Does Ashley still deserve the Cole shoulder?

Just over a decade has passed since Arsenal’s unbeaten season and testaments to that ‘Invincibles’ side have been bountiful. Most of that legendary squad has retired and, consequently, they have been generous with their reflections on their unique achievement. However, one member of that star studded cast has maintained a cool distance from the celebratory retrospectives.

After the Invincibles documentary was premiered last week, Ashley Cole, now playing for Roma in Serie A, was moved to tweet, “People asking why I’m not in the #Invincibles book I thought it would be for the best. I didn’t think fans would want it, but I will never forget my times at arsenal and the amazing achievements I accomplished there with great people.”

There was a rueful tone to Cole’s tweets, which sparked a discussion as to how offended Arsenal fans would actually be by his contribution to such epitaphs.

Since the departures of Messrs Fabregas and van Persie, I have often wondered to myself (and discussed with others) how Arsenal fans view Ashley Cole nowadays. Has enough water passed under the bridge for a renewed perspective? Especially now that Cole has left Chelsea to wind down his career on foreign shores. It’s natural that bitterness and rancour (on both sides of this contretemps) fade with time. Just as Cole’s departure took the heat off of Nicolas Anelka, victim of little more than pantomime booing by the end of his time in England, would Arsenal fans view Cole’s acrimonious departure differently in a modern context?

For a start, Cole continued to develop into arguably the world’s finest left-back across the capital, amassing a bevy of trophies in the process. Meanwhile, Gael Clichy did not quite develop as we had originally hoped and Kieran Gibbs probably hasn’t either. Cole’s sale to Chelsea saw William Gallas move in the opposite direction, which seemed a good trade off at the time. In truth, it just didn’t quite work out. So it is tempting to revise one’s position in retrospect. ‘Footballistically’, it wasn’t a move that worked well for Arsenal.

One also has to remember the immediate context of Cole’s departure. Whilst not the first major departure from the Invincibles squad, he was the first to join an immediate rival in circumstances that Arsenal were unable to entirely control. In the summer of 2006, the vast majority of Arsenal supporters were very much on Arsenal – and Arsene’s – side. I recall a game against Watford in September 2006, shortly after Emirates Stadium’s inauguration. Arsene Wenger accepted a memento on the pitch from Peter Hill-Wood to mark the tenth anniversary of his appointment. “Ten more years, ten more years, ten more years” the crowd tunefully gushed.

There was virtually no frisson in the fan base. Wenger and the board were almost universally backed. In taking them on so publicly, Cole misjudged the mood of an Arsenal populace willing to go to war for their manager. Were the Cole situation to play out again in 2015, or at any point in the last four years, he might have found sympathisers easier to come by. He might have even shifted a few more copies of his risible book, ‘My Defence’, a thinly veiled (and successful) document designed to force his Arsenal exit.

For those that have begun to harbour regrets about Cole’s sale, it is easy to forget that he released a book documenting his grievances with the club whilst still in their employ. It is also easy to lament that we allowed a future club captain and world class full-back to leave for the sake of an extra £5k a week. Some of the details of Cole’s vexation have been revised and edited. My understanding of the situation was not, and is not, that Arsenal scrimped on £5k a week extra that they had promised him. It was more nuanced than that.

My recollection is that Arsenal were happy to honour his basic salary demand but were not prepared to foot the extortionate fee levied by his agent Jonathan Barnett. Cole was produced by Arsenal’s academy long before any of his advisory team appeared and Arsenal reasoned that they had rendered the club no chargeable service as a result. I am not privy to any special information here, but that was always my reading of the situation, that Arsenal felt Cole should pay his own agent. Objectively speaking, I think that’s a reasonable position for them to take.

Maybe things are a bit different in 2015. Player power has increased and a club like Arsenal might just reluctantly swallow such a fee now. But one must remember that in 2006, the club was in the very early grip of sizeable moving costs. Prudence was the order of the day. In hindsight, Arsenal may still reason that, for a player of that quality, they may have been better served by coughing up in the long run, but Cole’s reaction was regrettable. I think it is clear that he was badly advised and a part of me wonders if Cole regrets that in hindsight, even if his subsequent medal haul will help him sleep at night.

“Accidentally” being caught in liaison with the Chelsea manager in the top secret location of a HOTEL IN CENTRAL LONDON was not the most measured reaction. Having only been offered £55,000 a week to play football, he tried to elicit public sympathy with a hastily penned autobiography. These are not the actions of a mature or well advised young man. They pretty much permanently stained his character during his time in England. He was booed at plenty of Premier League grounds in the ensuing years.

It has also been forgotten that Cole actually did sign a new deal in the summer of 2005, following the initial fallout. Admittedly this was a one year extension designed to smooth his impending departure, but the Arsenal board did sanction a £70k a week wage.

Maybe a more recent time-frame would have been kinder to Cole. With Fabregas, Nasri, Adebayor and van Persie subsequently having invited our bile, Cole’s ‘treachery’ might have been viewed as just another drink on the tab for the supporters. The first cut is always the deepest, especially with a player reared by the academy.

Arsenal lost a great footballer and Cole besmirched his character. How far both parties lament those twin defeats is open to conjecture. It’s easy to see why Arsenal’s hand was forced by Cole but maybe in 2015, the player’s demands would not be greeted with the same distaste. It does feel like it was a very avoidable divorce in hindsight, which is the chief regret.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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