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Ashley Cole: A true Chelsea legend

After Ashley Cole was reunited with his former Blues team-mate Frank Lampard at Derby County, here's a reminder of why he deserves to be remembered as a Chelsea legend.

'There are few players who can be considered among the very best in the world, but Ashley in his prime was the best left-back without question.'

Those are the words of Crystal Palace boss Roy Hodgson during his tenure as England boss, after Cole announced his retirement from international football following his omission from the squad which was about to head to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

That summer, Ash also departed Chelsea following eight trophy-laden seasons at Stamford Bridge during the prime years of his career. And while Hodgson didn't always get it right in his time at the helm of the Three Lions, his opinion of our best-ever No3 does not fall into that category.

This is a player who took to professional football almost immediately, earning his first international cap after 11 games for Arsenal – albeit with a loan spell at Crystal Palace thrown in – and going on to become the first full-back to reach a century of England appearances.

In 2006, when he made the switch to Stamford Bridge, he was already a Gunners legend after winning the Double and playing a key role in their Invincibles Premier League season. But he surpassed his achievements in north London over the course of the next eight years in the blue of Chelsea.

Despite the quality he possessed, the fact he played for Arsenal meant he was far from popular with Chelsea supporters, so news that we would be signing Cole from our local rivals, and giving up William Gallas, a key figure in our back-to-back Premier League triumphs, in the process was not particularly well received.

Soldiering on with an ankle injury throughout his first season certainly didn’t aid his cause, but over time the fans grew to love Cole. He soon settled into his groove, playing his best football, attacking wise at least, for the Blues over the course of the next few seasons. In 2008/09 he was named Players’ Player of the Year as he lifted the FA Cup for the fifth time, which would later become seven – a record for the competition.

The following season, as he won the second Double of his career and first as a Blue, Cole was an integral part of the first side to score 100 goals or in a Premier League season, with his effort against Sunderland voted as our best of the campaign.

What’s more, he received a glowing tribute from his manager, Carlo Ancelotti, who likened him to one of the greatest left-backs in the history of the game.

'Everyone can see that Ashley Cole is the best left-back in the world,' he said in 2010 after Cole was ignored in the voting for the biggest individual prize. 'Every year it is difficult for a defender to be on the list for the Ballon d'Or because usually it is just for strikers and midfielders.

'In his career, Paolo Maldini deserved to win the award but the only reason he didn't was that he was a defender. Cole played with extraordinary quality for us last season, both defensively and when scoring goals and making assists.

'Cole and Maldini are different players because they have different bodies and different skills but professionally and in terms of personality they are the same. They have the same passion for the job.'

His team-mates continued to recognise his brilliance, though, voting him Players’ Player of the Year once again in 2011 and, as someone who was always one of the boys, he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Nothing gave him greater pleasure than helping the team win honours, though, and one trophy in particular had evaded him throughout his club career. He was on the wrong end of heartbreaking Champions League final defeats in 2006, with Arsenal, and again in 2008, and the trophy looked set to evade him yet again in 2012 when we trailed Napoli 3-1 after the first leg of our last-16 tie.

That the deficit was only two owed much to a goal-line clearance from Cole, something of a calling card from the nimble-footed defender, late on at the Stadio San Paolo. It counted for as much as a goal when the Blues produced a stirring comeback in the return and he was magnificent across two legs of the semi-final against Barcelona, stifling the threat of Lionel Messi.

The Argentinian is regarded as one of the top two players of the modern generation, if not the history of football, and he rarely produced anything like his best football when up against Cole. The same applied to Cristiano Ronaldo, most notably in two epic major tournament tussles between England and Portugal. That alone tells you all you need to know about his quality.

The crowning moment of his Chelsea career came on that famous night in Munich, when he was typically outstanding in a rearguard effort as the Blues finally lifted the Champions League trophy. The ever-reliable Ash was on target in the penalty shoot-out, converting with the minimum of fuss. But it meant more to him than he ever let on.

'I had some great times here, some great memories,' he said. 'When I first went to Chelsea it was hard and same fans maybe didn’t take to me straight away, mainly because I’d come from a rival club. But I think over the seasons I showed them I wanted to my best for Chelsea and that I love the club.'

For many, Cole will be regarded as our finest-ever left-back and when you consider his achievements during 338 appearances for the club, as well as the honours he helped us win along the way, it is extremely tough to argue against that.

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