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Ashley Cole: England Captain?

With all the talk at the moment about who will captain England against Wales, and potentially further into the future, there is one name that has not even been mentioned. Arguably one of the very few guaranteed names on the team sheet for every match, the most capped fullback in English history and virtually the only England player who could realistically be put forward for the best in his position in the world. That man is Ashley Cole.

His record as a player is hugely impressive. He has won four league titles, including having been part of the Arsenal ‘Invincibles’, a record that is unlikely to be matched for many years and six FA Cup winner’s medals – more than any other player in history. He is the most capped fullback in English history, and with 87 caps already, it would be no surprise if he were to go on to overtake David Beckham and become England’s most capped outfield player. No England outfield player, including David Beckham, has made more appearances at World Cups than Cole. Indeed, if he is still in the team come 2014, he would break Shilton’s record of 17 appearances. He was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament after Euro 2004.

However, it is reputation off the pitch that people will remember him for, and which is likely to cost him any chance at captaining his country. His acrimonious move from Arsenal to Chelsea, his bitter split with the nation’s sweetheart, Cheryl Cole, and now the incident with the air-rifle has all mounted up to paint an image of a young man out of touch and obsessed with fame and money.

The question is whether a player’s life off the pitch should impact his role on it. Looking around the other candidates for the captaincy, virtually none of them have a clean image. John Terry had the well-publicised affair with the mother of his best friend’s child and rumours concerning a number of affairs have dogged him for years. He was fined in the wake of the 9/11 attacks for drunkenly mocking American tourists at Heathrow and he was arrested in 2002 after an incident at a London nightclub.

The current captain, Rio Ferdinand, was famously banned from football for eight months for missing a drugs test, going shopping instead. He has been banned from driving for a year for drink-driving, and in total, has been banned from driving four times. He attracted complaints for a comment on Chris Moyles’ Radio 1 show in 2006 and also appeared in a sexually explicit video filmed in Ayia Napa alongside Frank Lampard and Kieron Dyer.

Wayne Rooney was also in the spotlight for cheating on his pregnant wife last year and the contract saga that saw him hand in a transfer request at Manchester United. He also caused a backlash when he hit out at England fans at the World Cup last summer for booing the side.

However, putting aside all aspects of the private lives of players off the pitch, let us look at the situation on the pitch. In recent times, both Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand have been picking up injuries with far greater frequency than earlier in their career.

Indeed, Rio Ferdinand has only played in four of the eleven matches since he was appointed captain of England. He has not managed to play even 75% of league games for Manchester United since the 2007/08 season, making only 13 appearances last season and 14 this season.

In his absence, both Michael Dawson and Phil Jagielka have emerged as real contenders for starting spot, and in Dawson’s case, a potential future captain of England. When we add in John Terry as well, Rio Ferdinand’s spot in the England team is in real threat, even at full fitness.

Steven Gerrard has been affected by several injuries this season. He missed several weeks after picking up an injury during England’s friendly with France, then missed the last friendly against Denmark and has now undergone surgery on a groin injury that is expected to keep him out for at least a month.

Frank Lampard captained England in their last friendly, but his position as a first choice in the centre of England’s midfield is under serious jeopardy following the emergence of Jack Wilshere in the past year. Indeed, there were suggestions before Gerrard was ruled out that Wilshere would be starting alongside the Liverpool man against Wales with Lampard left on the bench.

John Terry and Wayne Rooney are the obvious other choices. However, there are still concerns around Rooney’s form, but more particularly, his temperament. He is still prone to outburst at referees and losing his cool on the pitch, which is clearly not a trait that you want from your captain. Furthermore, there is generally a preference for a captain to be a defender or a midfielder, rather than a striker, simply because they are in the midst of the action on a more regular basis.

John Terry is an intriguing option. Stripped of the captaincy after the Wayne Bridge affair, he is undoubtedly the most natural leader that England has had for a long time. Indeed, it appears that is the current front runner for the captaincy for the Wales friendly, and if reports are to be believed, for the longer term.

The treatment of John Terry and the captaincy since he was stripped of it has been nothing short of ridiculous. The friendly against Egypt after he was stripped of it was one example, as was the friendly with Denmark last month, where the armband was passed around four or five players. In the words of Terry, “I felt, ‘OK, I’ve been stripped of the captaincy, but don’t take the piss out of me. I think they would have given it to one of the stewards ahead of me.”

However, John Terry has admitted to being in almost constant pain when he plays, and there has to be questions about his long-term future in the game. He has been picking up more injuries in the past season, and has missed out on four of the last six internationals with a variety of injury problems.

That brings us back to Ashley Cole. It is noticeable that he is almost never injured and so would actually appear regularly on the pitch, unlike many of the other choices.

There is also the other side to Ashley Cole that is often glossed over by the media. Against all expectations, he turned up at the leaving drinks for the former head of media at Arsenal. He has often travelled up to Leicester City when he has the opportunity to support Patrick van Aarnholt, a young left-back who is on loan there from Chelsea, and who looks up to Cole as his mentor. These things do not exactly tally with the image of a self-obsessed, money-hungry individual.

His unpopularity with the fans is often put forward as one of the main things holding him back. However, even if the fans do not like him as a person, there is clearly a respect for him as a player. He was voted England’s player of the year last year by the fans, having been one of the few players to come out of the World Cup with his reputation intact. He won the vote ahead of supposed fan favourites like Steven Gerrard and Adam Johnson.

He has arguably been the one of the, if not the, best left back on the planet for almost a decade. For all the best attempts over the years, no other left back in England has come close to dislodging him from the team. For all the attention he has received for his private life off the pitch, he is the only undisputedly world-class player that England has.

Of course captaincy is about more than just being the best player. However, his consistency, fitness and quality should put him up there, and he did have a very short spell as England captain at the end of the Denmark friendly. If the history surrounding John Terry costs him a return to the captaincy, there would be many worse options than giving it to Ashley Cole.

Let's face it, if we are looking for a captain that has a clean slate off the pitch, we would be struggling...

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