Despite his off-field persona, the left-back should make it to 99 caps on Tuesday and every one has been thoroughly deserved
Ashley Cole is set to return to the England team tomorrow for his 99th cap, and though his rashness in pressing the send button on his mobile has delayed his entry into the exclusive club of national team centurions, there is little doubt the 100th will arrive in one of the upcoming friendlies – against Sweden or Brazil.
Once Cole gets to the 100 mark there are only five players ahead of him in terms of England appearances and at 31, in good form, he should soon be able to catch Billy Wright (105), Bobby Charlton (106) and Bobby Moore (108). While Leighton Baines is playing particularly well for Everton at the moment and has proved himself a reliable deputy for Cole at international level, there seems no immediate need for an overhaul at left-back, and as long as the Chelsea player's ankles stand up to the rigours of playing for club and country he is not too old to be considered a probable for the 2014 World Cup.
Chelsea might be trying to break up the old boys' network at the club, but Roy Hodgson has been talking enthusiastically about welcoming back Frank Lampard, and the midfielder is three years older than Cole. Steven Gerrard should also win his 99th cap, and Hodgson's captain, a year older than Cole, is considered a certainty to still be involved when the World Cup in Brazil comes around, so on age grounds alone there are no reasons for calling time on Cole's international career. He did miss matches after leaving Arsenal for Chelsea through knee and ankle problems, and has to receive ice treatment immediately after each game to allow him to recover for the next, yet his form and recent appearance record suggest he is managing the situation.
Should Cole play on for England until 2014 he will have David Beckham's outfield record of 115 caps in his sights, and he may even end up with a total approaching Peter Shilton's 125, as in fact could Gerrard. By any standards those would be phenomenal achievements – just joining the century club is a remarkable enough feat only achieved by iconic players – though whether the nation would feel like celebrating Cole's elevation to the list of England greats is a moot point.
He has never been the most popular of players, in fact he has at times been the most unpopular of players and has heard the Wembley boos to prove it, and that was before his Twitter drollery went global when the FA's commission cast doubt on the reliability of his evidence in the John Terry case.
You wouldn't catch Bobby Charlton or Billy Wright making remarks like that when they were still playing, or nearly swerving off the road at being offered a mere £55,000 a week, or turning their back on a referee who was booking him, or any of the other indiscretions that have pockmarked Cole's career and personal life.
Generally speaking we want our greatest footballers to be role models to the youngsters that will follow them, not to take pots shots at one with an airgun at the training ground. That's why few begrudged Beckham his century of caps, even if the final total was eked out with cameo appearances as substitute. As a model of how footballers should behave, Beckham was blameless. Cole is just the opposite, yet his century, when it arrives, will be a true one, fully earned and wholly deserved. Cole has not inflated his total by coming on for the last 10 minutes as substitute, nor has he ever been picked because his position as team captain demanded selection when his form did not. Fourteen of Beckham's caps were earned as a substitute. Every one of Cole's 98 has been as a starter.
All of them have also been earned by virtue of being the best left-back in the country, and not even Baines would try to argue otherwise. The Cole club career is remarkable too. Winning the European Cup in Munich in May gave him a complete set of medals, as well as the satisfaction of tasting victory in the competition after twice finishing on the losing side in finals. Cole won league titles with Arsenal and Chelsea and his total of seven FA Cup wins is a record, and he also played an integral part in the "Invincible" Arsenal team that went through the 2003-04 season unbeaten.
If Chelsea are unwilling to offer players over the age of 30 more than a one-year contract his time at Stamford Bridge may be coming to an end, though with both Manchester clubs, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain said to be interested there is no reason to suppose Cole's playing days or association with success are about to draw to a close. If he does leave Chelsea he seems certain to join another high-profile club and such a move would prolong his England career rather than shorten it, unless he reaches the point, as players in their 30s often do, where he has to cut the number of games he plays in order to be able to play at all.
At the moment, ankles permitting, he is not at that point. Baines has through necessity played a patient waiting game. He might have a while longer to wait yet. Though Cole will never be regarded as a role model, as a footballer he has few peers.