Jim White

All hail England’s greatest ever defender

“I don’t want to sit here and keep going on about wanting to be loved. I’m here to play football.”

So said Ashley Cole in the pooled interview he undertook ahead of receiving his 100th England cap tonight. And he’s right. David Beckham might well think it is, but if football were really a popularity contest how come Lothar Matthaeus, possibly the least appealing personality ever to play the game, managed to accrue 150 caps for Germany?

Cole is not liked. There is no pretending he is. At best he is ignored by rival fans. But mainly he is jeered. It is part of the fabric of the English game now, jeering Cole. We long ago forgot the reason why we jeer him - was it something to do with his autobiography? Or was it that he cheated on the nation’s sweetheart? – but we keep on jeering him anyway.

He’s Ashley Cole, so that’s what we do. A bit like when the Wicked Witch appears on stage in Cinderella, something in our DNA tells us just to boo. Well, that and admire. Grudgingly perhaps, but admire we all do. Because that is the other thing about Ashley Cole: we may not like him, but everyone knows how good he is. And he is very good indeed.

Quick, agile, strong, brilliant in attack, sublime in defence, he is as complete a full-back as you could wish to see, the epitome of the breed. Without question he is the best English defender I have ever seen play live. Those who saw Bobby Moore in the flesh might argue the case, but I believe he may well be the best there has ever been full stop. And given who has played at the back for England – from Des Walker to Rio Ferdinand – that is some accolade.

And the interesting thing about him is he doesn’t seem to mind that he is about as popular as a cold sore. Not for him an endless succession of photo opportunities to prove he is a regular guy. Not for him a charity campaign to demonstrate we have got him wrong and he is a softie at heart. Not for him the whiney pleading of Twitter as embraced by other footballing pariahs like Joey Barton or Robbie Savage in the attempt to make us love them.

He has never once sought to soften the image we all have of a snarling, self-centred little so-and-so. Until this week he has ignored every opportunity to present a different image through media interviews. He has eschewed all offers to appear on television quiz shows to demonstrate his nice side. He has simply taken the view that the public has made up its mind and nothing he can do will change it. And he is probably right.

There is something rather noble in that attitude: just get on with it and privately enjoy the benefits that accrue from being the most consistent performer of his generation. Never mind what the rest of us think, he is the one who will this evening be joining the most exclusive company in the English game.

Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Billy Wright and Steven Gerrard: it is some distinguished group he will become part of. And he is planning to stay around for some time yet. Even with Leighton Baines casting covetous glances at his number three shirt, he has no plans to retire.

“I am not going to quit just because someone is playing better than me,” he says of Baines. Which is a nice line, at once both generous and modest, yet fierily competitive. Not to mention suggestive of a slightly more humorous take on life than might be initially reckoned from his forever frowning countenance.

Cole fully intends to keep going internationally at least for another season. And if he makes it to Brazil next summer (more to the point, if England make it to Brazil next summer) he will become the first Englishman to feature in four World Cup final tournaments.

And it would be an appropriate swansong if he actually got somewhere in that tournament. The remarkable thing about Cole’s 100 caps – and indeed the centuries achieved by his two contemporaries Beckham and Gerrard – is how few of them were earned in the latter stages of international competition.

Matthaeus had half a dozen semi-finals and finals in his collection. Iker Casillas has three finals among his 125 caps. For Cole, three quarter-finals is the sum total of his progress. His finest achievements in an England shirt, he says, were the 5-1 win against Germany in Munich and the 1-0 victory against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. Neither came at a stage when the medals are distributed.

In many ways that is the most telling statistic about Ashley Cole. Never mind his lingering unpopularity with the wider footballing public. He is undoubtedly the very best this country has produced. And yet it has not been good enough to propel us any further than being numbered among the also-rans.