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The history of Ashley Cole’s obsessive Arsenal relationship

“My heart and soul was tied to Arsenal with a fisherman’s knot. I don’t think even Houdini could have unravelled it. Not for one minute did I see myself leaving. There was only ever one club in England, let alone London, and that was the Arsenal.” – My Defence, Ashley Cole.

Ashley Cole is a boyhood Arsenal fan who realised his dream when signing for them as a teenager. As a 19-year-old, signing a five-year deal at the start of the 2000/2001 season, I wonder if he could ever have envisaged how twisted his relationship with Arsenal would become.

At the end of that season, Cole played 17 games in the Premier League, but was determined to make a go of his Arsenal career.

“It will be difficult to unseat Silvinho at Arsenal because he’s a world class player,” he said. “I have stuck it out because I have supported Arsenal all my life and I am determined to make a success of it there. I want to prove to everyone I’m good enough to play for Arsenal and be the number one choice in a couple of years for England, too.”

Eighteen months later, having become a regular at Arsenal as well becoming England’s first choice left back, Cole was rewarded with another five-year contract. At the end of the season Inter Milan were sniffing around him, with Massimo Moratti confirming the Italian interest in him, but Cole had no interest in leaving.

After Manchester United beat Arsenal to the title by 5 points in 2003, Cole rallied a siege mentality amongst his team mates ahead of their successful FA Cup final against Southampton.

“Seeing pictures of the Manchester United players celebrating with the Premiership trophy really hurt,” he said. “I’ll never get that image out of my mind. Even beating Southampton won’t compensate for that disappointment. I don’t think we’ll get over losing the title until next season starts. Everyone will probably want Southampton to win but we’re not worried about that. We’re used to people wanting Arsenal to lose. It has been like that all season. There have been times when it seemed everyone was after us. If you make a mistake with Arsenal it gets more attention than any other club.”

The following season, Arsenal made amends for their failure to secure the title by not only becoming champions but finishing the season unbeaten. Cole was certain that any player in the world would want to join him in North London and was full of praise for the fans.

“I think if you ask the top players in the world and in the Premier League they would love to play for Arsenal,” Cole said. “Who wouldn’t want to play for Arsenal? We are one of the top clubs in the world and everybody wants to play for us.” Speaking to the fans he said: “You have been amazing and hopefully next year we can do even more for you.”

The following season, Arsenal continued their unbeaten run, until they came to Old Trafford and lost 2-0. Wayne Rooney appeared to dive to win a penalty in the second half, which Ruud van Nistelrooy scored, before Rooney made it 2-0 to end Arsenal’s run. Arsenal fans were livid about the result, particularly because van Nistelrooy was guilty of a poor challenge on Cole that went unpunished.

“It’s only because Ashley is the nicest guy in football, a real gentleman, that he probably wouldn’t want to pursue anything through the courts,” said Cole’s agent, Jonathan Barnett. “We are looking at potential legal action, even criminal action for assault.”

Arsenal fans were pleased to hear that Cole and Cesc Fabregas chucked pizza in the face of Sir Alex Ferguson after the game though, which raised his legendary status amongst the Gooners.

A couple of months later, Real Madrid were linked with the player, but David Dein quickly laughed this off. For the first time, serious question marks were raised over Cole’s long term future at the club, with Barnett claiming that whilst Arsenal were his first choice, they would have to stump up the cash if they wanted to keep him. “Ashley has two-and-a-half years left on his contract and loves Arsenal to bits,” he said. “If they were to come to him with a new contract offer then of course he would be willing to listen. If Arsenal offered him something really good then his first choice would be to stay at the club. He would rather do that than go anywhere else.”

The following day, Arsenal confirmed that contract talks had begun and that they were confident Cole would stay at the club.

“He has been educated here, has grown up here and has become a great player here and wants to stay here,” said Wenger. “So I would be surprised if we can’t find an agreement to extend his contract. We have started talking and I am confident he will stay on.”

And that’s when it all started to go wrong.

The following month, at the end of January 2005, The News Of The World reported that Ashley Cole had met with Chelsea’s chief executive Peter Kenyon and manager Jose Mourinho in bid to secure a move to Arsenal’s rivals. This claim was quickly refuted by his agent though.

“Any suggestion that Ashley Cole has spoken to anyone at Chelsea is total and utter nonsense,” said Barnett. “There is no problem between Ashley and Arsenal. Ashley is extremely happy at Arsenal – he has neither asked nor considered a move.”

Chelsea’s manager, Jose Mourinho, was also quick to lie about the meeting, saying that the link with his club was merely an agent ploy to increase the salary Arsenal were prepared to offer.

“I can tell you that it is not true,” he said. “Every player, who is a really good player, or every agent who wants to improve his player’s situation, is linked with Chelsea. Steven Gerrard, Adriano, Ashley Cole – and next week it will be another one. I have a perfect and wonderful squad and I don’t need any more players this season.”

A few days later, Wenger tried to brush the incident under the carpet, reaffirming his belief that Cole would stay at the club.

“I am 100 percent sure that Ashley Cole will extend his contract, as he is part of the bunch of players who are the core and heart of the team,” he said. “Ashley said he is fed up with that story, he is completely committed to the club and he doesn’t want to know about it. At the moment, it’s all Chelsea hype. I have no doubt about his commitment to the club.”

The following week, the Premier League launched an inquiry to see whether Cole had been tapped up by Chelsea, with Wenger already sure what the verdict would be, saying: “I am convinced that a meeting did take place – although that has not been confirmed.”

“Unsubstantiated accusations have been made against my client, which are totally wrong and incorrect,” said Barnett ahead of the inquiry. “I am happy to confirm, on the record, that the accusations levelled at Ashley are entirely false. Not only that, they are both appalling and offensive.”

Two weeks later, Chelsea were charged, but Cole wasn’t ready to come clean just yet. With Patrick Vieira retiring at the end of the season, Cole threw his name in to the hat as a potential replacement, saying: “I’d love to be captain. I have two years left on my contract here and it goes without saying that I am fully focused and fully committed to this football club.”

At the end of May, Cole won the FA Cup with Arsenal after beating Manchester United on penalties. He was one of the five Arsenal players who scored a penalty but the celebrations were short lived, as he was found guilty, along with Jose Mourinho and Chelsea FC, by the Premier League inquiry. Chelsea were found guilty of breaching Premier League rule K3 regarding unsolicited approaches to players and were fined £300k with a suspended three-point deduction. Mourinho was also found to be in the wrong for contravening rule Q which relates to a manager’s conduct and was fined £200k. Cole was found guilty of breaking rule K5, which governs approaches from players to clubs, after he was alleged to have made his desire for a move known at the meeting on January 27th and was fined £100k. Barnett had his agent’s licence revoked for 18 months, nine of which were suspended, and fined £100,000.

The Premier League statement: “We consider it unacceptable that a player (and agent) should approach another club (their rival) in the Premier League – contrary to FAPL Rules and contrary to the expectations of Arsenal, who were entitled to expect loyalty from a player who they have nurtured from boyhood to a glittering football career. We consider it unacceptable that Chelsea Football Club saw fit to respond to an invitation extended by Pini Zahavi and Jonathan Barnett. Jose Mourinho played a pivotal role in the events leading up to and during the 27 January meeting. He agreed to accompany Peter Kenyon, when he could and should have realised the implications of the secret meeting and declined to go. The presence of the manager was vital because he was the key component in the discussion. Managers are fully aware of their obligations under the rules and he acted in blatant disregard of them.”

Chelsea accepted the verdict whilst Cole and Mourinho launched appeals, both of which were unsuccessful. However, Cole’s contract talks broke down and the left-back confirmed he would be leaving the club for a move abroad.

“If they offer me £100,000 or £200,000 a week now I would not accept it,” he said. “It is not about the money, it is about being treated right. The damage has been done. I love this club but I suspect there are people at this club who do not want me to pull on a Gunners shirt again. I still won’t sign for another Premiership team as I could not see myself playing against Arsenal. I would only want to play abroad.”

Then, completely out of the blue, Cole and Arsenal reached an agreement and he signed a one-year extension on his deal which still had two years remaining. He settled for £70,000 a week. At the beginning of the following season, Arsenal lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, the blues’ first win over Arsenal in the league for ten years. The following week, an upbeat Cole reaffirmed his commitment and after missing out on the captaincy to Thierry Henry, hoped he would wear the armband at some point in his career.

“I’d love to be captain of Arsenal one day,” he said. “I think I am grown up enough now. I show on the pitch how passionate I am about the club.”

At the beginning of October, Cole sustained a stress fracture of the foot and went on to miss the next three months of the season. He came off the bench for Arsenal’s 7-0 win over Middlesbrough in January but then picked up a thigh injury which kept him out until May.

Throughout this time on the sidelines he was linked to other clubs, particularly Real Madrid after Roberto Carlos appeared unsettled, but repeatedly claimed he was committed. With the World Cup on the way, Cole was desperate to prove his fitness and played for the Reserves a few times, which only aggravated his injury.

Cole returned for the last three Premier League games of the season to see Arsenal finish 4th in the table behind Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. With one eye on the World Cup, he had the small matter of the first European Cup final in Arsenal’s history to get through, with the London club taking on Barcelona at the Stade de France. Arsenal lost 2-1 after Jens Lehmann was sent off early in to the game. Despite scoring first, Arsenal conceded two late goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti.

The investment of £70,000-a-week was a poor one for Arsenal, with him playing just 15 games in all competitions that season. The week after the Champions League final defeat, Cole was asked whether he would remain at Arsenal next season, with Henry having already committed to the club. “Why not?” he said. “I hope so, I’ve said it a hundred times.”

Cole went to Germany with England for the World Cup and played 90 minutes in all of the group stage games to help them finish top. He then played in their 1-0 win over Ecuador in the round of 16 before they lost to Portugal on penalties in the quarter-final, with Cole putting in a great shift against Cristiano Ronaldo.

Throughout this time, unbeknown to the public, Cole had been penning his autobiography, and two months after saying he hoped he’d be at Arsenal next season, he revealed all about his true feelings for Arsenal following their contract talks. The book wasn’t published until September but midway through July The Sun printed the blurb for his book.

Arsenal hung me out to dry, using me as a scapegoat to get back at Chelsea. The board ‘rewarded’ me with an insult and threw years of loyalty back in my face. I’ll reveal the shattering truth about who fed me to the sharks. It changed my view forever on the club I regarded as family.

Less than two weeks later, Arsenal confirmed they had begun talks with Chelsea to negotiate the sale of Cole but it took a further month before the deal was concluded. Cole joined Chelsea in exchange for William Gallas and £5m. After shunning Arsenal’s latest offer, he signed a massive £90,000-a-week deal with the blues.

Then, Cole’s version of events was revealed through his autobiography. He justified his exit by claiming that Arsenal hadn’t made him feel wanted, particularly in comparison to their treatment of Henry.

The club made Thierry feel wanted and special, wooing him, wining and dining him, speaking in public about how much they want him to stay, going on a deliberate charm offensive. But me? I didn’t have one dinner, one meeting or one phone call from anyone. That’s not sour grapes, it’s just a sad truth. The truth is that The Gunners had done nothing all season to hold on to me.

The club initially offered Cole £60,000 a week, only to downgrade their offer to £55,000 a week, much to Cole’s disappointment.

At a board meeting held two days before our 1-0 away defeat at Bolton in January, it was decided the maximum offer should be £55,000 a week. I don’t believe the board gave a damn about keeping me. It preferred to haggle over a difference of £5,000. Somewhere along the A406 North Circular Road, one telephone call changed everything about how I viewed and felt about Arsenal. “Ash! Are you listening?” said a virtually hyperventilating Jonathan. “I’m here in the office and David Dein is saying they aren’t going to give you £60k a week. They’ve agreed £55k and this is their best and final offer. Are you happy with that?” When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55k, I nearly swerved off the road. “He is taking the piss, Jonathan!” I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on.

Having spent the past couple of years talking about what a tight-knit group there was at Arsenal in the press, Cole also laid in to how disjointed the relationships were amongst the squad.

Watching games from the stands gave me a different perspective on matches and I saw too much rubbish being played too often, lazy players who didn’t pull their weight and schoolboy errors. The young guns, in my opinion, were not prepared to listen or learn. I remember feeling how fragmented we’d all become when Robin van Persie spoke up at training about Freddie Ljungberg. ‘He doesn’t talk to me. Why doesn’t he talk to me?’ I couldn’t tell you a thing about Kolo, Eboue, Reyes, Cesc Fabregas or Senderos.

Cole reflected on the post-match reaction of the Arsenal fans when Barcelona beat them in the Champions League final. Cole was upset that Henry’s name was sang but they had no chant for him.

My worst fears were confirmed as Thierry and I sat in the centre circle after the final whistle. His name was sung from the rooftops, while my contribution was recognised by a deafening silence. It was like I was the invisible man.

It is strange to see how hard done by Cole genuinely seems to feel. He thinks the club should have been as desperate to organise his new contract as they were their star striker who only had a year remaining on his deal. He almost crashed his car because they would only pay him £220k a month. After being busted for trying join a rival club behind Arsenal’s back, he can’t work out why it was the name of the captain and all time top scorer that was sung in the Stade de France and not his own. Remarkable.

Cole faced his former club for the first time since the move in December, with the clubs playing a 1-1 draw which saw the left-back booed every time he went near the ball.

“I’m not really bothered any more about the chants and that,” Cole said after the game. “I would like to thank the Chelsea fans, who were amazing.”

Fabregas, who Cole referred to as “an unproven featherweight” in his autobiography, was not impressed.

“For me, Ashley Cole is a closed subject,” he said. “He is not a friend because after leaving Arsenal he said many unjust things about us. In the world of football, respect between companions is the key – and he broke this rule. This player is forgotten – and also the person. I do not want to speak to him again. I believe that Cole was very well treated by Arsenal and that his response was not correct.”

A couple of months later, Arsenal and Chelsea met in the League Cup final, which finished with a victory for the blues. Didier Drogba won the game with five minutes left to play before three players were sent off in injury time for their role in a mass brawl.

“I feel a part of it at Chelsea now,” he said. “The fans seem to like me and I love the fans. I’m enjoying life, the manager’s good and after six or seven months here I’ve already won a medal. That’s why I came here. I loved Highbury, I loved the fans but I’ve moved on. I’ve seen myself in a red shirt all my life and then I’m in a blue one. But it happens, players move from team to team and it doesn’t mean I’m a traitor. For me it’s been a move for the better.”

The following season, Cole was asked about the reception he was likely to get at the Emirates when facing his former club. Arsenal went on to win the game 1-0 thanks to a goal from former blue William Gallas. Cole was insistent he wasn’t bothered by the reaction of his old fans.

“I am used to it, and I am looking forward to the game,” he said. “I want to go there and play them because I did not get to play there earlier this year. I will go there and front up. I am a grown man. They threw money at me at Stamford Bridge, and that was bad, but I get that every game. I love it. It would be nice to go there and shut some people up. It’s going to be tough though. To be honest, I am really not bothered about the reception I will get, even though I know the crowd will get on my back. I don’t think I have anything to prove to them. They know how good I was when I was with them and what I did for the club. It is not about that. Of course Arsenal still means something to me. I don’t hate the club or the players. I love the club, but it has finished for me there now.”

However, at the end of the game, clearly riled by the Arsenal fans, Cole stuck his fingers up at them which was investigated by the FA.

At the end of the 2008/2009 season, Cole put in a great performance in Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, much to his delight.

“Coming back to my old club, I hate losing against Arsenal so it means I’m more motivated,” he said. “It is always there (the abuse), I expect it now and I am used to it. I just want to play my game and win for Chelsea.”

Chelsea finished 3rd behind United and Liverpool that season, but 11 points clear of Arsenal in 4th place. With Manchester City having become the richest club in the world the summer before, Cole claimed he hoped that City became part of the top 4 at Arsenal’s expense.

“I hope they do really well – and that they finish above Arsenal,” he said. “I think it’s going to be hard for City but they could do it. They may click straight away and it’s magic. I hope they do.”

After watching Manchester United win the title for his first three season at Chelsea, he finally got his hands on the Premier League trophy again in 2010. With Arsenal winning nothing since he left, he claimed this title was his reason for leaving.

“It has been a long time since I won the league,” he said. “It is my first time at Chelsea, I am happy and now hopefully everyone will get off my back and realise why I came here.”

However, that summer, Cole was heavily linked with a move to Real Madrid and he later confessed he had considered leaving.

“It was hard for me in my head,” he said. “It wasn’t just about the football, it was more my brain and it was getting too much for me. There were times when it was really hard. I did think about leaving but, of course, when I spoke to Ancelotti he made it clear he wanted me to stay and loved having me around, and the players didn’t want me to go. I’ve stayed now and I’ve taken the flak and hopefully I’m coming through it. I would love to end my career here.”

Despite finishing 6th in the league, Cole ended 2011-2012 on a high after winning the Champions League and FA Cup. Speaking on the pitch in Munich he said: “Now no one can say nothing to me. This is the reason I came here.”

Cole has since joined Twitter and, as you would expect, receives plenty of abuse from Arsenal fans. Whilst all footballers get their share of stick on there, Gary Neville from Liverpool, Luis Suarez from United, Rio/Anton Ferdinand from Chelsea, and so on, Cole is the only one to be repeatedly riled by this, seemingly responding to Arsenal fans more than he does Chelsea.

Cole’s personal medal collection is up there with some of the most successful English players of all time, so why does he still feel the need to justify himself? Just like Carlos Tevez with his “RIP Fergie” sign, some players just can’t enjoy their success without being pre-occupied with their former clubs. With every league title or European Cup Rio Ferdinand won, did he feel the need to tell Leeds fans this is why he left them for their hated rivals? Everton fans sing about Wayne Rooney dying but he doesn’t refer to them every time he lifts a trophy.

Judging from his inane Twitter ramblings, Cole isn’t the brightest spark, but then neither are Rooney or Ferdinand, yet they aren’t repeatedly embroiled in a war of words with fans of their former clubs. Why can’t he just put his Arsenal past behind him and get on with enjoying the success he’s had at Chelsea?

Fans love having a villain, whether it’s a former player or the best player at a rival club, so the stick Cole gets is to be expected. His reaction to the abuse is not though. Frank Lampard enjoys kissing Chelsea’s badge whenever he faces West Ham, just like Rooney does at Goodison Park, but you never get the impression that the fans of their former clubs really get under their skin. They enjoy having the last laugh and winning the trophies, but they don’t measure their success in relation to their old teams. For whatever reason, Cole just can’t seem to let go of Arsenal, and for all his pleas for them to get over it, now really is the time for him to move on.

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