History should look kindly on man who was true to himself
Ashley Cole's retirement from international football last week was accompanied by a familiar ambivalence. This time there was not a moral judgement, a questioning of his magnificence as a footballer which centred around his reaction to a pay rise or his failed relationship, coverage which was sometimes so shrill it seemed he was not only intent on ruining his own marriage to England's sweetheart but he was hell-bent on destroying the institution itself.
In time, Cole's reluctance to alter any of these views may be seen as noble, an understanding that they were just peripheral trivia compared to his core values. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that there are nearly five PR specialists for every reporter in the US. In his mature years, Cole gave little indication that he had time for any of them, PR people or journalists. The perception of him remained unaltered and he remained publicly undiminished.
There are people who will tell you that Cole is, in fact, a nice guy. It may or may not be true but it also doesn't matter. "People are incorrigibly themselves," John Updike said. Cole has always been true to himself, revealing that statement to have limited worth when it comes to making judgements about a person's moral fibre. There are times when he has appeared simply to be incorrigible rather than incorrigibly himself but he has rarely shown an inclination to pander to those who seek a story of redemption.
Again, it was entirely in character that Cole could not use the device many use to sell themselves as upstanding members of the community – the marquee autobiography – as anything but a way of attracting hostility. My Defence became the key witness for the prosecution, a case framed around his revelation that he had nearly swerved off the road when Arsenal offered him a five grand increase to his weekly wage of £55,000.
This was viewed as monstrous greed but its greater mistake was to be monstrously accurate, a snapshot of how footballers thought which had been allowed to reach the public unfiltered. Cole was now the poster boy for the unfaithful greedy footballer and if the facts were themselves correct, it was a strangely limited way of viewing him.
Cole can be grateful that last week he was spared the moral judgements and lost out when the England World Cup squad was named to the abstraction that is youth. He was sacrificed for the excitement of the new, a bitter blow because it was not just his holidaying with Shaun Wright-Phillips that marked him as a man of a certain age forever. Like one of those social media factoids that state we are now as far from the Russo-Japanese War as the people of Victorian times were from, say, the invention of the sandwich, it is alarming to note that Shaun Wright-Phillips himself will be 33 this year, something almost as surprising as learning that he is still pursuing a career in football.
Age shall not weary them, nor their holidays in Vegas. These extravaganzas would be catalogued by presumably slightly confused paparazzi who would capture the strangely stilted interactions Cole and SWP enjoyed with the women they met as if they were trying to re-enact a wooing scene from a particularly censorious silent movie. Cole, it turned out, was eternally vigilant and eternally wary.
He can't be said to be eternally sprightly, not when he is sidelined to allow for the rise of youth. In some ways, he is the opposite of the forever young: eternally jaded like one of those men whose hair falls out when they are 19 and in its own way halts the ageing process so it comes as a surprise to learn that they are now 57.
Cole's world-weariness, a sense that everyone was out to get him, especially those who offered him only an extra five grand a week, saw him retreat to a world where he was safe.
Happily this world was the football pitch. Perhaps it was a coincidence that Cole was playing for Arsenal the last time they won a trophy but that seems to be more than just a coincidence.
Jose Mourinho ignored him this season, some say because he went to an Arsenal Christmas party, violating some of the key tenets of Mourinho's management philosophy, specifically the sections dealing with paranoia and the chapters on the world being out to get you.
Cole might have shared this worldview but in recent weeks he demonstrated that he shared other Mourinho core values, like a fierce desire to win and an understanding of the defender's art.
If he leaves Chelsea, he would be a fine free signing for a club like Liverpool, bringing some of that missing game management which is another way of saying he is the exact opposite of Glen Johnson.
His public image has tended to conceal his strengths as a footballer, although these were acknowledged by many last week when he announced his international retirement.
Roy Hodgson, unsurprisingly, appeared unconvinced by his own decision. Maybe Hodgson felt it would be too much even for him to lower expectations by ignoring the desire in England to send the young players. Luke Shaw was foremost among them but, in ignoring Cole, Hodgson has sent into retirement England's most reliable international footballer for the past ten years, perhaps the only reliable one.
Yet this truth was often only grudgingly acknowledged. The ambivalence, of course, was mutual. Cole returned from the last World Cup as a despised man when it was revealed he had sent a BBM which said "I hate England and the fucking people".
Not since John Osborne's Damn you, England had a public figure stood so resolutely against patriotic posturing.
Like Osborne, Cole saw no contradiction in simultaneously rejecting and embracing aspects of his country. They were both driven by anger, although Cole was probably the more talented.
His tweeted international retirement was described – characteristically – as "uncharacteristically gracious". History and Shaun Wright-Phillips will be kinder judges.
Sunday Indo Sport