The left-back's move to Roma was supposed to be the perfect end to a superb career but, as Greg Lea explains, things haven't gone to plan...
Italian football fans enjoy a trip to the airport. Big signings from abroad are routinely mobbed by masses of excited supporters clad in club merchandise with camera phones at the ready upon touching down on the peninsula, with those present desperate to steal a glimpse of their new defensive rock, midfield maestro or goal-getting frontman.
Ashley Cole was one player who received such a reception at Rome Fiumicino back in July 2014: hundreds of Roma followers were on hand to welcome the former England international to the Italian capital as he jetted in to sign for the Giallorossi following the expiration of his Chelsea contract, with Cole’s suited entourage forced to protect the left-back as he passed through the terminal to continue his journey to the Pope’s official hospital for his medical.
That was just 16 months ago, but it is possible that Cole will not even be recognised on his next trip to Rome’s major airport. A man widely regarded as one of his country’s greatest ever defenders who was such a model of consistency throughout his time in the Premier League has virtually disappeared off the football map, condemned to the wilderness in the autumn of his career.
There is no mention of Cole on Roma’s official website, and he has yet to appear in a single matchday squad in any competition this season after being frozen out by manager Rudi Garcia. His refusal in August to cancel his contract a year early has not endeared him to the club’s hierarchy, while the same supporters who gathered to greet him with such enthusiasm last summer now find themselves ruing a costly mistake. It has been quite the fall from grace.
When in Rome
Rather than immediately heading to Major League Soccer, the former Arsenal man was commended for joining a major club expected to challenge for honours in a competitive European league
Cole’s final season at Chelsea was a disappointing one, with Cesar Azpilicueta establishing himself as Jose Mourinho’s first-choice left-back at Stamford Bridge. Despite the Spaniard’s fine displays, there was still a sense of unease at Cole’s omission – the then 33-year-old started just six Premier League games between the start of November and the end of the 2013/14 campaign – and many felt Chelsea should have done more to keep him in West London. Once it became clear that Cole would be leaving the Blues after eight trophy-laden years, his decision to choose Roma as his next employers was widely praised; rather than immediately heading to Major League Soccer, the former Arsenal man was commended for joining a major club expected to challenge for honours in a competitive European league.
“English players are probably scared to come abroad,” Cole said at his introductory press-conference. “Our players are in the comfort zone in England. It’s where we grew up, where we starting played for our youth team, and most of us never left.
“When I heard I had the chance to come to a big club in Italy it was something I wanted to do. Clubs abroad don’t come in for English players as much as people think. I’ve never been out of London so this is a big opportunity for me to try a different language, a different culture and a different way of living.”
A now infamous team photo emerged a few weeks later, in which Cole was seen lurking alone on the outside of the group. Amateur analysis of body language in football is often overplayed, but there was something telling about the distance between Cole and his team-mates and the shy, unassuming figure cut by a player who was often publically enemy number one in England for a perceived arrogant attitude and supercilious self-opinion.
On the pitch, things began well enough but quickly took a turn for the worse. Cole started four of Roma’s opening five Serie A matches as the Giallorossi stormed to the top of the table with a 100 percent winning record, before being brought back down to earth with a thud after a scarring 7-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League in October.
Cole was hauled off at the interval of that group stage encounter after being given the runaround by Arjen Robben as the Bavarians built an insurmountable 5-0 lead in the first 45 minutes.
From then on he struggled for playing time, making only nine more first-team outings as Jose Holebas (now a Watford reserve) and Vasilis Torosidis (a right-footed utility man who cost just €400,000) leapfrogged England’s widely-acclaimed best left-back of all-time in the pecking order at the Stadio Olimpico.
His final showing came in front of a crowd of 15,128 in March’s 0-0 draw with Chievo, when he was graded as the worst performer on the park by iconic pink-paged newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport. Cole has not stepped onto a football pitch for a competitive game since.
Is this the end?
Cole finds himself in exile, with no-one really sure whether he intends to continue playing or hang up his boots
Reports emerged in the summer that Cole had become a free agent, with Roma briefing the media that it was their intention to cut short his deal a year early after Garcia chose to exclude him from his squad for 2015/16.
Cole, though, refused to be pushed out 12 months before the end of his contract and allegedly rejected a move to Newcastle United, with a source in the Daily Mirror quoted as saying that the 34-year-old would not be forced out to go and play for a “lower-league club… he’ll stay where he is and then consider his options.”
The biography of Cole’s official Twitter account still stubbornly contains the words “footballer for AS Roma”, but that description is accurate only a non-literal sense. Despite being either younger than or the same age as still-active former international team-mates Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Gareth Barry, Cole finds himself in exile, with no-one really sure whether he intends to continue playing or hang up his boots.
If it is the latter option that is chosen, his time at Roma will have been a thoroughly disappointing way for a fantastic player to go. Two years in the Eternal City seemed like the perfect swansong, but the move has not turned out anything like how Cole – or the thrilled Giallorossi supporters who flocked to the airport to welcome him last summer – would have wished.