Are we allowed to love Ashley Cole yet?
Tonight, in Copenhagen, Ashley Cole will become England's most-capped full back of all-time. So isn't it time we stopped abusing and starting applauding one of this country's finest ever players?
Leicester's Walkers Stadium may seem like a strange place to find Ashley Cole on a Saturday afternoon, but last weekend, in the Foxes 1-0 over Barnsley, Cole was there in all his glory watching on from the stands. You may wonder what interest he had in a promotion battle in the east Midlands; but he was actually there to lend moral support to left-back Patrick van Aanholt, sent on loan to Leicester from Chelsea for the rest of the season.
It was a surprising insight into the character of a man who has become one of Britain's most vilified public figures. So entrenched has this persona become, he's long since stopped trying to change anyone's mind. Cole has taken some hideous abuse over the past couple of years and in return he has double-locked the doors and pulled down the shutters. Some may never change their mind about Cole. Yet, you cannot help thinking that there aren't many Premier League footballers who would drive all the way to Leicester, the day before one of his biggest games of the season, just to lend support to a little-known youngster.
Of course, it is always important to distinguish between Cole the tabloid caricature and Cole the footballer; and this week, it is Cole the footballer who is grabbing the headlines. Providing Cole plays this evening, he will become England's most-capped full back of all-time, surpassing the likes of Stuart Pearce, Gary Neville and previous record-holder, Kenny Samson. 87 caps in total moves him up to ninth in the all-time list and within touching distance of the magical 100 - and with Euro 2012 around the corner, that looks ever more likely. He's already England's most-capped black player, beating John Barnes' 79 caps. And of the current squad, only Steven Gerrard has more international appearances.
There is no doubt that when Gerrard reaches his century, the Wembley crowd will roar in acclaim. But what reaction will Cole get when he reaches the same number?
There is absolutely no doubt his career merits a standing ovation. At only 30, he can be regarded as one of Europe's best full-backs, arguably the best. He has been consistently brillaint for both Chelsea and Arsenal over the past decade. And has, as far as I can remember, never played a poor game for England. He was one of only two players to come out of this summer's World Cup with his reputation intact. And, at the end of the month, celebrates a decade in the England team.
But the fickle Wembley crowd have, in the past, chosen to judge Cole on whay they've read in the red-tops, rather than the performances they've witnessed. The way the crowd turned on him for a dodgy back-pass which lead to a Kazakhhstan goal in 2008, certainly suggests they prefer the caricature to the man who has marked Cristiano Ronaldo better than anyone else.
So why is he so disliked? Well, first of all, everyone seems to be an expert on his former marriage to Nightclub Bouncer Beating National Treasure Cheryl Cole, which really, is no one's business but his own. Secondly, being a very talented footballer during the sport's financial golden age, has made him both: very rich and able to date very attractive women. People seem to find this difficult to accept. Are they jealous? Definitely. That he has moved from one primetime television lovely to another has made him a hate figure among the public, even though, as far as we can tell, his lifestyle has had no discernible effect on his performances on the pitch.
Only when Ashley Cole decides to call it a day will we realise what a great player he was. Leighton Baines is the latest in a long line of candidates tipped to succeed Cole, and even though he has had a great season for Everton, they will be huge, lighting-quick, over-lapping, eye-for-a-goal boots to fill.