Ashley Cole is supposed to be misunderstood though, judging by the testimonies offered up as a landmark beckons, he is actually anything but the enigma he can appear from the outside looking in. Glen Johnson described him as "one of the nicest guys you could ever meet", Martin Keown as "a lovely fella and a special player" while Stuart Pearce gushed he was the best left-back to have played for England "by a country mile", which means plenty coming from him.
For someone apparently so unloved, Cole seems cherished by management, staff and team-mates which, ahead of the celebration of his 100th cap, rather redresses the balance. The 32-year-old will reach that century against Brazil on Wednesday and the hope is the Wembley crowd, unforgiving at times over a 12-year international career, will celebrate England's finest left-back with gusto. For all the mishaps, many self-inflicted, to have pockmarked his spell in the spotlight, the accolades for his impact as a footballer are utterly justified.
As a player, he is a phenomenon: as capable and canny in his defending as he is eager and thrilling when galloping forward in support of his attack. He reads a game shrewdly, his ability to anticipate epitomised by those trademark goalline clearances on which club and country have come to rely. Chelsea might have been eliminated by Napoli in the knockout phase of the Champions League last season had he not scrambled Christian Maggio's effort away from under his own crossbar.
No other English player has demonstrated that defensive knack of being in the right place at the right time so consistently. If he is exposed it is usually because the player ahead of him – whether it is Eden Hazard or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – has taken his class for granted and presumed Cole can prevail alone against marauding opponents. Even so, he is still rarely skinned on the flank.
His England career, which began so inauspiciously when he was struck in the eye by a metal lipstick case flung from the stand in Tirana – the Albanian FA was subsequently fined £2,000 – has been a prolonged exercise in excellence even if it has not delivered the glittering trophies of his club employment. He has been first choice since September 2001, played in three World Cups and two European Championships, and was his country's player of the year in 2010. He played in Munich in 2001 and Sapporo in 2002. The captain, Steven Gerrard, still salivates over his nullifying of Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2004. "He had him in his pocket," he said. "There aren't too many defenders who can say they've ever done that."
Leighton Baines now provides a challenge, and a potent delivery from set pieces the older man cannot match but Cole offers the greater reassurance at the back born of sheer weight of experience. It is remarkable to contemplate he has started all of his 99 caps. None of them are cheap cameos. "When Ash first broke into Arsenal's first team people questioned his defending but for the last eight or 10 years, people haven't questioned it again," Pearce said. "People don't realise how dedicated he is but you see it when you're on the inside in a squad. With anyone who wins 100 caps, the dedication and selflessness required take some doing."
The professionalism in training has been a constant. It was drummed in at the Arsenal academy and noted by Steve Coppell at Crystal Palace where Cole's senior career effectively began on loan in early 2000. The Championship side had been in administration for more than a year, with the teenager charged with marking Grimsby's Kevin Donovan on his first start in a 1-0 defeat at Blundell Park, yet he was a breath of fresh air in a club that was suffocating. He grew up in that three-month stint and returned to Arsenal expecting to feature. Keown, who played alongside him on his top-flight debut, noted: "He was a sponge around the senior players and a quick learner."
Cole felt he belonged and ensured he made the right impression. His ability on the ball made him a key component of Arsène Wenger's "Invincibles". At Chelsea, where his ankles require ice treatment after every run-out, they marvel at his attitude to the day job. At least one senior member of the club's hierarchy rates him as his favourite player and there was relief when he signed a contract extension last month which, if his form and fitness are maintained, will surely be prolonged again in the future.
He has won everything at club level, the full house completed in Munich last year with a European Cup that was more satisfying after two near-misses than any of his record seven FA Cups or three Premier League titles. All of which should have established him as a great had all the off-field issues not clouded opinion: the instances of bafflingly poor judgment which, rightly or wrongly, have made him unloved. Certainly, the nature of his move to Chelsea means that one of Arsenal's greatest homegrown talents will never be celebrated anywhere in north London, the divorce made even more acrimonious by those "I nearly swerved off the road in shock" comments in his autobiography as he recalled a meagre £2.8m-a-year contract offer to remain at his first club. Others have been insulted by deals proposed by the Arsenal board. Not many have made their fury quite so public.
His image also suffered from the disintegration of his marriage to Cheryl Tweedy. There was the incident when he turned his back on Mike Riley as he was booked in a derby at Tottenham Hotspur in 2008, an ugly episode that sparked the Football Association's "Respect" campaign. Throw in the classic tale from behind closed doors at Cobham – if incidents with smoke bombs and workmen's knives at Chelsea's training ground hinted at anarchy, then it is the image of Cole accidentally shooting a work experience student with an air rifle that endures – and it is easy to see why the full-back will never be considered a role model. In truth, he never asked to be one. It just comes with the territory when your ability establishes you as a footballing icon.
Chelsea argue the pot shot in the dressing room was exceptional – thankfully – and that Cole is anything but trouble. They are confident he is still more likely to inspire the youngsters in the club's academy rather than shoot them, and they were shocked by his infamous #bunchoftwats tweet in the wake of an independent disciplinary commission's ruling on the John Terry affair. Raw emotion did not make it excusable but the apology, delivered personally to the FA chairman, David Bernstein, was swift and Chelsea did not feel it necessary to persuade him off the social media site. Twitter, after all, is the only window into Cole's life given he no longer speaks to the media.
Team-mates have him down as shy and, as Johnson insisted, "down to earth". "Perception is quite dangerous because you don't know the individual," Pearce said. "For me, it's all about what he does on the pitch." And, in that respect, he has rarely been anything other than outstanding. Wednesday should be a celebration of his positive impact, even if Cole may only truly be appreciated when he has gone. England have rarely seen his like.