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Ashley Cole is currently in the news for joining a long line of England penalty shoot-out failures, but like him or loathe him, only the most churlish of fans would deny he is a highly talented defender who has shown remarkable consistency over a very successful career. There is ill-feeling towards him for two reasons. Specific to Arsenal fans is the way he left the club, which is seen as an act of betrayal. More generally, he is perceived to embody the greed culture that has become associated with high profile football players earning wages that border on the obscene when compared with ordinary folk.
Gael Clichy displaced Patrice Evra at left back during the Euros for France and has won a title medal with Manchester City in his first season since leaving Arsenal. And yet, hand on heart, on a footballing level, few Gooners could really say they think their team were served better by having Clichy between 2006 and 2011 than if Cole’s services had been retained. Quite simply, along with Philip Lahm, he is probably the stand out left back in world football.
The details of the events that led to Cole’s departure are well known. In brief, the club were willing to pay the number three £55,000 a week to extend his contract with them, but were not prepared to add on an extra £5,000 to cover the amount his agent Jonathan Barnett wanted for his services to Cole. It became a real point of principle to the extent that there are certain agents the club has refused to deal with for a number of years, such as Pini Zahavi, which has meant certain players, for example David Luiz when he signed from Benfica to Chelsea, have effectively become off limits. A more pragmatic view from a boardroom where principles dictated policy might have been to simply consider the package a lump sum to Cole and let him decide how it is split, instead of getting on some moral high horse as the board did in 2006. The exception was David Dein, who brokered the deal and thought he had struck agreement, only to see his fellow board members outvote him on what had been agreed. Dein is a man comfortable swimming with the sharks, and ever since his departure, the club have been a lesser force when it comes to transfer dealings.
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With the passage of time, the departure of Cole could be seen as a watershed moment for several reasons. Although the club maintained the services of Thierry Henry in the close season of the stadium move, hindsight suggests that paying the striker an up front loyalty bonus of £5 million to him for signing an extension (and only getting one injury ravaged season in return) was poor value compared to the extra million in wages Cole would have received over a four year period, given the standard of his performances for club and country. Cole was also relatively young in comparison with many of his fellow ‘Invincibles’ – a group of players that time has proven was broken up a little bit too early, as Arsenal were exposed as lacking experience in the first seasons at the Emirates, when they threatened to win both the Premier League and Champions League.
With Sol Campbell being released at the same time, Cole’s signing for Chelsea also left the club with only one ‘senior’ English born player with any realistic claim to a regular first team starting spot, the then 17-year-old Theo Walcott. Little chance of continuity for the battling resilience that native players such as Adams, Keown, Dixon, Winterburn and Ray Parlour – all of whom had thrived under Wenger – brought to the team. Johan Cruyff, a manager much admired by Wenger, has stated that it is impossible to win your domestic league without a hardcore of players born in the country. It is difficult to find evidence to counter this and Arsenal have never really recovered from – specifically – the loss of an English dominated defence.
The decision when comparing the club’s anxiety to retain Henry’s services and those of Cole would have been partly shaped by the perceived positional importance of the players. How can a left back be worth £60,000 a week? The question that should have been asked was – what qualities does this player bring to the team in terms of contribution to a winning mentality and is he worth what he is asking? Arsenal replaced Cole with William Gallas, who, although undoubtedly experienced and with a winning mentality, was too much of a loose cannon to replace Sol Campbell as a positive influence on the players around him. He was also paid more than the club were willing to give Cole, a consequence of some very hurried deadline day negotiations in which the French defender effectively had Arsenal over a barrel.
So, much as this may be unpalatable for loyal Gooners, with the sale of Cole, a bit of the resilient spirit of Arsenal ebbed away – a quality that had helped Wenger win seven trophies in his first nine years at the club. To use a term favoured by Barcelona’s Xavi, a huge slice of Arsenal’s DNA – that could be traced back through their history to the days of Herbert Chapman – was sacrificed for the want of £5,000 a week. Who cares that Jonathan Barnett was to receive this money rather than the player?
Granted, Cole had dined with the devil in respect of his clandestine meeting with Chelsea in early 2005. Ultimately, his crime there was naivety. Such discussions certainly happen between clubs and players’ agents, and if required, there is no reason Cole could not have either taken part by phone or met somewhere more private than a hotel meeting room. Let’s face it, in football, all players are guns for hire and sh*t happens – most of which fans are never aware of. Cole’s cardinal sin was to get caught, but ultimately, his agent is to blame for allowing that possibility to develop. Cole was certainly not flavour of the month in the 18 months of his Arsenal career that followed, but he certainly gave 100% on the pitch for his employers.
And with Wenger looking to rebuild with youth, and Cole still only 25 years old at the time of his sale, the decision not to retain his services cannot have been made on the same criteria as the departure of players such as Campbell, Bergkamp and Pires, fellow ‘Invincibles’ that departed in 2006. And to boot, Cole was an Arsenal fan developed by the club’s own academy who felt that he could do better elsewhere. Sound familiar? A pattern Arsenal had resisted since the sale of Nicolas Anelka in 1999 – allowing players to depart before they passed their peak – was initiated by Cole’s sale. As the club’s home became bigger and better, the team was allowed to become a lesser force, through a transfer policy that has continued to this day. The club do not match the ambition of their leading players, and in the end they decide to move on because trophies are paramount to the best players. Cole has been proved right on that level, as have the likes of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy from last summer’s out door. Many anticipate Robin van Persie will follow them. Perhaps, if Cole had remained, Arsenal might have lifted a few more pots in the first six seasons at the Emirates, and consequently retained some of their better players.
Cole – who might have followed in Tony Adams’ footsteps and become a one-club man – decided the grass was greener elsewhere once Arsenal started playing hardball. But it must be remembered when he is vilified for betrayal that a figure had been agreed upon for which he was happy to remain. And worst of all, events since have proved his decision to go was the right one, in terms of continuing a successful career. No wonder the vitriol directed at Cole has not subsided. Because sometimes, the truth hurts.