Cole's sheer brilliance shows he's more than just a love rat
00:01 GMT, 22 April 2012
If Ashley Cole did not exist, then the
red-top tabloids would have invented him. He is a 31-year-old
adolescent, a hero of the paparazzi, a 'serial lovecheat' who has cut a
dazzling swath through some of the most distinguished lap dancers,
topless models and reality television stars of his generation.
When disdainful civilians attempt to imagine the stereotypical Premier League footballer, then Cole is a prominent candidate.
His default expression is a petulant
sneer, he holds match officials in arrogant contempt, and who was the
prankster who shot and injured a work-placement student with a .22 air
rifle at the Chelsea training ground Need you ask
Top man: Chelsea's Ashley Cole impressed in 1-0 victory over Barcelona
Moreover, he will never truly live down the story he told six years ago in his 'autobiography' of how he almost crashed his car in affronted anger when Arsenal insulted him with a salary offer of 55,000 per week. Yet there is another side to our Ashley. As well as being a 'love rat', he is also a left-back and an extremely accomplished one.
There was a moment the other evening, during Chelsea's improbable Champions League first-leg victory over Barcelona, when he revealed his instinctive class.
Trapped on the touchline and surrounded by a posse of predators, he twitched a shoulder, fluttered a foot and flicked the ball into half a yard of space with the side of his heel before conjuring the pass. It was a manoeuvre stolen straight from the Catalan playbook. Indeed, of the entire Chelsea side, only Cole's talents truly equip him for a place in the Barcelona team.
But that flick merely hints at his contribution. He battled ceaselessly with the overlapping incursions of Dani Alves, winning his duels with the confidence of one who has consistently coped with the best the world game can offer.
And he denied Barcelona their critical
away goal with a goalline clearance which demanded both athleticism and
anticipation; the same qualities he had revealed in the last-16 away
leg in Naples when another of his salvage operations proved the
difference between mere defeat and certain elimination.
It may be that Cole's most impressive
performance was delivered in the course of Chelsea's most abject
display. On the third day of last month, on a chill afternoon at The
Hawthorns, Chelsea surrendered to West Bromwich Albion.
Tabloid dream: Ashley Cole and former wife Cheryl were forever in the tabloids
It was a curious exhibition, vaguely shameful in its listless ineptitude. As the players slouched off, an old pro glared down from the Press box.
'That was disgraceful,' he said. 'They never tried an inch. They looked like they were trying to get the manager the sack.'
If that was the case, then they succeeded.
Andre Villas-Boas departed next day. But in the immediate aftermath of the feeble defeat, as the manager searched for words to capture the humiliation – 'very poor, in all senses of the word … not good enough … this is just too bad' – he made a point of exempting the man who fought to turn the tide, flatly refusing to allow his own standards to drop. 'The only player who performed up to any level was Ashley Cole,' he said.
It is on such desperate occasions that a player reveals his true worth and Cole came flying through his test. But perhaps we should not have been surprised.
After a dozen years in the Premier League, with three League titles, six FA Cup winners' medals and 93 England caps to his name, his excellence is beyond argument.
Along with Wayne Rooney, he is probably the only authentic worldclass talent that England possess.
Not forgotten: Cole was afforded his usual vitriolic 'welcome' by Emirates Stadium
Whoever takes the national job – and despite the erudite intervention of the Bolton chairman Phil Gartside, that race is not yet run – will see Cole as a central pillar of his plans, his Barcelona masterclass simply confirming his towering ability. None of which should suggest that he is preparing dramatic lifestyle changes.
The lap dancers, 'glamour' models and reality airheads should not abandon hope. The air stewardesses, Playboy playmates, blonde secretaries and fitness trainers should carry on checking their phone texts.
And certainly the paparazzi should continue to send wives to Armani and sons to Winchester, in the comfortable certainty that illicit snaps of the serial love cheat will settle the bills.
No matter. When Ashley Cole sets aside his amorous distractions and lays down his rifle, his talent tells a powerful tale.
And if Chelsea are to achieve a still more improbable result in the Nou Camp this week, then they will look to their eternal adolescent. For whatever his faults and foibles, the boy can play. Quite brilliantly.
Nicholls reveals the worst side of a National disgrace
Last week's Grand National left a legacy of nagging disquiet. As ever, a vast audience was attracted and enormous sums were wagered but with two more horses dead after falling at Becher's Brook, including the Gold Cup winner Synchronised, the questions were too obvious to ignore.
How can we justify slaughtering these magnificent animals at such a rate And is this stunning event stumbling towards freak show territory, with titillating tumbles for the voyeurs and tarpaulin tents for the fallen
I ask as one who has enormous admiration for the spirit of National Hunt racing. The courage of the jockeys is without parallel in sport, while the enthusiasm of the stable staff is a thing of wonder. A glittering memory of the recent Cheltenham Festival was of trainer Jonjo O'Neill seeking out the two stable girls who had prepared Synchronised for his race.
Jonjo's thanks were warm, their smiles were dazzling. Their reaction to the National tragedy can only be imagined. At times like this, racing's stance is defensive. At best, it is prickly; at worst, it is Paul Nicholls (above). As trainer of the winner, Neptune Collonges, Nicholls might have offered a thoughtful appraisal of the situation. Instead, he took refuge in witless bravado.
'There's always risk in sport,' he said. 'We take risks in our lives every single day … life is full of risks.' Which brought him to his tritely offensive conclusion: 'We've just got to get on with it. Grow up, basically.'
The concept of choice had never crossed his mind. While jockeys like AP McCoy or Daryl Jacob can make their own decisions about risking their necks, horses are incapable of indicating that they might actually prefer to spend National afternoon in a warm stable with a nourishing nosebag and the Racing Post.
Racing will doubtless conduct a Grand National inquiry, a serious affair with searching questions and possibly uncomfortable answers. But I trust they will ignore the absurd Nicholls. Such matters are best left to the grown-ups.
Willie's Big Idea ends in the inevitable tears
Six months ago, Doncaster Rovers engaged the football agent Willie McKay.
They were struggling in the Championship and ready to clutch at straws. And so they adopted Willie's Big Idea.
He signed a contract stating that all transfers required his approval. In return, he undertook to sign, on short-term loans, a series of moderately celebrated yet currently under-used players.
They would be paid a maximum of 2,000 per week, with their parent club paying the rest. When they were sold, Rovers would receive a cut of the transfer fee. One of the players was Willie's client, El Hadji Diouf.
Back in the news: Serial badboy El Hadji Diouf made headlines for the wrong reasons again this week
This column called it 'a bizarre and cynical distortion of all the values that the game is supposed to embody' and predicted it would end in tears.
Last weekend, Doncaster were relegated, Diouf was arrested following an alleged nightclub brawl and the Big Idea died.
'That's football,' said Willie. Shamefully, he was right.
As you may be aware, the World Snooker Championship is under way. It is run by Barry Hearn, who calls it 'the biggest sporting event of the year'. So much for the Euros, Wimbledon, The Open, a couple of Test series and the Olympics. In Hearn's world, the real action involves chubby chaps in sponsored waistcoats, pensively pottering around the green baize in Sheffield. Dear old Bazza, he feels obliged to say this kind of thing. Just as well he doesn't mean it.