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May 12, 2014

Cole earns overdue appreciation

Ashley Cole applauds the fans before he is presented with his commemorative 100th England cap.
Ashley Cole applauds the fans before he is presented with his commemorative 100th England cap.

Dignity and class are words that have rarely been positioned next to the name of Chelsea full-back Ashley Cole during his lengthy England career, but they were certainly apt as his international days came to a hasty conclusion late on Sunday. Those residing outside of England may not be fully aware that Cole's popularity rating in his homeland has been fairly low for the majority of his years as a national team regular, with his critics long viewing the 33-year-old full-back as a figure worthy of ridicule for what could be portrayed as a long list of misdemeanours.

Report: No Cole for England in Brazil
FC TV: Steve Nicol on Ashley Cole's career

A contentious transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea that came amid a "tapping up" row involving Stamford Bridge officials and the club's manager Jose Mourinho back in 2006 inspired many Arsenal fans to label their former star "Cashley," viewing the move across London as a cynical bid to boost his bank balance. Then there was his infamous autobiography, when he suggested he "nearly crashed his car" in horror after he was offered a mere 55,000 pounds a week to stay at Arsenal.

Add to that the bizarre incident when he shot and wounded a work experience kid with an air rifle at the Chelsea training ground back in 2011, his high-profile divorce from former Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole, as well as a Twitter incident when he described the Football Association as "bunch of t---s" after he gave evidence in the John Terry racial abuse trial back in 2012. Put together, Cole's actions have hardly helped to appease his detractors.

Yet on the night when Cole's international career was brought to a close and he was left out of Roy Hodgson's England squad for this summer's World Cup, a man whose PR skills have rarely risen above the calamitous gained some belated credit. It would have been easy for Cole to take to the Twittersphere and express his horror at missing out on an England squad place that appeared to be his for as long as he wanted it not so long ago. But, instead, he showed he has learnt lessons from his troubled past.

He also wrote: "We have a great manager and team and I wish them only success. I will be supporting them like a true fan. Thanks to everyone for everything. Like me or not, trust me it's hurt me to stop playing for my country #proud and #honoured." England boss Hodgson thanked the Chelsea star for his "relentless professionalism" and suggested, with every justification, he was one of the finest left-backs in the world when he was at his best; even his most venomous of critics would struggle to find fault with the enduring on-field qualities Cole has offered to club and country since he made his Premier League debut for Arsenal in May of 2000.In his 107 caps for England, Cole rarely had an off day. From playing a role in England's famous 5-1 World Cup qualifying defeat of Germany in Munich back in 2001 to his solid performances in the 2002 World Cup finals and his magnificent displays in nullifying Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo at the Euro 2004 finals -- and again at the World Cup finals two years later -- Cole was England's standout performer time and again. Amid it all, Cole could still find his name being booed when it was read out at Wembley prior to England games; undoubtedly, the fans' loathing was on a personal rather than sporting level.

Evidence that the mood towards Cole was softening among England fans came back in 2010, when supporters picked him as the national team's Player of the Year, and last year he received the warm accolades from former teammates and managers as he collected his 100th international cap. The three-time Premier League champion and seven-time FA Cup winner is destined to be etched into the record books as a great of the modern English game.

Even so, Hodgson was right to make the decision to move his England team forward without his talents, starting at Brazil 2014. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has not explained why Cole has fallen out of favour at Stamford Bridge this season. But it may be that the club's hierarchy is looking to trim its wage bill in this era of Financial Fair Play, and one of their highest earners may no longer be part of the plans. It is also clear that Mourinho has opted to turn his attentions to more youthful defenders this campaign, with his recent comments stating "the old Chelsea is dead" evidence that, at 33, Cole and his ilk are soon to be consigned to the list of Stamford Bridge icons.

Having lost his place in the Chelsea team in recent months to Cesar Azpilicueta -- only returning in the past few weeks when Mourinho's reserves were running dry -- Hodgson had a big call to make on Cole's World Cup place, and few should be surprised that the vote has gone against him. Sentiment is no reason to pick a player for a World Cup squad. The evidence of the just-finished Premier League season has shown that Everton's Leighton Baines and Southampton's Luke Shaw are better bets for England both in Brazil this summer and in the future. Cole can console himself with the knowledge that, when the greatest England teams of all time are compiled in years to come, his name will be prominent in the reckoning for a left-back slot that few before him have mastered with such grace and athleticism. The defender gave up trying to win over his critics long ago, but his England career -- and probably his Premier League days as well -- are coming to an end with his reputation as one of the best left-backs of his generation very much intact.

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