club resulted in the manager losing his job. Allegedly one of the prime movers was Ashley Cole. A dispute over tactics with the new defensive system implemented by Boas where Chelsea used a high line for the back four which was leaving John Terry’s ageing limbs and lack of pace seriously exposed was the apparent cause. Cole rather than Terry or Lampard was the one apparently leading the protests on the training ground.

In AVB’s last match as Chelsea’s manager which was a pitiful surrender at the Hawthorns there were a couple of old pro’s in the press box. Word quickly spread that the Chelsea players had laid down and died deliberately on the day. The old pros and the soon to be departed AVB though had nothing but praise for Ashley Cole who was impeccable and professional throughout. At the start of the month Ashley Cole added one more cap to his previous 99 and joined perhaps English football’s most illustrious list. It largely went unnoticed. Meanwhile up in Merseyside a player of far less ability was considering his future in the game and he eventually opted for retirement.

This happened a few weeks back now and I have deliberately left it until now so I didn’t comment in either despair or anger.  Sky and the newspapers and both local news programmes  “Granada Reports” and “Look North West” were full of platitudes about the upcoming end of season retirement of Jamie Carragher – a one trick pony nonentity who hasn’t put in a decent performance for years and got 30 odd caps for England.

This is the guy who has sweated blood for Liverpool in a lost cause trying to catch United and Arsenal for most of the last twenty years and who once made a couple of fantastic tackles in Istanbul eight or nine years ago. For the national team, he sometimes came on as a sub for the last few minutes of a friendly or as the occasional starter when far superior players such as Sol Campbell, Rio, John Terry, Woodgate and Ledley King were missing and in his other position the right back spot his way was blocked by Gary Neville, Danny Mills, Gary Neville for a second time and even the Queens Park Rangers player who hasn’t even got a squad number Luke Young were all preferred before him. That’s how poor Carragher actually was.  Why then the love-in for Jamie and not Ashley? Can anyone give me five better England players in the last 40 odd years than Ashley? I don’t think they can, yet he is never going to get the recognition he deserves or any love off the English Football public.

When footballers come to be defined in our memories certain specific instances will stand out. If you think about Stuart Pearce you will see a penalty against Spain and a raised fist. With Beckham it will be a free kick against Greece or possibly for the deeper thinkers how he somehow managed to force his way back into the Real Madrid side after being discarded by Capello. With Paul Gascoine it will be the sheer brilliance of the goal against the Scots and the tears of Italia 90. What though are people going to think about Ashley Cole?

Unfortunately with Ashley by the time he finishes as a player which isn’t far off now it shall come down to any of several  incidents all of them unsavoury. The tacky sale of his wedding to a glitzy magazine for a cool £500K, the alleged extra marital activities, the accidental shooting of a kid on work experience with a pop gun at the training ground may all offend the sensitive and the old fashioned but sadly for Ashley it’s the three events where he damaged and tainted the game that will represent him. The ill – judged and far too premature biography in which he declared himself as being so angry he almost smashed his car up when contemplating what he described as Arsenal’s measly and insulting offer of £55k a week after all he had done for them showed such a blatant disregard of not only a great club who have always preferred to keep their business private but for the man in the street, the fan who shells out week after week to pay those wages – little love for the fans then. We can also throw in the Knightsbridge Hotel dinner where he was caught openly discussing a potential transfer to Chelsea with his agent Jonathon Barnett and Chelsea Chief Executive Peter Kenyon and manager at the time Jose Mourinho along with the super Agent Pini Zahavi. We all know this goes on and has done in professional football since Victorian days, but to be so blatant?  Finally, the Mike Riley incident in the match against Tottenham. After a tackle on Alan Hutton that many observers felt warranted a red rather than a yellow card he then proceeded to rant in the face of referee Mike Riley before turning his back on him as the rather apologetic yellow came out. All of this was right at the start of the FA’s “Respect” campaign.

On the pitch most will agree that Cole seems to have improved with age. His original attributes of speed and strength in the tackle have always been there but have been complemented in the latter part of his career by an assurance in his tactical awareness and positional play which makes him in my mind the one genuine world class player we have and he has been so now for a while.

I started watching England in 1968 as a little boy and the one position where we have never had any trouble is the left back one. Terry Cooper was replaced by Emlyn Hughes who was followed by Mick Mills. Mills was so good that when he was losing his place to Kenny Sansom he switched flanks and then more recently Stuart Pearce and Graham Le Saux. There will have been others of course but not really as regulars. On the occasion of Cole’s one hundredth cap both Pearce and Sansom couldn’t praise him high enough. Unfortunately for Cole those comments from his much loved and admired immediate predecessors were about as high as the praise was ever going to get.

This week saw the nation celebrate the life and times of Sir Bobby Moore twenty years after his death. Cole with a Champions League Medal, 3 Premierships, a double “Double” and 7 FA Cup Winners Medals – more than any other footballer and England’s finest defender since Sir Bobby will never receive that sort of tribute when his days are over and as a player who more than any other defines our football times he probably isn’t going to worry about that. If he loves the game though as much as you and I do, and I for one suspect that he does, then that knowledge may just cut him like a knife.