Manager and left-back are looking forward to working together again after their partnership was short-lived first time around
It had taken almost two weeks of schlepping around east Asia in stifling humidity, or alternatively a mere half-century of nights since his reappointment as Chelsea's manager, but at last José Mourinho and a senior member of his playing staff were openly at odds. Not that any rivals craving a political fall-out along Iker Casillas lines should be licking their lips just yet. Ashley Cole and the Portuguese did contradict each other wildly within moments on Tuesday, but each was driven by a mutual admiration for the other. There was no discord to be seen here.
Cole was making a rare media appearance at a media event, hundreds of local reporters cramming into Ballroom B of Jakarta's Hyatt hotel for Chelsea's welcome press conference for Thursday's game against an Indonesian All Stars XI. The 32-year-old sat alongside the recently reinstated manager and, in an overly self-critical assessment of the only full season he has played under Mourinho, claimed he was in debt to the man on his right. "I still feel I owe him something," he said. "I didn't play as well as I could back then, and as well as I have for Chelsea since. I owe him a lot, personally."
Mourinho merely stared into the middle-distance while his player spoke, reserving his own assessment of one of Chelsea's most decorated performers for once he had departed the top table and had retreated to a kitchen area backstage. "He owes me nothing, he owes me nothing," he offered. "He gave me everything when I was here, so he owes me nothing. He came to Chelsea not to work for me but to work for Chelsea, and he has done that for many years.
"He has always been the first choice of every manager, and they have had a lot of them: for me, for [Luiz Felipe] Scolari, [Carlo] Ancelotti, [André] Villas-Boas. That shows it was a fantastic deal Chelsea did when we bought him from Arsenal. I'm happy that, after all the problems we had at that time – because things were not done in the best way – at the end of the day Chelsea got trophies and he has been a fantastic player."
That was a reference to the illegal approach over tea and biscuits at the Royal Park hotel back in the January of 2005, when the Premier League ruled Chelsea, Cole and Mourinho were guilty of breaching tapping-up rules and ended up delivering fines totalling £450,000 to the club, player and manager. It would be 18 months until the full-back actually moved across the capital for £5m plus William Gallas – in hindsight, a staggering deal – but, while that is old history, there was something pertinent about the defender's rare appearance in Jakarta.
Cole is the last high-profile England international to have been prised away from a fellow contender by Mourinho. The Chelsea manager is attempting to do the same now with Wayne Rooney from Manchester United. Questions about the striker are strictly off limits at present, agreement having been struck privately between the clubs not to comment, so there was no mention of his close friend within the England set-up at the showpiece event.
The closest insight stemmed from a query as to whether it would ever be possible to turn down a manager like Mourinho. "Some have," muttered the Portuguese with a smile while Cole conjured a diplomatic response. "For me, of course I jumped at the chance," he said. "He's a great manager. He's proved how good he is with the number of trophies he's won with different teams. He's great at motivating players and keeping you on your toes, doing what you should be doing. For me, if he wanted me to come to Chelsea, it would be one thought in my mind [because] to come here to be under such a great manager is an honour."
The sense of respect is mutual. Cole won both domestic cup competitions under Mourinho in 2006-07, and has claimed a Premier League, a Champions League, a Europa League and three further FA Cups in the years since they parted. The one-year contract extension signed in January, when Mourinho's Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain were sniffing at his potential availability on a Bosman free transfer, has offered Cole a chance to target another league title. Naturally, Mourinho considers him first choice, a senior player upon whom he can count. Indeed, he relishes renewing their relationship.
"He was not my player for a long time, and was only with me for a year and a few months, but he is the kind of player you are always wishing can be yours again," said the manager. "The guy now is over 30, but the way he trains, the way he plays, the birth certificate means nothing. He is the best in England – no doubt he will always go to the national team – and he is also one of the best in the world. I trust him a lot because, defensively, he is one of the best. With the ball he goes forward and creates goals for the other guys, so I think he is a very complete left-back.
"I do know him and I know he is a great boy and a great professional. With me I don't remember one single action that made the manager feel that he wasn't that professional. He always worked hard and was always committed. He is never late, always gives his maximum in training and matches. He is always a group man. If, now and again, he's not a first choice, I've never heard anybody say his behaviour changed. He's very humble, very polite, so to be fair I only know him in this way. He is a perfect player."
The fact Cole's defection from Arsenal to Chelsea was so controversial, and left an enmity between the clubs that rather dominated Mourinho's first spell in London, might go some way towards explaining why the player feels he owes his manager.
There was a trademark goalline clearance to enjoy against Malaysia on Sunday, a reminder that the defender's instincts remain as sharp as ever, even at 32. The manager may not be inheriting a performer in his pomp, but Cole still clearly has so much to offer.