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Sympathy for the devil

Last week, I found myself in the unlikely position of writing a piece defending Jade Goody. This week, I find myself in the equally implausible position of writing a piece defending that least beloved of former Arsenal players, Ashley Cole.

Saturday’s World Cup qualifier at Wembley against the minnows of Kazakhstan – ranked 131st in the world, behind such footballing powers as Singapore, Burundi, Luxembourg and Malawi – was a surprisingly tense affair, with England taking 52 minutes to break the deadlock, but with just a quarter of the game to go and a 2-0 scoreline in their favour, England appeared to have things well in hand. And then Cole, facing his own goal, chipped a casual back pass in the vague direction of David James, which Zhambyl Kukeyev seized on and slotted coolly into the net.

Okay, England would go on to win 5-1 against the rapidly tiring Kazakhs, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Cole had committed a terrible and potentially calamitous error.

But that’s all it was: a mistake. We all make them in life, don’t we? None of us is perfect; we are, by definition, only human.

Did Cole’s misjudgement justify the booing he subsequently received every time he touched the ball from a small but clearly audible section of the crowd? Certainly, this was the key topic of debate on the 606 radio phone-in on Saturday night. Alan Green branded the booing fans as ”morons” and the majority of callers broadly supported this viewpoint. And yet a significant minority claimed the booing was at least partially justified, with arguments ranging from the fact that fans who have paid large sums to attend the game have the right to express the displeasure however they see fit, to the belief that Cole is fair game to be targeted for his past misdeeds and generally unlikeable personality.

Hmm.

Let me make things quite clear. I consider Ashley Cole, as a person, to be an utterly reprehensible character. This is a man who, among other things:
– Claims to have nearly crashed his car in disbelief at being offered a contract worth ‘only’ £55,000 a week by Arsenal. (It’s a hard old life, eh?)
– Was revealed to have had a one-night stand after a match late last year
– Sparked controversy for ignoring and then turning his back on referee Mike Riley while being booked for a dangerous tackle in a game against Tottenham

As a footballer, however, he has been one of England’s most consistent players for a number of years, as well as being one of the best left backs in world football. You can count the number of times in his career he has made serious mistakes like Saturday’s on the fingers of one hand – not bad for a player with close to 300 appearances for club and country.

For sure, one of the key drivers behind Saturday’s booing is that negative perception of Ashley Cole as a person. Would Rio Ferdinand or David James have been booed so readily for such a catastrophic error? Of course not. Conversely, I suspect that even if Cole were to score a hat-trick and make a series of goal-saving tackles in Minsk on Wednesday, he will never receive the kind of frenzied adulation which seems to accompany David Beckham’s every touch. (And this, remember, is a man who earns considerably more than Cole and has himself been outed for a sexual indiscretion.)

To an extent, that’s just tough luck on Cole’s part: life isn’t always equitable, and that’s the way it is. Crowds will always have their preferred scapegoats: there is a long tradition of them at Arsenal, stretching back from Emmanuel Eboue and Philippe Senderos to Igors Stepanovs, David Hillier and many others who were perceived as being “not fit to wear the shirt”.

But here’s the difference – and maybe it’s just an inevitable consequence of the difference between the week-in, week-out loyalty of the club fan and the few-times-a-year lot of following a national side – while a club’s nominated donkey du jour may regularly elicit groans of frustration, the fans will still support them to the bitter end. That patently isn’t the case in the relationship between players and fans of England.

And this is the thing. Do fans have a right to boo? Of course they do: freedom of expression and all that. But is it the right thing to do? In the midst of a frustrating team performance, is singling out one individual on whom to vent your spleen going to help matters? Will it encourage or inhibit? (And one of the most frequent explanations of the marked difference between individuals’ club versus country performances is the fear of failure that comes with pulling on an England shirt.)

There is enough pressure on the England team as it is after the ignominious end to the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. (Reality check, people: it was not the end of the world, it was hardly the first time England has ever failed to qualify for a major finals (most recently, the 1994 World Cup), and it’s not a disease which solely afflicts England among European football’s ‘major’ powers (Italy, Spain and Holland have each slipped up once since 1990).)

So in what way is booing a team, and in particular singling out particular individuals, going to help? I thought we all went along to matches as supporters, hoping to cheer our teams on to success. Or am I just being naïve?

In the words of an old Harry Enfield character, “Is that what you want? Cos that’s what will happen?”

Ashley Cole: I still reserve the right to think of you as an exemplar of all that is wrong about the modern footballer. But when you pull on an England shirt, I’m right behind you. Just cut out the suicidal back passes, okay?

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

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