Leighton Baines: Everton's fashionable full-back should end Ashley Cole's England career
By Dan Wheeler
It is not the easiest thing in the world for a full-back to be most colourful of team players.
It is hard for them to exude much personality - just ask Gary Neville. In the kaleiderscope of the Premier League, they are the Boys in Beige.
But Leighton Baines is doing his best to buck that trend. And he is doing a rather good job too. Not only is the left-back having another great season for Everton, he once again showed on Friday night that he remains a threat to Ashley Cole’s hitherto untouchable spot in the England side.
OK, San Marino put up the footballing equivalent of a training ground kick about with a bunch of dustbins but England avoided any embarrassments and handed out one of their own thanks to a disciplined, slick and calculating performance.
Baines, especially, enjoyed himself. A reformed winger, he is obviously comfortable bombing forward and it showed against the part-timers. He set up three of England’s eight goals and together with the expected clean sheet he had an excellent night. Apart from score himself, he pretty much ticked every box.
Harder tests, of course, will follow and sadly, when they do, they look like triggering Baines' exit.
Cole is likely to come back into the side for Tuesday’s qualifier in Montenegro. That is a shame. Because in every way, bar international experience, Baines is Cole’s equal and in quite a lot of instances, he is superior. Statistics back up that claim. No one in the Premier League has made more than Baines’s 93 key passes this season. Not David Silva; Juan Mata; not Santi Cazorla. Not even Yaya Toure. Cole has made 16. No-one has crossed the ball as often as Baines - a vital part of a full-back job description. Of his 271 crosses, 84 of them are classified as “accurate.” Cole has delivered four on the money.
Baines has lost the ball less often than Cole and he has made more interceptions than Cole. He has scored more goals and claimed more assists. Put simply, Baines is the best left-back in England. He is England’s future - even at 29. Cole, at 32, is its past. He has his 100 caps now and that should be that. No doubt Cole will get the chance to carry on though thanks, in no small part, to his reputation. A reputation that was rightly forged during the European Championships in Portugal in 2004. Cole was superb in that tournament - especially in England’s quarter-final against the hosts. Back then he was the best around. But that was nine years ago. He is not the best anymore.
It might be the hair, it might be his penchant for scoring screamers from 25 yards on a regular basis but Baines is a throw back full-back. He is cast from the same mould that made England’s best left-back of recent years, Stuart Pearce, and the best leftie never to play for the senior England side, Julian Dicks.
Baines may not be quite as maverick as those two but he is doing just as good a job as them in making full-backs fashionable again. He has the likeability factor too, something Cole cannot claim. A regular starting berth for England would enhance that no end.