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MARTIN SAMUEL: No one likes Ashley Cole, but you have to admit: He's good

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07 Sep 2010 06:42:46

MARTIN SAMUEL: No one likes Ashley Cole, but you have to admit: He's good

Despite the lurid headlines, the acrimony, the betrayal, the divorce, it has been reported that Cheryl Cole will be keeping her ex-husband's name, even now they are legally apart. It could be that she regards Cheryl Cole as a stage name, one she has worked hard to promote, and does not wish to begin the process again. A cynic might add that Cheryl Tweedy, her previous persona, was a singer with Girls Aloud who received a sordid conviction for beating up a toilet attendant, while Cheryl Cole is a latter-day saint in the eyes of the public, being both a reality television show judge and the wronged partner of an errant footballer. King Cole: He has his critics, but Ashley Cole is a brilliant performer And in this aspect it seems that Cheryl's attitude to Ashley Cole mirrors that of so many football supporters. They don't like him; but he doesn't half come in handy sometimes. Tonight at the St Jakob-Park stadium in Basle, Cole will make his 85th appearance for England, equalling Gary Neville and one short of Kenny Sansom, the country's most capped full-back. At 29, there is little doubt Cole will overtake Sansom and every chance he will push through to his century of caps. He may even challenge David Beckham's record of 115 appearances by an outfield player. If he does, however, there will be no mawkish demand for a ceremonial match to mark the occasion or, on his retirement, a carefully staged opportunity to say farewell at Wembley. Unlike Beckham, who also had the odd constancy issue in his marriage, Cole is not forgiven. It remains to be seen whether, when the public spins its highly random moral wheel of justice, it finds for Wayne or Coleen Rooney, but the jury has long been in on Cole. Despite being one of the most consistent performers of modern times with England, certainly more so than the popular Beckham, his presence is tolerated rather than applauded. The antipathy is mutual. 'I hate England and the f****** people,' was the status on his BlackBerry Messenger service shortly before leaving for the World Cup. It found its way into the public domain, sealing his fate with any floating voters. He is no hero, no role model then, yet remains one of the few England players capable of justifying the label world-class. Spain, winners of the World Cup, would certainly have him ahead of Joan Capdevila and so might Brazil, in place of Michel Bastos. The report by the FIFA technical committee that described Cole as outstanding at the World Cup - it afforded the same plaudit to Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, so may have its roots more in politeness than serious scrutiny - overstated his case, but such praise was certainly merited on any number of previous occasions. Cole rarely falls below a reliable rating for England and in some tournaments - the 2004 European Championship springs to mind - has been a leading performer. While Beckham's career is blighted by underwhelming displays on the biggest stage - sent off at the World Cup in 1998, unexceptional at the European Championship in 2000, injured at the World Cup in 2002, inexplicably lacklustre at the European Championship in 2004, ponderous throughout the World Cup in 2006 - Cole's quality is consistent. His battle with Cristiano Ronaldo in Lisbon in the quarter-final against Portugal six years ago is still regarded as one of the finest individual performances of any England international in the modern era. Indeed, Cole's jousts with Ronaldo when Chelsea played Manchester United were always among the highlights of the Premier League season. Clash of the titans: But Cole has consistently had the better of Ronaldo At a time when so many of the world's leading attacking players adopt a wide starting position in an attempt to avoid the traffic in central midfield, it is Cole's ability to thrive in that company which explains his unchallenged longevity for England. On the rare occasions when Cole has missed a key game - England's final group encounter against Croatia under Steve McClaren, for instance - the performance of his understudy, in that case Wayne Bridge, has only served to underline his importance. Cole is an attacking left back in the modern style, the difference being that he can also defend. It will be interesting to see how he balances the two in Basle, when he will face considerably tougher opposition than the ordinary Bulgaria team vanquished last week (although they will be a different prospect in Sofia next year and always are). Switzerland did not make it out of the group stage at the World Cup, but were the only team to defeat ultimate winners Spain. They are undoubtedly England's main rivals in this qualifying campaign. Record chaser: Cole may one day eclipse David Beckham's (left) outfield England caps total Cole will have faced tougher opponents than David Degen, who occupied the right midfield berth in Switzerland's most recent friendly, but is still expected to play with greater caution than he did against Bulgaria - setting up Jermain Defoe's first goal deep in the opposition's penalty area after just three minutes. Match analysis shows that Cole played a more advanced role on Friday than either of England's central midfield players, Gareth Barry and Gerrard. He seized the opportunity of John Terry's absence to take greater risks. Terry may have eventually fallen out with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, but he remains very much under his influence as a player. Mourinho - as Rio Ferdinand once said of Sven Goran Eriksson - likes his defenders to defend, and it was Terry who was given the job of ensuring Cole's attacking instincts did not override his defensive responsibilities. He took this duty into England appearances, too, but with Terry injured for the match against Bulgaria, perhaps the novice defensive pairing of Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka did not feel sufficiently empowered to tell an England player closing in on 100 caps how to do his job. Maybe Capello will adopt a firmer line in Basle. Then again, at 85 caps and counting, it is more than likely that Cole will know precisely how far he can go in taking the game to Switzerland. It is why he remains the best left back around and why, even if popularity continues to elude, it is not only Cheryl who is glad to see the name Cole on a sheet of paper.  Martin Keown: Ashley Cole was an Arsenal fan, living the dreamIt started with the Swiss... 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