What next for Ashley Cole and a confused golden generation?
Stamford Bridge isn’t an arena that lends itself to tears, not these days. It’s a place where the Premier League’s hard edges seem that bit steelier; a monument to footballing capitalism and relentless, generally successful graft.
So Ashley Cole’s tearful ‘lap of appreciation’ after Sunday’s grim stalemate with Norwich raised more than a few eyebrows: admire him or abhor him, England’s most-capped full-back had evinced a disarming vulnerability, seemingly in the knowledge that his time in west London will soon draw to a close. While John Terry and Frank Lampard seem likely to fade their Chelsea careers out slowly, perhaps ultimately assuming backroom roles, Cole is a fair bet to find himself casting around in an increasingly unforgiving transfer battleground this summer – a situation rarely experienced by players with his level of decoration. So what, if anything, comes next?
Age has crept up on Cole quickly. There were few obvious creaks prior to this season's peripheralisation by Jose Mourinho, a situation that only became truly apparent after a dismal 2-0 reverse at Newcastle on November 2 – a performance that left the manager “feeling…that I made 11 wrong choices”. Cole, six weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, was one of them: although used in cup competitions, he wasn’t seen again in the Premier League until Boxing Day, during a period when squads are necessarily shuffled to the maximum. That start against Swansea was one of just five he made in the league folling that St James' Park afternoon. A revival towards the end of the season, including redoubtable showings at Atletico Madrid and Liverpool, reaffirmed his importance to the cause, leading to suggestions of a new contract – but a continuation of this season’s cameo role would retain an unsatisfactory status quo.
If some might suggest Cole is heading for the scrapheap, then it’s a pile dotted with gold ingots. It’s quite a time to be alive if you’re a thirtysomething full-back – or, indeed, if you’re after one. Bacary Sagna seems nailed on to leave Arsenal on a free this summer, probably for Manchester City, while Patrice Evra finds himself in a similar situation to Cole’s at Old Trafford. A glance over to Serie A shows right-back Javier Zanetti, nearing his 41st birthday, facing up to retirement only now. There should be life in the old dog yet – at least one last tilt at top honours. But the transfer market is a fickle beast.
Young man's game
Only three Premier League clubs furnished themselves with a full-back aged over 30 last summer. That they were Fulham (Sascha Riether), West Ham (Razvan Rat) and Sunderland (the lesser-spotted Andrea Dossena) tells a story of its own: clubs with more conservative goals, as well as slimmer wallets, take players who might no longer tear up and down the flanks as demanded in a modern-day wide defender, but can add a cool and canny head at the back.
The pattern is a consistent one: Guy Demel, John Arne Riise, Angel Rangel and Maynor Figueroa (the latter now primarily a central defender) are the only other veterans in regular action – although Branislav Ivanovic, recently 30, should be included in the interests of objectivity.
All this while Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United seem happy not to place a premium on their mature assets. Cole will find his choices limited among top-level clubs: Liverpool and Real Madrid have been linked, and left-back is a position that both will wish to strengthen, while it’s also an area in which Spurs are light. But with Financial Fair Play an increasingly restrictive factor, there is little guarantee that one of these clubs would want to take on a contract anything like Cole’s current deal, rumoured to be nearer £200,000 than £100,000 a week – particularly when, with youthful vigour out wide so valorised among Champions League chasers, it’s hard to see him playing much more often than at Chelsea.
If Arsenal’s contract offer in 2005 almost caused Cole to swerve off the M25, whatever is on the table this time around might send him spinning all the way to Birmingham. It’s wrong to paint him purely as a moneygrabber – Cole is a sensitive character who remains deeply grateful to those who helped him at a young age, and has kept in touch with old colleagues at Arsenal to the extent that he remains more likely to drop in on a leaving party than most of the current brood. But it’s tempting to ask whether all this is worth it anymore.
Choices are likely to be limited to one-year deals as understudy somewhere, a fly-by-night commitment to MLS (and even there clubs might not wish to make a left-back their marquee signing) or a regular slog further down the Premier League. So you wonder if, whether or not he adds to his 107 England caps this summer, a World Cup in Brazil could just be the perfect way to sign off. Perhaps we’re about to see just how much Cole and the richly rewarded vintage of which he has been part really need the game that has made them.
Bridge too far
It will not have escaped Cole's attention that his long-time England (and sometime Chelsea) deputy Wayne Bridge retired at 33 this week, primarily due to a nagging knee injury. Bridge spent his final two seasons in the Championship with Brighton and Reading, having caught few breaks since joining Manchester City in 2009.
Another of England’s tyros of the 2000s, Joe Cole, appears to be slowing to a halt in similar fashion, while Rio Ferdinand – 36 this year – faces big decisions of his own in the coming weeks. Current levels of fitness have to be measured against the realisation that decline, when it sets in, can be unbecoming, causing players and clubs to hesitate alike. Perhaps Cole’s tears, then, had a wider significance: perhaps they were the tears of a generation of footballers that, for the first time, no longer knows quite what to do with itself.