Ashley Cole: love him or hate him, England need him
By Bradley King
On 26th February 2000, my club, Grimsby Town, took on Crystal Palace at Blundell Park. Palace had one of the most fearsome strike partnerships in the division in Clinton Morrison and Mikael Forssell, as well as towering Chinese international Fan Zhiyi at centre back. There was also a little-known youngster starting at left-back.
Steve Coppell's Palace lost the game 1-0 due to David Smith's first half spot kick for the home side. The aforementioned left-back, on loan from Arsenal, endured a tough day and was embarrassed by a virtuoso performance from the Mariners' legendary right-winger Kevin Donovan.
It's fair to say, I didn't think much to Ashley Cole, that day.
Flash forward to the modern day and Cole is widely considered to be the greatest left-sided defender that England has ever produced. For 12 years, and counting, Cole has been the sole recipient of the number three shirt for international duty, starting 99 matches as a result.
On Wednesday, against Brazil, he will take to the Wembley pitch wearing the famous three lions for a well-earned century appearance - a landmark that only six other players have ever reached. For any player to reach 100 caps for his nation is a magnificent achievement and Cole should be collectively applauded.
However, unanimous congratulations is improbable because of the insistence to equate Cole's football talents with his personality. It was a similar situation with Mario Balotelli, who recently left English shores for Milan. But while Balotelli invoked a Marmite-like reaction, Cole's off-the-field persona seems universally unpopular.
After divorcing from pop star wife Cheryl in 2010, Cole was ostracized by the British public. Cheryl Cole, at the time, was a media darling; the female David Beckham, the modern day Princess Diana, to an extent. How could Ashley cheat on her?
He also suffered from the debilitating affliction of playing for Chelsea alongside fellow 'love rat', as the tabloids seem to love to refer to them, John Terry - possibly the only footballer in the country whose personal life is more widely detested.
But none of this should matter. His personal shortcomings, and inability to stay loyal to the lovely Cheryl Cole, should not detract from his impeccable performances at the elite level of sport for over a decade.
Particularly noteworthy is Cole's performance for England against Portugal in 2004. He came up Cristiano Ronaldo as the European Championships came to the pretty-faced winger's homeland. Ronaldo was the new kid on the block; the poster boy who fully expected to rip England to shreds that day.
But Cole, at only 23-years-old, showed why he was on his way to becoming the greatest full-back of the 21st century. Ronaldo became increasingly exasperated at his failure to sidestep his way past the then-Arsenal defender who barely put a foot wrong. Cole certainly didn't deserve to be on the losing side by full-time. Instead of celebrating a semi-final berth, he ended up in a Lisbon infirmary, having Portugal's golden boy surgically removed from his back pocket.
We may never like Ashley Cole as a person or endorse him as a role model for our children. But his capabilities as a top-quality, supremely fit sportsman cannot be called into question. When he finally retires from international duty (a moment which the in-form Leighton Baines surely pines for), his name will be rightly mentioned alongside the greatest English defenders: the likes of Billy Wright, Terry Butcher and Bobby Moore.
But if there is one thing that can be admired about Cole's non-footballing character, it's his strong-mindedness and willingness to stand up to those more widely favoured, whether that be Cristiano Ronaldo or Cheryl Cole.
He still couldn't deal with the tricky feet of Kevin Donovan, though.