Of England’s "Golden Generation" (a term coined by an FA administrator showing off, lest we forget), Ashley Cole is arguably the only one who could legitimately be thought of as one of England’s all-time greats.
Cole has probably been consistently better than fellow great England left-backs George Cohen, Kenny Sansom and Stuart Pearce over his career and has rarely allowed his level of performance to drop. Indeed, Cole has perhaps even been underrated because of his rather...shall we say "unpalatable" character, public image and of course that extract from his autobiography.
Not now, though. Cole is 32, and the signs of decline are starting to show. So much so that he has found himself on the bench for Chelsea’s last seven games, dropped after a diabolical performance (by him and the rest of the Chelsea side) in the 2-0 defeat to Newcastle. Cole has suffered from slight injury problems, but they were clearly not enough to keep him out of Jose Mourinho’s squad entirely, with the Chelsea boss preferring the likes of Cesar Azpilicueta, out of position, to the man he prised from Arsenal seven years ago.
Indeed, it is perhaps a sign of Cole’s fall that he was awarded the "sympathy start" in Chelsea’s final, basically meaningless Champions League tie against Steaua Bucharest on Wednesday evening, the sort of game usually reserved for fringe players and those who need a bit of a run-out.
Mourinho said before the Bucharest game, as quoted by The Daily Mail:
It’s easy to feel he’s not happy or comfortable with the situation but the way he trains and behaves is super professional. When he’s on the bench behind me I can feel he’s there to win, even if he’s not on the pitch.
Sometimes, even if you're not playing every game and are not first-choice, like he was always, it means you are not deserving of a new contract. I feel he's fine and I think tomorrow (Wednesday) he's going to show he's fine.
Naturally, with the evolution of the season, he will play matches. Can he recover or not 100 per cent his position? I don't know. But play, he will always play. And he will always be a good player. Naturally, he will get his contract because he's a hell of a player for us.
Mourinho went on to say that Cole will probably be awarded a new contract at Chelsea, but only the one-year deals that the club gives to players of a certain age. It feels like the end of an era for Cole, Chelsea and England.
Indeed, Cole’s place on Mourinho’s bench has ramifications for Roy Hodgson. The England manager faces the prospect of going into next summer’s World Cup with three of his favoured back five—Cole, Gary Cahill and Joe Hart—not being regular, first-choice players for their clubs.
Mourinho is both open-minded enough and has a high enough opinion of Cole’s ability and professionalism for Cole to force his way back into the Chelsea team.
Hogdson will be hoping that is true, lest he travel to Brazil with a seriously undercooked backline.