When Ashley Cole last faced Kazakhstan he was derided by England supporters for a careless pass that allowed the unfancied visitors to score their first ever goal against them. The new Wembley shook with the venom directed at one of their own. The coach, Fabio Capello, and his teammates rallied around the shell-shocked left-back afterwards as the unsavoury incident overshadowed a 5-1 success. With a pop star wife, Cole's life is often scrutinised on and off the pitch. This kind of criticism might have damaged others personally and professionally, but he has emulated the example of his Chelsea teammate Frank Lampard, who endured similar hurtful and hate-filled taunts.
Defiant and determined, they have answered the sceptics in the right manner with their club displays. On Saturday, seven months on from that World Cup qualifier, the national stadium watched one of the best performances of Cole's career; perfect timing as he prepares to face the Kazakhs again this weekend. Lampard might have clinched the FA Cup with a fine strike, but it was the energy, exuberance and excellence of Cole that was an enduring highlight. From the first minute to the last in temperatures topping 41 degrees, he was red-hot, rampaging down the left flank, a man on a mission. The link-up play between Cole and Florent Malouda, fed by delightful passes from Lampard, was a constant source of trouble for the Everton defence with the tormented Tony Hibbert hauled off at half-time.
Much-maligned in the past and cruelly dubbed "Cashley" for the financial demands that engineered a transfer from Arsenal in 2006, Cole showed something more than money mattered here. History beckoned and he was going to do everything to ensure he confirmed his place in football's record books. It was 118 years since Jimmy Forrest, a half-back with Blackburn Rovers, matched the achievements of Charles Wollaston, a former Wanderers player, and a bearded Scottish Lord, Arthur Kinnaird, with a fifth FA Cup winners' medal. Unknown names from football's long-forgotten past.
With Chelsea's own fifth cup triumph, Cole became the first player in the modern era to attain such a landmark, three times with Arsenal and twice now with the Blues. He said: "When I won the first final [for Arsenal against Chelsea in 2002], I couldn't believe that. Now to win five, it's just amazing. I am very happy." At 28, time is on his side to be one of a kind. Regarded as one of the best left-backs in the world while at Arsenal, it in 2005 that he was last voted as the Premier League's finest in the PFA Team of the Year awards.
His Gunners replacement Gael Clichy and Patrice Evra, at Manchester United, have laid claim to that mantle, but Cole is now showing the form which prompted Chelsea to relentlessly pursue him and incur hefty fines for illegal approaches. Guus Hiddink may be gone as the coach and despite the uncertainty over whether his replacement will have the same impact, there is still much at Stamford Bridge to provide hope for the future. Cole is certainly one reason.
His persona might not gain him friends or admirers, but he is a player any team would rather have with them than against. Having been voted Chelsea's Players' Player of the Year this season, his teammates recognise and appreciate Cole's quality. With a likely World Cup challenge to come in South Africa next year, maybe those England fans who jeered him back in October will follow suit. email@example.com