Now and then, perhaps out of habit or commitment to the cause, or maybe because they’re hoping to squeeze just a few more clicks out of their old chew toy, the English press will strain, lunge and take another swipe at Ashley Cole.
The defender starts it, of course. In March, Cole responded to a question from a laughing comedian on an ITV talk show by saying that sure, he still laughs to himself when recalling the chaos that surrounded his controversial cross-town transfer from Arsenal to Chelsea back in 2006.
The comedian and context didn’t hit the headlines. Instead, it was “Ashley Cole admits he cannot help but laugh at Arsenal,” and “Ashley Cole…reveals he still laughs at the Gunners to this day.”
Last fall, Cole had the temerity to be among the three LA Galaxy players who missed their penalty kick during an MLS playoff shootout in Colorado.
“Cole Hearted: Ashley Cole ‘ends Steven Gerrard’s career’ by missing crucial penalty…,” screamed The Sun.
“It’s not my personality to call a journalist and say that article was wrong,” Cole told SI.com. “I’m never going to win. You can never win against [the press], especially in England. They’re so powerful. My friends, family, teammates—they know who I am. It’s not good, the way they portray me. It’s not my personality. It’s not who I am. But I made mistakes and I’m stuck with it now.”
He’s still stuck with it occasionally, and he may never win. But the attention is far less intense than it used to be and the scandal is much more benign. Cole had realized that he couldn’t be the person the British media and public wanted him to be. He was raised by a single mother in London’s working-class East End. He’s wasn’t posh or polished. He threw himself into soccer, signed with Arsenal and made his first-team debut at 18. He was a senior England international at 20. His life changed quickly, and Cole admitted that at the start, he didn’t anticipate or appreciate the off-field demands or potential pitfalls confronting pro footballers.
“You don’t know the other side. You just want to play. You don’t think about the money, how many followers you’ve got on Instagram. You just want to make it,” he said. “You don’t understand the demands, how intense it is at times—the scrutiny you’re going to get.”
There were no egregious, career-killing mistakes. There were no war crimes. But there was clumsiness, some immaturity and a bit of bad timing. That transfer to Chelsea wasn’t just controversial—it broke the rules. Cole, his agent, Chelsea and then-manager Jose Mourinho were fined hundreds of thousands of pounds combined because their negotiations took place without Arsenal’s knowledge or permission. The player’s subsequent book, My Defence, was penned in an effort to blow off some steam, he said. It was a sort of therapy. But the part where he recalled “trembling with anger” over Arsenal’s offer of £55,000 per week didn’t go over well. He was ungrateful. He was superficial. He was “Cashley Cole.”
There was blood in the water. In 2009, he was detained by police following a loud argument outside a bar. Two years later, he shot a Chelsea intern with an air rifle at the club’s training ground. Cole claimed it was an accident and that he was unaware the gun was loaded. Either way, he then represented the height of privileged irresponsibility. In 2010 he was caught speeding. Once he refused to shake England manager Fabio Capello’s hand after the Community Shield. Another time he was fined for a profane tweet directed at the English FA.
Then there was his four-year marriage to singer Cheryl Tweedy, a media favorite in her own right who helped catapult Cole to an uncomfortable class of fame. Their personal lives were a favorite tabloid topic. Never mind that Cole had established himself as one of the best left backs on the planet. What people really wanted to know was whether he was faithful or not to his glamorous wife.
Some stories were retracted after Cole filed suit in ’06. But he soon realized that fighting or changing solved nothing. “Ashley Cole Attacks Clubber” and “Ashley Bedded Sex Txt Girl” and “Ashley Cole Beaten Up By Playboy Bunny”—that sells papers.
“In a way, yes. But then that kind of takes my personality away,” Cole said when asked if there was anything he could’ve done differently to alter his relationship with the media. “I never really spoke to the press. I wouldn’t change that to be some kind of golden child. I’m kind of straight [about it]. If I don’t like you—if I don’t want to speak with you—I don’t want to do an interview. It’s just how I am. I don’t really like seeing myself on TV doing interviews. I don’t like speaking. I hate seeing myself in the newspaper. This is the reason why. But then they always say I’m arrogant.”
Cole continued, “I don’t like to speak. I like to keep myself to myself—quiet. Of course when you get into a marriage with someone that’s famous, everyone says that comes with it. Maybe I’m naive to it. But I just didn’t expect that kind of attention.”
He told a story about donating a car to a charitable foundation honoring the late David Rocastle, a former Arsenal midfielder who was an idol of Cole’s. The club’s press office told Cole that if he spoke publicly about his donation, the car would sell for more money.
“I just wanted to give the car away. ‘Do what you want with it but make sure the money goes to the charity,’” Cole recalled. “In the end, I do the interview. And the press says I’m doing it for publicity. I can’t win. I didn’t want to do the interview in the first place! I just wanted to give them the car. This is the reason I don’t do interviews.”
Many people who move to Los Angeles do so in search of excitement and the spotlight.
Cole did it to fade away. He did it looking for some peace.
“I just wanted to play, to enjoy the football again,” he said. “I think that’s the main thing—enjoy it. Of course, to win. I still hate to lose at anything I do. But I think L.A., at the time, was perfect to kind of enjoy my football again.”
Cole left Chelsea in 2014. He’d been there eight years and won Champions League, Europa League and Premier League titles. He passed the 100-cap mark with England. But César Azpilicueta was nine years younger and it was time for Cole to move on. He’d never lived away from London and said he was “at an age where I needed to leave.”
AS Roma signed him to a two-year contract, but Cole and the club never really connected.
“Maybe I wasn’t fit enough. I wouldn’t say ready mentally, because I was ready. I don’t know. If I’m honest, I really don’t know what happened there,” he said. “Maybe it was a combination of everything.”
Cole had vacationed in L.A. and he knew and enjoyed the city. He’d been to Galaxy games, and he’d seen David Beckham and Robbie Keane sign with the club and then sign again.
“They loved it,” Cole said. Some games were played in severe heat, they warned, and the five-hour flights take some getting used to, now matter many warnings you get.
“But they said it’s a great situation here. It’s a great club. The football is good,” Cole said.
Naturally, a hasty and unfortunate comment followed him across the Atlantic even has he tried to leave other scandals behind. Cole still isn’t the best at self censoring. When signing with Roma, Cole said he rejected a Galaxy offer because he wasn’t “ready to relax on a beach yet.”
Americans know MLS isn’t the Premier League or Serie A. But they do want you to make an effort if you sign a contract and put on a jersey. When the Galaxy and Cole’s representatives reconnected, that quote and Cole’s intentions were the first topic discussed.
“The first thing we ask is, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ Once that conversation was had and speaking with Bruce [Arena, then LA’s head coach] and talking through it, it was very clear that if Ashley could come and do what he said he would do, it’s not a question for us,” Galaxy president Chris Klein said.
“Like anything else, he did say them,” Klein continued. “But he said [to us], ‘Just let me show you. Let me come to L.A. and I’ll show you what I can do.’ We were clear with him up front. We didn’t have a DP spot. We didn’t have that money to commit to him. He just said, ‘Look, that’s not my motivation. My motivation is to play the game I love.’
“And for all the criticism he gets that goes counter to that, he shows up every day and proves and shows us what he’s about. He’s been fantastic in our locker room. Watching him train, I think that’s when you see it. He’s like a 19-year-old kid. He’s putting gloves on and going in goal. He’s doing bicycle kicks. It’s pretty incredible, that approach, from somebody as accomplished as he is.”
Cole’s March 2016 tweet said it all. He’d been in town for just a couple months but already could feel the difference. And according to The Independent, Cashley was “Only Getting Getting Paid £4,000-a-week at LA Galaxy.”
Cole took his place at left back for an evolving Galaxy squad. Omar Gonzalez and Juninho were the first to depart. Steven Gerrard was fading, while Keane and next-generation Galactico Giovani dos Santos never really clicked. LA went out to the Rapids in last year’s quarterfinals. Then Keane and Gerrard left MLS, Jeff Larentowicz and A.J. DeLaGarza left the club and Mike Magee and Dan Kennedy retired. And the entire coaching staff, led by Arena, moved across the StubHub Center hall to take over the U.S. national team.
There’s a new coach, Curt Onalfo, and a younger roster now wearing Galaxy white. It puts Cole in position to be even more of a mentor, which is interesting for a player so often criticized as a poor example. The Cole who teammates work with, however, is different from the man the public knows. That fact is something that has strengthened the player during difficult times.
“Maybe not every player is going to like me, but if they said I don’t train hard or I am this guy that everyone says, then I have to look at myself. But I know this is not the case,” he said. “It’s only the people on the outside that have seen me once in a blue moon.”
Wayne Rooney once said he’d “take a bullet” for Cole. It’s unlikely Dan Steres would go to such lengths, but the second-year LA center back said he was impressed by Cole’s commitment to the club and his enjoyment of the game.
“The rumors and headlines when he was coming here, a lot of that was being talked about and I think when he got here people were all over him for [the beach comment]. You weren’t really sure what to expect,” Steres said. “I knew he was coming over to escape some of that stuff and he just wanted to play again, and it was interesting to see.”
Cole won’t inject himself into a player’s career or assign himself as a mentor. That’s the reticence he mentioned. But Steres said the veteran “is constantly a presence in the locker room and someone I’m pretty sure every guy there looks up to. If he has something to say, we wait to see what it is.”
Steres, Cole, LA captain Jelle Van Damme and Galaxy II graduate Dave Romney are a frequent golfing foursome. The defenders often play at El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach. There’s something fitting about Cole, once the best and most scrutinized left back in the world, playing on a public course with a couple teammates whose combined annual salaries equal what Cole used to earn in 2-3 weeks. By coming to L.A., where most look for glitz, he’s simplified his life.
He said he plays for the love of the game and the pure rush of competition, and he revels in those moments when his 36-year-old legs move as fast as his brain. Cole isn’t dominant but he’s still quite good, and those moments aren’t yet too few and far between. He has a more normal personal life in a place where it can be close to normal. Cole and his girlfriend, Sharon, have a 16-month-old son, Jackson, and live up near Hollywood. Cole said he enjoys the peace, quiet and domesticity.
“For sure, if I lived in England, 100% someone would be taking a picture,” he said. “No one knows who I am here. I can walk down the street with my son.”
The American press doesn’t follow him to dinner. They don’t care where he goes after games or who he’s with. And fans are forgiving. So, he said the thing about the beach. If he plays well and helps the Galaxy win, everybody will move on. And they pretty much have.
“I think people judge me more off the field," Cole said. "People talk about what I did in my private life more than if I’m good at football. ‘Oh yeah, he was good, but I don’t like him because of this.’ But you don’t know me! Know me as a footballer. O.K., sometimes I’m a d*ck on the pitch. But it’s just fear of losing. I want to win. I think what was kind of the most frustrating thing going through my career was that people were judging me for things they know nothing about.”
American sports culture, even in far more popular leagues, isn’t as venomous or destructive as what Cole experienced at home. He learned last year that reporters in the U.S. typically want to talk about the game, the team and what happened on the field. If they ask for Cole before training or flock to his locker following a match, it’s because they value his opinion and the cache that comes with “Ashley Cole said,” after a quote. Nobody’s looking for a flaw or flub to pounce on.
He’s become increasingly comfortable helping LA out with marketing, sponsors and publicity. Again, he doesn’t seek it out. But he rarely declines, and he’s been a good sport about working with local media and sponsors or suiting up to play against 25 10-year-olds. Interview requests from abroad—not just England—still come in relatively frequently. He agrees now and then, but for the most part Cole prefers to keep his focus closer to his new home.
There, he’s largely remained “under the radar,” Klein said. Cole is among the most decorated players in MLS history. But even by American soccer standards, he isn’t a frequent topic or target. He’s not the face of his league or club and has been, for the first time in his career, allowed to simply go about his business.
Cole can't change who he is. He didn’t when it might have served him well in England so it’s not going to happen now. If he feels like responding to a fan talking trash on Twitter, he will. This one made waves back in the UK last month:
There's an edge to Cole and a lot of pride. He’s not going to watch every step or word and he’s going to continue to live the way he was brought up in the East End: “We don’t give a f*** about anything,” he said. “Just enjoy your life.”
Cole simply decided to go somewhere he had a chance to do that.
“Most people here don’t recognize him or wouldn’t know him, and the ones who do most likely have a good view or are just happy to meet him,” Steres said of his teammate. “He’s very proud to be a dad, and you can tell he’s changed a little bit since then and that brings the most joy to him.
“But I was most surprised about how much he just wants to get out and play. He’s out on the field all day just shooting. He’s just happy to be out there. I think that’s something he enjoys after all he’s been through.”