Ashley Cole took time out on our trip to Japan to reflect on his eight years as a Chelsea player...
Only a select few can lay claim to have been part of a club’s best-ever team, the standout selection that achieved the impossible, broke new ground or succeeded where others had failed. Ashley Cole did this not once but twice in his trophy-laden career, which he brought to an end this summer at the age of 38.
His next move will be to take his coaching badges, following in the footsteps of some of his high-profile team-mates down the years, but last week he was in Japan with the Blues, casting a close eye on how Frank Lampard’s squad is shaping up and enjoying life back inside the Chelsea family.
We caught up with him to discuss his glorious time as a Blue, having taken the role as a club ambassador on the trip.
Before joining us, Cole became an ‘Invincible’ with Arsenal in 2004, having already lifted the Double in 2002.
The England left-back made the bold move across London to Stamford Bridge in 2006, going on to lift every major English and European honour with Chelsea. This included playing some of the best football of his career as we secured a Double of our own in 2010 before playing a starring role on that night in Munich in 2012.
Now, five years after leaving the Bridge, he is about to embark on his next adventure and he certainly has the experience, and medals, to share. It is hard to think someone so successful could ever have been doubted, or indeed doubted themselves, but as Cole recalls, there were plenty of question marks hanging over him when he decided to swap north London for SW6.
‘I felt nerves,’ he smiles as he recalls joining Chelsea. ‘I knew a lot of the players, but it was nerve-wracking coming to a new team with a new manager.
‘I was excited. It was a tough decision to make at the time, but I was eager to get going. I came to the club a little bit angry inside. I wanted to prove what I was worth, that I was good enough to play at the top and I wanted to keep on winning,’ he explains.
‘The Arsenal “Invincibles” team was a team of winners with big personalities. But over time, the big players were leaving - Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp was finishing, Thierry Henry - and I wanted to be around a team that had that will and desire to win.
‘I’d played with Frank and John Terry with England, Joe Cole, Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Phillips too, and I liked that mentality. They had won the league back to back and I wanted to be part of it. I was ready for it.’
History now suggests otherwise but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were accusations from Arsenal fans and the media he had moved only for money, and a serious knee injury in his first season saw Cole miss the Premier League run-in, though he returned just in time to help us lift the 2007 FA Cup in the first final at the new Wembley.
In his absence, we had beaten the Gunners in the League Cup final in Cardiff, but it was that narrow victory over Manchester United that he felt finally justified the move to SW6.
‘Winning my first trophy here was such a highlight,’ he says. ‘There was a lot of pressure coming here. People probably didn’t believe my reasons why, so for me to win the FA Cup at Wembley, against Manchester United, was so nice.’
With form and fitness recovered, another major injury would follow in 2010, when a challenge with Everton’s Landon Donovan resulted in a fractured ankle that threatened to rule him out of another Premier League pursuit, but this time he returned in time to help us over the line, though problems with the ankle would persist.
That is the season, under Carlo Ancelotti, that Cole felt he played his best football of his career, given the same licence to attack he had enjoyed the previous season under Luiz Felipe Scolari.
‘I think the managers who suited my style were more attacking, which is how I had played at Arsenal,’ Cole says. ‘When Scolari came in I felt at my best. I felt I blossomed under him and got back to playing with confidence.
‘Ancelotti was my number one. We played with tactics, obviously, but he gave you a freedom and I was able to attack. That Double season in 2009/10 was probably my best season.
‘It was the most I scored in a season, I felt I was unbeatable in defence and was linking up with others well. I had a great relationship with Florent Malouda on the left wing, JT next to me and Frank on that left side of the midfield three. I was able to make runs in behind and was always in dangerous spots inside the box.’
It is often put to Cole that for a long time, he was the best left-back in the world. Indeed, looking back, it is hard to think of a player you would rather have had featuring in his position.
‘I don’t know. That was the best I played,’ he shrugs. ‘So, if people think I was the best in the world, that’s nice, but it’s hard to say about yourself.’
There is a modesty to Cole that those who don’t know him may find surprising. Headlines tended to follow him during his career, but he was never happier than when on the football pitch competing. As he says, he was driven by a determination to prove people wrong.
‘That’s how I played my best football, I always needed that to motivate myself,’ he explains. ‘From the age of 10 I always had to prove myself. People were saying I was too small or not good enough, so I always had that in me. Some people call it arrogance but it’s a little bit of a defence mechanism and it’s motivating.’
That drive led to one Premier League title, four FA Cups (a record career total of seven), one League Cup, one Europa League and of course one Champions League during his time with Chelsea. Cole already told us about how special it felt to lift that first FA Cup in 2007, but there is no shortage of other standout Chelsea moments, as he reflects.
‘We kept coming as runners up in the league and when we eventually won it that was a special moment, and to do the Double was special too,’ he says.
‘To win seven FA Cups in my career - wow… I watched it as a kid. To even think I’d play in the FA Cup, then to win it three times with Arsenal was amazing. After that people said I could get the record because I was still quite young, but I never thought it could happen, and then it did, wow…
‘Then there was the Champions League. We had come close so many times. I had lost in the final in my last game with Arsenal in 2006 (to a Barcelona goal scored by future Blues team-mate Juliano Belletti).
‘With Chelsea, we had semi-final defeats, we had Moscow. It felt like it wasn’t going to happen. I still think about Moscow every day. I can’t imagine how JT feels, but I know him, and I know he’ll think about it every day. To be that close, go down to 10 men, grind it out to penalties and be one away from winning it… it would have been a great achievement.
‘But then to do it, when a lot of us were coming towards the end of our careers, made it a little bit more special. We didn’t start that year well, the league had gone badly for us, but it made us all come together and we realised we could do it – it could be our last chance. It makes it better when you win it with friends and that was a close group.’
How does Cole feel now he’s looking at life from the other side, watching on as Lampard prepares the next generation for the campaign ahead, having chosen to leave his own playing career behind him?
‘It’s a killer, it’ll never go away!’ he laughs. ‘Your head still wants to play and thinks you can get out there but the legs can’t!
‘I loved it here. I loved being around those guys and I miss it. Chelsea always looked after me and it’s nice to be back. It’s a special club.’