Ashley Cole made the left back position his own for club and country, as more than a century of England caps will attest...
Love him or hate him, there's no doubting the mark that Ashley Cole has left on English football. His 106 caps for England speak volumes about what type of servant he has been for his country, and while his controversial cross-town move from Arsenal to Chelsea would have left a bitter taste in many mouths, this is a player who has done his best while on the pitch rather than off it.
Breaking through first at boyhood club Arsenal, the young Cole made an impression on by forcing his way into the first team and shunting out Brazilian full back Sylvinho. A serial winning habit was developed early with the Gunners, as he picked up two Premier League and three FA Cup winners medals in just under seven years.
The full back was itching for a move at this point though, and finally concluded a protracted transfer to Chelsea in 2006. It turned out to be a good move for Cole, as he continued to add to his medal collection while Arsenal entered a barren spell. Besides more Premier League and FA Cup glory, Chelsea's No. 3 added Champions League and Europea League honours as the team went all the way in Europe's premier club competitions.
Age might be catching up with him lately, but Cole remains an integral part of the Chelsea and England teams. More than a decade of top class football have cemented his status as one of the finest full backs of his era, and any young footballer would do well to even aim for a fraction of what he has achieved.
Here he tells us more about life in the Premier League, representing England and the qualities required to be a top class full back in one of the best teams in the world.
I’ll start with a recent quote from Jamie Carragher who said, “No one wants to grow up and be a full-back like Gary Neville.” Who did you want to be when you grew up?
First of all, Carragaher is not wrong, kids don’t want to grow up and be a full-back! My idols when I was growing up were Arsenal attackers like David Rocastle and then Ian Wright. I used to be a striker as well and so it was those guys I wanted to be, the ones who got all the glory and all the goals.
If I had seen you play when you were a young boy, what sort of player would I have been watching? Did you like to drop a shoulder and do a trick?
I wouldn’t say I did many tricks but despite being small and skinny I was a bit faster than everyone and so I’d knock it and run. It worked back then and you still see a few guys doing that today.
Tell me about the steps backwards to left-back?
I enjoyed being up front but at the age of 14 I got a chance to play for the Arsenal youth team two years older. A left-back got injured and I jumped at the chance to play in an older and better team. I played there and they invited me back as the guy’s injury was serious and it seemed the manager liked me and from the age of about 15 or 16 I started to take the position really seriously. I had been used to scoring goals and I guess being at left-back was a bit boring and at first I did find it daunting but after that my confidence grew as did the manager’s, and it went from there.
By the mid-1990’s, Brazilian full-backs had made the position much more sexy. Did you look at them and think, this is for me?
Yeah. You see great players like Cafu and Roberto Carlos and you are inspired. When I was growing up it was well known that Arsenal’s full-backs tended to sit back and not attack at all. I was in the youth team looking at them and I did think my job was to just defend but then along came Carlos and people saw that you could do both. I watched Carlos closely and even though I got to play against him, I was always learning and looking for tips on how to deal with certain situations.
You agreed with Carrgaher’s quote but is there an argument that today the full-backs offers a team its width and dynamism. Can you see a change in kids’ outlook and that some want to play there?
I doubt it. They may say left-wing but not left-back but you are right a lot of teams use attacking full-backs to give the team width and allow wingers to tuck inside and show their skills infield. These days you have young players who can run all day and if a kid is like that full-back is probably the right place for them.
You took to it and the first team immediately and were even compared by Patrick Viera to Paolo Maldini. Were accolades like that easy to take in your stride?
I was a shy boy so it was weird for me. I used to sit in the dressing-room and I think the first team guys wondered if I would ever talk. As a kid you are in awe of these players and then there you are with the likes of David Seaman and Tony Adams; legends. I took so much from them though and they offered so much advice on how to play the position. As a youngster I could think – before the ball had even come to me – what I was going to do next and that was a great instinct to have, especially from a young age and it helped me stand out from other young defenders.
You’re big match on the international scene came in 2004 when you matched Cristiano Ronaldo in a European Championship match. Did you go into that match especially confident?
Not really. Whenever you are playing for your country in a major tournament you have such an adrenaline rush and that night there was a place in the semi-finals at stake and at the time we had such great confidence and felt if everyone did their jobs we had a chance of winning it.
Do you thrive playing against the best and on the biggest stage?
Yeah I think so. Prior to that night against Portugal I had faced Ronaldo at Old Trafford. He did a step over and made me literally fall over and do the splits. After that I said to myself, I will never ever let this guy do that to me again. You don’t want to be embarrassed by the best players or made to look silly so going into the game I knew what I had to do to try and stop him and things went well. Another night it might not have but that game was especially good for me.
With such ability comes responsibility. How much are you enjoying your role with England as you try to guide a new wave of player into the fold?
To be honest you don’t have to do much in the way of guidance. Most of these guys have played 50 times for their clubs and so they are quality players but yes, they are young but they have experience and just need a bit of confidence and belief in themselves to do well at international level because it is a leap.
You are though the elder statesman in the back four now. Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill are EPL veterans but quite new to the international game.
If you give the ball away in your defensive third you are more likely to get punished when playing for England so these guys are understanding that they have to concentrate that bit more. The bigger stage can see you give away one chance and one goal and you’re going home from a major tournament.
Do you agree that as a nation we overhype our good teams but are also overly critical when the team struggles?
I don’t know. When you look at our recent past and the great players we’ve had in the squad it is true that we haven’t hit the heights that maybe we should. The players know what’s coming though and so are used to it and expect it.
Come Brazil next summer, you alongside Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard will be able to offer invaluable tournament experience. How much will the young players rely on you for that?
I think we will be able to help. We’re the oldest three in the squad and it could be our last so we will all be desperate to get there and to do well there. Back in 2002 I felt we had the squad to win it in Japan. You need a bit of luck and we probably haven’t had our fair share of that. I think the crop we have now is very good. A very good mix of experience and youth and if we get that slice of luck in Brazil and play to our potential we could hopefully win it.
Unlike in 2002 and other years you will fly out there with fewer expectations. Does that actually make things easier?
I hope so. People will write us off and that can spur the squad on to prove them wrong. To win something for your country would be such an amazing achievement for all of us guys.
You mention achievements. You have won everything at club level but at 33 are you – unlike some who will retire after the World Cup – still hungry for more?
I want to carry on. The moment I started for England I wanted to play to win and if we don’t win in Brazil I know some will ask if it is time for us older guys to give up. I though will never give up on my country and if I continued to be selected I will be there to win many more caps and play as well as I can.
In theory then you could go on and become the country’s most capped player?
Oh I hope so. I just want to keep going until my legs or my manager tell me to stop.
Do you allow yourself to look at what you have won and be proud?
It’s hard not to. You see clips of the games and the trophies you’ve won and of course that brings back memories but as I say I don’t want to stop winning. The teams I play for, Chelsea and England are hopefully good enough to do just that and I will look back when I do eventually finish and be proud but having won everything you can at club level I am so hungry to add something with England to that.
It feels like a new era with both England and Chelsea. Does that give your football a freshness?
Yeah, both teams have competition for places and players to keep you on your toes and that makes you want to get better. I know what it is like to win but I also know what it feels like to lose and I don’t like that.
Has it saddened you that the English public has misunderstood you and you have had to deal with a particular image from those maybe not so close to Football?
Not really. I didn’t come into the game to make friends. People believe what they want to believe but I have good friends and great family and they know the real me. When I cross that line I go out and give my best and play to win. I am paid to play football and that is what I will continue to do.