The PFA Player of the Year nominations were released last week to much discussion. A roll call studded with mediocrity but missing the undoubted finest player of the year, Luis Nani. A forward who tops the table for combined assists and goals - the definition of end product and teamwork - missed for being demonstrably obnoxious. Nani aside, there are plenty of players overlooked for their personality failings, but Ashley Cole has to be the man who's suffered the most throughout a career for his saucy transgressions.
On Tuesday Chelsea went out to Manchester United, after a physically tired and visually tiresome performance. Ashley Cole, despite being shown up for the first goal, was one of the few Chelsea stalwarts to emerge with any credit. Defensively sound throughout the two ties, he posed Chelsea's major attacking threat in the first half of the second leg, eventually only superseded by Didier Drogba, a stunning centre forward, in the second. Not just an athlete, Ashley Cole supplies goals, attacking threat and assists. An energetic presence, he came back from broken bones like no other England international this millennium, just as fit and effective, and often improved.
This is a player who has no bete noir. In his entire career, he's never been shown up consistently by any player. Received wisdom states that Cole kept Cristiano Ronaldo in his pocket most times they met, but like most popular opinion, that's guff.
Cole barely kept him at arm's length, and was stretched regularly. That's to his credit, though. There's not a single defender in the world who has coped with Ronaldo constantly. The Sopranos' Furio Gunta aside, there's nobody ruthless enough to extinguish Ronaldo's threat for good. Holding his own, he proved that he was a world-class full back, and there are few genuinely world-class English players in any position.
Yes, he struggled against Thomas Muller in the last World Cup, but let's put this in context. He was part of a vaccinated squad that had lost its guts to cowardice and stage fright. But this was his one aberration. In a struggling team he was at a disadvantage, but there's no reason to believe he won't have learnt from the occasion. After all, one of the finest things to say about Ashley Cole is that for all his personality failures off the pitch, he has few on it.
Unlike, of course, his contemporaries in 'the Golden Generation: John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham. They missed penalties, misplaced passes and let themselves down. England defines these players like it defines the whole population, it poisons and embues it with mealy-mouthed justification for poor performance. The England team will blame anyone and anything: the manager, the supporters, even the pressure. The one thing they won't blame is themselves. Except Ashley Cole. For his performances, he blames nobody else. He has a sense of responsibility, an innate understanding that his footballing reputation rests on him alone.
This is proved, sadly, by the failings in his personal life. A football blog is no place to pass moral judgement. The Rooney debacle more or less proved that. But, objectively, he's (allegedly) cheated on his wife with a sub-par hairdresser and generally acted the ribald gallivant. That's not a good show. However, his ability to separate opprobrium from the football pitch displays an enviable dedication to football excellence above anything else. A bizarre mindset, probably unhealthy, but one that benefited both Arsenal and Chelsea. Whatever he'd done wrong, whoever he'd upset, however he'd missed the point, he was consistently excellent.
Ashley Cole is the finest English international of the past twenty years. Perhaps the best tribute anybody can pay to him is that in a post-war best XI, there are few competitors for his place. Rio Ferdinand aside, there is not a single player in the league now who could even enter the argument. Ferdinand has the brain failures to put him behind Des Walker and Bobby Moore. Ashley Cole has delivered a decade of consistent excellence. Gazza shone brighter but briefly, Shearer did the same in a confined role, and Beckham never achieved what he promised, and definitely got distracted by affairs off the pitch. Indeed, Cole might even get his dues in the next few years. So lacking are his rivals that his stay at left back could well secure him the most English caps for an outfield player in an outstanding career.
Not just internationally of course. In his club and England career, he has comfortably seen off no less than Sylvinho, Wayne Bridge, Yuri Zhirkov, Graeme Le Saux, Leighton Baines and Chris Powell. As a successor he has re-evaluated Stuart Pearce and done the same as predecessor to Gael Clichy, no matter what the Arsenal fans want to persuade themselves. Although, it should be noted, his venal move from north to west London has afforded him little more levels of success.
If anybody still doubts this argument then they must remember, of all players to stay at the top for a decade, the managers who have respected and valued Cole. Jose Mourinho, a ludicrously great manager. Luiz Felipe Scolari, who won the World Cup. Guus Hiddink, a man who won a European treble. Arsene Wenger, the Premier League's third best manager, ever. Carlo Ancelotti, successful enough to hold off Silvio Berlusconi for eight seasons. Given his ability to focus on success, it would not be a great surprise if Cole did not become the most successful manager of his England team's generation.