Ashley Cole’s self-serving memoir: there’s no defence

Chelsea's new boy should know the score: bitching in a book about your old club will only make you look bad.

Ed Barrett

Topics Politics

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Footballers’ autobiographies do not enjoy a lofty status in the literary world. Strictly speaking, they should be referred to as biographies, or ‘autobiographies’ at the very least, since they are seldom penned – or even read – by the men whose faces adorn the covers.

This is not, as cynics might suggest, because footballers can’t read, but because the average ex-pro prefers an afternoon’s golf to the pleasures of flicking through old tales of pre-season jollies, dressing-room banter and quarter-final shootouts.

So who does read them? Die-hard fans of the various teams for whom the ex-pros have ‘turned out’, that’s who. Which is why a front cover picturing the player on international duty is a good way to avoid alienating potential purchasers who might be put off by the ‘wrong’ club colours. As for the contents, we all know what to expect, and we rarely complain. We might wish that the section on the Peterborough United years had been allocated more than four pages, but hey, as Tony Blair would say, that’s football. By and large, we are happy to immerse ourselves in a warm team-bath of magical memories and gentle joshing.

There are honourable exceptions. Some characters are big enough to command interest beyond the normal constituency: George Best, Roy Keane, Alex Ferguson. Some are interesting and amusing personalities, or write honest memoirs that give a real insight into the game. Eamon Dunphy, Gary Nelson, Steve Claridge, Alan Hudson, Tony Cascarino and Mick Quinn are all worth reading. Not forgetting the great Jimmy Greaves, whose This One’s On Me showed the saloon bar door to Tony Adams when the future ‘addict’ was still suckling on a Tizer bottle. (Opening chapter: Jimmy rummaging through his dustbin and sinking to his knees while draining the last drops from discarded vodka bottles.)

Now, with the publication (and serialisation) of Ashley Cole’s new book, we are entering a whole new ball game. Cole’s memoir is somewhat premature by traditional autobiographical standards, coming as it does in his mid-twenties, although it is not the most premature ever. That honour surely rests with Chris Kelly, aka ‘The Leatherhead Lip’, whose FA Cup exploits for the non-league side earned him a swift transfer to the world of big-time Charlies (Millwall). His autobiography and professional career were both finished within months.

Cole, on the other hand, has no reason to rush his story to market. His golden days at Crystal Palace and Arsenal may be over, but an even more glittering career at Chelsea surely awaits. The somewhat ‘early doors’ timing is explained by the fact that Cole’s book has little to do with donning the pipe and slippers and reflecting on a life well lived. Instead, it has been written with the sole intention of taking revenge on Arsenal Football Club in general and vice-chairman David Dein in particular.

Of course, there’s nothing new about players using books to settle scores and cast themselves in the best possible light. But Cole’s book takes the self-serving memoir to a new level. The detailed account of his falling-out with Dein is typical of an age in which relationships are played out in public, and celebrities ‘owe it to themselves’ to put ‘their side of the story’ as a matter of public record. This overweening self-importance is perfectly captured in the portentous title of Cole’s book: My Defence.

In his defence, it should be said that Cole does appear to have a genuine grievance about the way he was treated (or ‘betrayed by the club I loved’, as he would have it). And his opinions about Arsenal’s recent decline are not unreasonable. Occasionally he even puts his bitterness aside and recalls the good times. (The Old Trafford ‘pizza incident’ is recounted in enjoyable detail, with the Arsenal team in stitches and United players desperately trying to keep straight faces as Fergie’s cheese-splattered visage runs through the entire pantone chart in a matter of seconds.) When he’s not moaning it’s not a bad read. The problem with Cole’s book is not the truth or otherwise of its contents, but the very fact that it exists.

Washing dirty linen in public is never edifying, and this is a particularly pointless and demeaning example. Cole is not a washed-up veteran who needs to take the publisher’s shilling. He is young and successful. He is paid a fortune to play the game he loves. He is newly married and happy to be so. Why, precisely, are we supposed to feel sorry for him?

Cole initially fell out with Dein over pay – he raged that Arsenal were “taking the piss” by offering to pay him a mere £55,000 per week, rather than the £60,000 he thought had been agreed. He insists that this wasn’t because of the money per se, but because he regarded Dein’s offer as an insult and a sign that Arsenal didn’t care if he stayed or went. His motive for publishing this book is not to boost his bank balance, but to clear his name. In doing so, however, he can only make things worse.

Cole feels that Arsenal fans unfairly blame him for things that weren’t his fault. If so, this book won’t endear him to them, and he can hardly expect a warm reception when he appears in blue at the Emirates Stadium. Likewise, while his criticisms of Arsenal players certainly ring true, they come across as sneaky rather than outspoken.

The irony is that by trying to prove to Arsenal fans that he was not a troublemaker or a Judas, he has made sure that this is exactly how they will regard him. And his problems won’t stop with Arsenal. In the wider football world he will be seen as having broken the dressing room omertà, which is unlikely to win him any friends. Indeed, Cole may have carved out a new niche position for himself – the ‘whinge back’.

Cole’s advisers should have told him to keep his mouth shut and put the whole thing down to experience. He admits to being a player about whom the public knows very little. Now they will know all about him, and they will know him as a whinger and, worse still, a back-stabber who has turned on his old team-mates.

‘My heart and soul was tied to Arsenal with a fisherman’s knot,’ he claims at one point. ‘I don’t think even Houdini could have unravelled it.’ This impressively esoteric metaphor deserves a further twist. Football books are generally regarded as money for old rope, and Cole has performed a feat that even Houdini never managed. With the eyes of the world upon him, he has undone the fisherman’s knot, taken the old rope and hanged himself with it.

Thought for the day: Apart from acquiring a celebrity girlfriend, a PR guru and a scrotum-wax, what exactly does Andy Johnson need to do to get into the England side?

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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