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Ashley Cole Sets Record Straight on England’s Golden Generation

Ashley Cole Sets Record Straight on England’s Golden Generation

Monday, 11 February, 2019 - 09:00
Derby County's Ashley Cole. (AFP)
London - Barney Ronay
It was fun to see Ashley Cole on Sky Sports on Monday Night Football. There wasn’t any obvious peg for having Cole on the show, no link to either of the clubs playing that night. But he was an excellent and engrossing guest after a nervous start, standing very still behind the lighted plinth in his skinny black tie and black suit, looking like a handsome celebrity undertaker.

Part of the fascination of Cole is that he has a rare kind of distance around him, the authority of a man who has shunned public appearances to the extent it is a surprise to remember what his voice sounds like.

It is no mystery why Cole doesn’t like to speak to the media, which for years advertised an image of him as a cash-grasping numbskull, semi-feral spiv and all-round celebrity womanizer. Now at Derby County and aged 38, he came cross as a thoughtful, generous understandably guarded kind of person.

Invited to muse on which of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi was better Cole just said: “Messi. To mark him was an honor. He was … too good for me.” Asked to settle public scores with the British media he replied, without any bitterness: “It wasn’t great. Some my fault, some not my fault.” Encouraged to call out the racist coverage of Raheem Sterling and indeed himself, he refused to give an easy line and just said, for reasons that seemed obvious, that it wasn’t quite right.

But then getting Cole wrong has been a shared pastime ever since he first played for England as a thrillingly assured and dynamic 20-year-old. In the years since, Cole has been a kind of cipher at times, foisted with various personas and roles that seem to speak to a much wider sense of ambient English sporting confusion. It has become fashionable now to talk about Cole as a kind of lost colossus, redeemer of the Golden Years and the one true “world class” element among that storied England group. The excellent Jamie Carragher – who has a rare gift of speaking about football in a tone of genuine child-like wonder, as though contemplating the quantum mysteries of dark matter rather than the need for someone to stand slightly closer to someone else – brought this up on Sky, suggesting Cole has been unfairly lumped in with his colleagues, whereas in fact he is our one precious totem of the lost, blessed Sven years.

This is now part of the evolving narrative of that period. No doubt there is an element of restorative Cole-guilt about this. But it is also not quite right. For a start everyone knew Cole was brilliant at the time. This is not some redemptive revelation. Cole was a supreme left-back, a pure defender who used his speed and positional brain to cover his flank with a vicious precision. He didn’t reinvent the role. He wasn’t Messi or Ronaldo, although neither of those two ever scored against him. But he was hugely revered, the kind of player who made every teammate look that bit better just by standing next to him.

No doubt this has been fogged a little by the enduring myths around those England players, most obviously the myth of The Fall, the idea they failed because of hubris and debauched working-class fallibility. This was defined by 2006, Baden-Baden and all that, where the players traded guaranteed World Cup glory for the opportunity to lie around their yak-fur rumpus room wearing solid-gold shoes and snorting truffle oil, mesmerized by a cabal of chav-witches constructed entirely out of plastic, greed and hanks of artificial hair.

None of this really stands up, of course. The myth of The Fall is another part of the Myth of English Exceptionalism, expressed most clearly through sport, whereby the world is perceived solely through the prism of lost English supremacy, the success of others always a mistake or an interruption. And where to be talented and also English should under the natural order amount to a sure state of world domination, thwarted only by cheating foreigners or some terrible tragic flaw.

So it has become a truism that Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Michael Owen, John Terry, Joe Cole, Frank Lampard and (just) Wayne Rooney, underachieved during their careers by the unforgivable oversight of somehow failing to win an international tournament.

In reality these were hugely successful footballers who just fell short of being world beaters. Which is OK! Winning tournaments is hard. The team that should have won the 2002 World Cup had Danny Mills at right-back, as opposed to Cafu. The team that should have won Euro 2004 lost their best player before the quarters. They had a poor manager through all this too, dear old Sven, who spent six years stroking his chin and staring in bafflement at his own constipated lineup while apparently convinced international law states every football team must play rigidly enforced 4-4-2 at all times.

But no, carry on. As you were. Being thwarted by that confusing and hostile substance “abroad”, being great in a way the world simply won’t allow: this is a part of the (deeply tedious) English condition that extends way beyond football. Just as still getting Ashley wrong, over-praising him now as the best, the most world-classiest of all, is a symptom of the same thing.

Cole himself said it best. Should England’s golden boys have done better, he was asked. “No,” was the simple answer. “We had strong players. We just kept falling short … other teams were better than us.” Which is not just the wisest word on all that; but surely the last, too.

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