Since signing for the Blues in 2006, Cole has won one Premier League title, four FA Cups (raising his career total to a record seven), one Europa League and, perhaps most significantly of all, one Champions League.
It is a vindicating haul for a left-back who was famously branded as a money-grabber—“Cashley” to his enemies—following the acrimonious departure from Arsenal, the club he had been with since before he was even a teenager.
But, as he wiped away the first hints of tears as he took photographs on the Stamford Bridge pitch with fellow stalwarts John Terry and Frank Lampard after the draw with Norwich last weekend, it would seem quite possible this chapter of his career is coming to a conclusion.
The end of his time at Chelsea should not be the end of his time as a top-level player, however, even if this season has been one of personal disappointment for the 33-year-old.
Cole has lost his place in the Chelsea team to a right-back, Cesar Azpilicueta, and consequently seen the England spot that he has held almost uncontested dominance over for more than a decade seemingly handed over to Leighton Baines.
Indeed, the debate has seemingly moved on to whether or not Cole will even go to Brazil, let alone whether he might start. In the media it is Everton’s Leighton Baines who most now expect to start for the Three Lions, with many calling for Southampton’s Luke Shaw to go as his back-up.
Roy Hodgson, for what it is worth, seems less swayed by the clamour, keeping his cards somewhat close to his chest with some time before he has to make his decision.
“There are three, possibly four, very good candidates for the left-back position,” Hodgson told reporters last week (via the Daily Mail). “Can I afford to take more than two?”
It is perhaps worth noting at this point, then, that Cole is bidding to achieve something that no other English player has done this summer—play in four different World Cups (Sir Bobby Charlton went to four but did not play in 1958).
Just to be strongly considered for another tournament should underline Cole's quality and longevity and exactly where he stands in England's pantheon.
Nevertheless, the possibility remains that Cole could lose his club employment and his international career within the space of a few days.
All of which would conflict awkwardly with the 33-year-old’s last commercial advert, a rather belligerent number for Nike last December that saw Cole say, in part, “Who you calling done? I’m not done … After 13 years at the top I should be done, but I’m not.”
With his career at a crossroads, now it is not just about whether Cole believes he has more to offer—it is whether other clubs do too.
To consider that, it is perhaps necessary to put this season into proper perspective. Cole has played in 16 Premier League games this season, being an almost ever-present at the start of the campaign before manager Jose Mourinho made the decision that Azpilicueta, even out of position, was a better option.
“Any player that normally starts matches, naturally they’re not the happiest in the camp when they don’t,” Mourinho, who a year earlier proclaimed that Cole had “four or five” years left at the highest level, said (per Metro) when the switch was first made. “But in my opinion Cesar is doing really well and he has to wait for his opportunity.”
That, by and large, has remained the case: Few would argue that Azpilicueta has not been exceptional ever since taking Cole’s spot. It is simplistic to say Cole was dropped for a right-back playing out of position—Azpilicueta on this season's form would start ahead of almost every natural left-back in the Premier League this season, including even Shaw.
Cole could still be the second-best left-back in the league. The problem is he's in the same squad as the best.
"That is the only reason Ashley is not playing," Mourinho stressed in February (via The Guardian). "Because Azpilicueta is playing fantastically well, not because Ashley Cole has been playing poorly."
Considering that, it is also understandable Chelsea would not want to renew Cole’s contract on terms anywhere near the reported £200,000 a week he is currently on (although it should also be noted that Cole has been recalled as the season has gone on—even playing in two crucial games, away to Liverpool in the league and at home to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League).
Even on reduced terms it would remain a vast overspend for a back-up full-back, especially for a club that has Ryan Bertrand returning from a loan spell at Aston Villa in the summer and now tries to balance the books wherever possible (the sale of Juan Mata in January, financing the purchases of Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah being a case in point).
Perhaps that is why John Terry’s future also remains uncertain, considering that signing a left-back (Shaw?) or right-back (Bacary Sagna?) would enable Mourinho to finally move Branislav Ivanovic back to a central position, reducing the need to keep the 33-year-old on, with Gary Cahill the club's No. 1 option and Kurt Zouma arriving from Saint-Etienne in the next window.
Of course, keeping Terry would be preferred—but only at the right price. That is also the case for Cole, but with that “right price” for the club likely to be significantly lower than the player might countenance (especially if he wants guarantees of regular football), most signs point toward a future elsewhere.
In his autobiography, My Defence (a tome that arguably did as much as anything to cement his reputation among the media and wider public), Cole admitted that as far back as 2005 he began strongly considering a move abroad, especially when it became clear that his relationship with Arsenal was beyond repair.
His agent, Jonathan Barnett, raised the possibility of switches to Italy or Spain shortly before a face-to-face meeting with “super-agent” Pini Zahavi (a meeting that, in Cole’s telling of it, would directly—but unintentionally—precede the infamous sit-down with Mourinho and Peter Kenyon that landed all three in trouble), who confirmed clubs from both nations would be strongly interested in him.
Even before that meeting with Jonathan, I’d entertained European thoughts.
Perhaps that musing cannot be taken as gospel, though, considering Cole’s next comment: “I imagined life in Spain and Italy and remember thinking, ‘Not too sure about Italy.’”
Cole is no longer the spritely 24-year-old he was that summer, but nine years on, he could—and perhaps should—still have many of those options available to him.
Real Madrid could do with an experienced left-back this summer, especially if they finally manage to offload Fabio Coentrao—one of the more egregious reminders of the Gestifute-Mourinho era at Valdebebas. Rotating alongside Marcelo, a stint at the Santiago Bernabeu would add another distinction to an already impressive career.
Real’s manager, Carlo Ancelotti, knows Cole well—when the Blues won the title under the Italian in 2010 he was arguably the finest left-back in the world, and Ancelotti praised him as such. More than that, however, Ancelotti admired his charge’s work ethic, something that the wider public is not necessarily privy to.
"It is a pleasure for every coach to work with this kind of player because you will never get problems with them," he said of Cole (via The Guardian). "He is highly motivated, a very good player and a very good professional.
“I think everyone who appreciates football should appreciate him.”
Cole’s links with Ancelotti, along with Real’s worldwide prestige, would perhaps make them the most likely destination should the interest be mutual but not the only one.
Adding Cole at Bayern Munich would perhaps give Pep Guardiola some interesting options to use David Alaba in a different way (although it would be far from a necessary purchase), while Inter Milan—a club Cole name-checked among those he once dreamed of playing for—are aggressively pursuing high-profile players to overhaul the squad in the summer.
Cole, of course, may remain “not too sure about Italy" or indeed the continent in general. Having never previously played for a club outside London (he spent a half-season on loan at Crystal Palace before he established himself in the Arsenal first team), such uncertainty is perhaps understandable.
If that is the case, then staying in England, even if that still means moving outside the M25, may be most viable—it just remains to be seen whether Cole wants to go down that route.
It is hard to know whether Liverpool would show genuine interest (Jose Enrique should be back to fitness before next season, reducing the need for another left-back option, but last summer’s signing of Kolo Toure shows Brendan Rodgers understands the value of experience in a squad), but they have been linked with Cole in some quarters.
United need to replace the ageing (and possibly departing) Patrice Evra, while Manchester City simply want to keep upgrading the position. From newspaper reports it would seem both clubs have targeted Shaw as their first option, but it is self-evident that only one club can get its man.
If either club misses out on Shaw—and Chelsea, the club the 18-year-old supports, also remain interested according to Joe Bernstein and Sami Mokbel of the Daily Mail—then Cole becomes an even more attractive second option.
Desperately needing homegrown players to fill their Champions League quota for next season (a shortage that could become even more pressing if the rumoured squad size punishment for breaching financial fair play is enforced by UEFA), City will not exactly be blessed with other options that retain Cole’s combination of homegrown status and established credentials at the highest level.
They might have to sell Aleksandar Kolarov to justify the addition, reuniting Arsenal’s “Invincibles” left-back duo of Cole and Clichy in the process, but even that could give them money and some flexibility to invest in other areas of the squad.
Signing Cole to replace Evra at United would only delay the need to find a long-term solution for another few years, but it would at least give Louis van Gaal a reliable building block for a United defence that looks likely to be much rawer than in years past.
A return to Arsenal, where he is not exactly lovingly remembered on the club's official website, would not be unthinkable were it not for the fact that the Gunners already have both Nacho Monreal and Kieran Gibbs at left-back.
Wenger’s faith in the injury-prone Gibbs appears to be unwavering, but a less principled boss might consider the merits of selling the Spaniard and bringing Cole back to the club if only for the various intangibles he might offer to a defence that is set to lose Sagna from the other flank.
Beyond that, Cole is unlikely to see the value or attraction in dropping down to a club unable to offer him European football (surely, for so many reasons, going to Tottenham would be unthinkable?). That is, of course, if he can even countenance a move to another English club, having already lived through a fiery love affair with one and a more stable marriage to another.
If the answer to that is no and he ultimately decides that foreign climes are not for him either, then the lure of the United States might win out. As with any high-profile player at the latter stage of his career, it seems inevitable that Cole will receive a number of offers from MLS, although perhaps not of the same riches that past team-mate Thierry Henry has earned.
Nevertheless, considering Cole has seemed to holiday in the United States (and get into “interesting” scenarios doing so on almost every occasion) at almost every available opportunity, it would not be a stretch to suggest he will end up there at some point.
Whether that point has arrived now or he still has a few seasons of proving himself at the highest level he can remains to be seen.
“Maybe Thierry is doing with the Red Bulls the same as David [Beckham] did with Miami," Mourinho said in February (h/t ESPNFC) somewhat cryptically. “Yes [Cole] has [a future at Chelsea], but maybe Thierry has a better proposal."
Being doubted, being unwanted, being considered “done”—in the past such slights have always seemed to spur Cole on to achieve more.
"He is a strong character and, if there is unpopularity, I think maybe it motivates him," Ancelotti noted in 2010.
This summer and the option he chooses may reveal whether Cole really wants to keep fighting those battles.