They call him Cashley, but he don’t care

Ashley Cole is accused of being a greedy, Cheryl-cheating swine. But, to his credit, he has never courted popularity.

Duleep Allirajah

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It’s safe to say that Ashley Cole is not regarded as a national treasure. He probably never will be. Not that he’ll lose any sleep over it. The Chelsea and England left-back has never been particularly bothered about public opinion. And that’s precisely why I like him.

The public have never really warmed to the man who won his one-hundredth cap for England this week in the 2-1 win over Brazil. In fact, his England team-mates appealed to fans to show their appreciation for the defender. ‘Maybe he is a bit under appreciated by some people’, said goalkeeper Joe Hart. ‘He never lets anyone down, is so consistent and has a great fitness record. It is odd because someone who is less talented and not as consistent would probably get more attention, but he never really gets mentioned.’ Cole is undoubtedly one of England’s few world-class players. Whereas others have flopped at major tournaments, Cole has always delivered. And yet he is neither adored like the lovable therapy-case Gazza nor does he attract the grotesque media circus that accompanies Brand Beckham around the globe.

Personally, I’ve never been one of the haters. Ashley Cole will always receive a warm welcome at Selhurst Park where, as a raw 19-year-old loanee from Arsenal, he played a crucial role in helping Crystal Palace avoid relegation to the third tier of English football. He’s never scored for England, but Cole’s equaliser in the Eagles’ 2-1 win over Blackburn, a result which kept us up, is a strike Palace fans still fondly remember. At the time, I recall telling Arsenal-supporting friends that Cole was the future England left-back. ‘Ashley who?’, they replied.

So, why is Cole so under-appreciated? You don’t exactly need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure that out. There are several factors, but in my opinion, they all reflect more poorly on contemporary mores than on the footballer himself. Firstly, there is the accusation of greed. He has become the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern football. He’s never really been forgiven for revealing in his memoir that he was so angry to hear that Arsenal were ‘only’ offering him £55,000 a week that he nearly crashed his car. After his defection to Chelsea, he was christened ‘Cashley Cole’ by Arsenal fans, who waved wads of banknotes to taunt him.

But what exactly was Cole’s crime, other than candour? He was the best full-back in the country and quite rightly wanted to be paid what he was worth. He was perhaps ill-advised to admit this in his autobiography, but he shouldn’t be crucified for his honesty. Wayne Rooney, for example, hasn’t been similarly vilified for using the threat of a transfer request to land a more lucrative salary at Manchester United. Society has been infected by a mean-spirited moralism over the question of footballers’ wages. And why is demanding more money so morally reprehensible? The warped logic of austerity – ‘we’re all in it together’ and need to tighten our belts – has coloured this debate. So what if footballers are paid silly wages? Good luck to them. Society would be a better place if more of us demanded higher pay instead of sitting on our backsides bleating about rich footballers.

Another reason for the opprobrium heaped on Cole is the colour of his club jersey. Blue is the colour, ‘Anyone But Chelsea’ is the game. In the middle of the noughties, the arrivistes of Chelsea, enriched by Roman Abramovich’s roubles, displaced Manchester United as the embodiment of evil modern football. This was a club ‘without a history’ – as its rivals sniffily reminded its fans. Chelsea had sold its soul to a dodgy foreign oil tycoon, assembled a band of mercenary superstars and bought success. In the 1990s, it was players like Paul Ince, David Beckham and Roy Keane who had been reviled just because they played for United. Now it was Chelsea stars like Ashley Cole and John Terry, who became convenient Aunt Sallies for fans who were disenchanted with modern football.

Ashley Cole’s off-field conduct hasn’t exactly enhanced his reputation either. Although football fans probably don’t give a monkey’s about his private life, he has incurred the wrath of Grazia readers for cheating on his pop-star wife, Cheryl. The incident at Chelsea’s training ground when Cole accidentally shot an intern with an air rifle has also been used as evidence against him – and further proof of the absence of any moral anchor at Chelsea. And giving evidence as a defence witness in John Terry’s racial-abuse case has infuriated the anti-racist campaigners.

So, he’s made a few mistakes. Who hasn’t? In fact, as rap sheets go, Cole’s list of minor indiscretions hardly makes puts him in Jimmy Savile’s league. However, these days we don’t just expect footballers to perform well on the pitch. They are required to be immaculately behaved off the pitch. ‘Footballers are role models’, is the oft-heard refrain. As a parent myself, I don’t expect Ashley Cole to provide moral leadership to my daughter. That’s my job. I’m with basketball star Charles Barkley on this issue. ‘I’m not paid to be a role model’, said Barkley. ‘I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.’

What I like about Ashley Cole is his defiant ‘No one likes me, I don’t care’ attitude. I’m sure he could have hired a PR agency to repair his damaged public reputation if he’d wanted to. But he’s not bothered about what people think about him. This week, he told journalists: ‘I don’t want to sit here and keep going on about wanting to be loved. I am here to play football. That is all I want to do.’ Cole doesn’t like journalists and rarely gives interviews – another reason for the negative public image. As Ollie Holt pointed out in his Daily Mirror column, ‘Most players have one or two friends in the media who will stick up for them. Cole is the exception. Cole won’t play that game. Not in the bad times or in the good. He keeps his own counsel.’ Rather than play the victim card and complain about being hurt by the boo boys, Cole has an old-fashioned thick skin. ‘Fans booing me is normal now’, he said. ‘It is something I have to deal with. I have learned to deal with it. I have gone past the stage where it fazes me.’

Ashley Cole will never be the darling of the terraces. There’s no clamour for the player to receive a gong. Nor will the FA erect a statue of the full-back on Wembley Way. But Cole won’t care about any of this. He’ll do his talking on the pitch. And that’s why, in my opinion, he’s a proper football hero.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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