England's manager, Roy Hodgson, is in a no-win situation off the pitch as his squad prepare for World Cup qualifiers
This week was supposed to be all about the positives for Roy Hodgson. The Football Association will formally open St George's Parkon Tuesday, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge cutting the ribbon at English football's sparkling new home, with the national team expecting to run up a cricket score back in the capital on Friday night when San Marino, the joint lowest ranked international side in the world, visit a sold-out Wembley. It was a week to be upbeat in preparation for the tricky trip to Poland to come. That now feels like wishful thinking.
Instead Hodgson has another political minefield to negotiate. Confirmation that Ashley Cole has been charged with misconduct after describing the FA as a "bunch of twats" on Twitter was delivered on the governing body's own feed on the social media platform early on Monday afternoon, the FA's governance department having decided, predictably, there was a clear case to answer for last week's outburst. The sanction for the off-field offence will be a fine – hefty by most people's standards, if not necessarily for a footballer earning £120,000 a week – with the FA likely to take into account the fact Cole has already deleted and publicly apologised for the offensive remark. He has until Thursday to respond to the charge but it is what the England manager does a little over 24 hours later that will draw the focus.
Not for the first time in his short tenure in charge Hodgson finds himself in a no-win situation. There was always a logic behind resting Cole against San Marino. The visitors have lost 108 of their 114 internationals, shipping 473 goals en route and managing only 19 themselves, and are expected to wilt again at Wembley. Rather more daunting is next Tuesday's trip to Poland where, even if the hosts will be without their impressive captain Jakub Blaszczykowski, the English will certainly be challenged. That is an occasion where Cole may be needed, even if his normal deputy Leighton Baines' own form this season has been consistently excellent.
Yet the Chelsea player has long been saddled with ankle problems, the joint flaring up after matches and hampering his ability to train as normal. He missed last month's qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine after suffering a knock to his ankle late in his club side's European champions' Super Cup defeat by Atletico Madrid. It is his Achilles heel. Purely in that context, why would Cole be risked against a team ranked 53rd out of 53 in Europe when the sterner test is still to come? The manager had already recognised that reality and had been considering his options, his coach Gary Neville revealing as much when he described the San Marino fixture as "a chance to give some the opportunity to play in a game and to play well".
The problem is will anyone now believe resting the 31-year-old against the team from the tiny republic in north-eastern Italy is anything but a form of sanction for his misdemeanour? Even if the management protest to the contrary, it would simply be too easy to interpret his omission as a public dressing-down, effectively a tacit one-match ban imposed for an offence committed, as he has claimed, "in the heat of the moment" as he caught a glimpse of his name on the yellow ticker on Sky Sports News while undergoing a post-training rub-down in one of the treatment rooms at Cobham. The independent regulatory commission's report into the John Terry affair was always likely to be damning of the Chelsea captain but its criticisms of Cole and the evolution of his own evidence on the matter was unexpected.
So if, instead, Hodgson chooses to grant his full-back a 99th cap on Friday, how then would the scenario play out? The potential for injury, or a swelling in his joint, is already established but the other great unknown will be the reaction to his inclusion from the capacity crowd at the national stadium. Cole has been booed before, even if his standing has improved dramatically in recent seasons as excellent form on the pitch has been recognised and appreciated off it. But, on Friday, that mood may have shifted again and, furthermore, there is the prospect of a pre-match handshake – enough to prompt familiar groans of dismay – with David Bernstein, the chairman of the body so derided by Cole in his tweet, and other dignitaries at the game. That, in itself, feels like a potentially toe-curling meet and greet.
There is an argument, of course, that the FA could take the whole situation out of the manager's hands and merely indicate it does not want Cole involved against San Marino – an omission that would remind all of their responsibilities when it comes to social media and reflect the gravity of the conclusions laid down by the regulatory commission. Yet this is an organisation that has been at pains to make a distinction between disciplinary matters and the England team, an issue the general secretary, Alex Horne, flagged when Terry retired from international football last month. Effectively banning a player would blur those lines and the FA is not inclined to go down that route. Instead this will end up being Hodgson's choice. The politics of his position remain agonising.