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In a rare and candid interview, Chelsea coach Ashley Cole opens up on his pantomime villain persona

It’s 9am and the kettle is boiling in Jamie Redknapp’s kitchen because a visitor has just arrived. In walks Ashley Cole, the former Arsenal and Chelsea left back and now youth coach under Frank Lampard.

Cole is here to conduct a rare newspaper interview — his first since retiring after a career which yielded three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Champions League, a Europa League and 107 England caps. Cristiano Ronaldo naming Cole as his toughest-ever opponent almost deserves a trophy in itself.

Many readers might have a preconceived perception of this 39-year-old. ‘A devil, a cheater, a bad guy,’ says Cole, dressed in his blue Chelsea tracksuit and as trim as ever. He is slightly nervous but ready to discuss his past and the person he is now.

Former Arsenal and Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole being interviewed by Jamie Redknapp

Former Arsenal and Chelsea left-back Ashley Cole being interviewed by Jamie Redknapp

Sportsmail's Redknapp (left) speaks to now coach Cole (right) at Redknapp's home in London

Sportsmail’s Redknapp (left) speaks to now coach Cole (right) at Redknapp’s home in London

Redknapp and Cole pose for a photo as they talk about Cole's career and his future prospects

Redknapp and Cole pose for a photo as they talk about Cole’s career and his future prospects

As Sportsmail discovered during a morning in his company, there is much more to this ex-England player than the ‘Cashley’ caricature.

Kieran Gill listened in.

REDKNAPP: I remember being introduced to you for the first time. I was thinking, ‘I bet he’s a right little rascal, this Ashley Cole. I’m not going to like him.’ I walked away amazed.

COLE: Headlines and stories provoke a mindset and perception of people. In all honesty, it changed me. I used to be a shy kid — quiet, polite. I would help Arsenal’s kit man, Vic Akers. If players left their kit on the floor, I’d pick it up and put it in the washing bin. It took me a few seconds and showed respect. But the newspapers perceived me as this devil. I got defensive. I wanted to protect myself. I said: ‘No one cares about me. No one is coming in my circle.’

REDKNAPP: We possibly made it harder for ourselves by marrying popstars. It ups the pressure.

COLE: You don’t want to be with a girl because she’s a popstar. You want to be with her because you like her company. You like being with her. When you’re a footballer, everyone says you’re supposed to be a role model. I was a kid! You want me to be a role model? I don’t understand life!

Did I make mistakes when I was younger? Of course, but I understand that now. I understand the world and right from wrong. I’ve lived through life — the good, the bad, the ugly, the unbelievable.

REDKNAPP: Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood, for example. At first I’m asking: ‘What on earth were they thinking?’ Then I remember I was almost thrown out of England’s Euro 1996 squad, at 22, for visiting Faces nightclub with Sol Campbell and Teddy Sheringham. Kids make mistakes.

COLE: It would be easy to blame tabloids. But at the end of the day, it’s the people reading it, making up their minds without understanding he’s a kid. They bring money into it: ‘He’s on £20,000 a week.’ He’s still a baby. This world has no empathy. Go back in your own brain and remember the million mistakes you made. We’re so unforgiving.

REDKNAPP: It was great when you came on A League Of Their Own with us. Jack Whitehall — an Arsenal fan — was ripping into you, flashing fake cash at you, but you laughed it off.

COLE: You have to laugh, like with that Roma team picture or when Ronaldo made me do the splits on the pitch. But I did get defensive and go into my shell for a while.

Asked whether he has ever talked about this next topic, Cole answers: ‘Only in court.’ In 2005, while an Arsenal player, the full back was fined £100,000 — later reduced to £75,000 on appeal — for allegedly meeting Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho and chief executive Peter Kenyon at a London hotel. Cole denied being tapped up by Arsenal’s rivals but has never told his side of the story. Fifteen years on, here it is…

COLE: My contract was running out at Arsenal. I went to speak to an agent who represented Spanish clubs. My intention was not to stay in England — I wanted to sign for Barcelona or Real Madrid. So I went to a meeting. I didn’t hide. I didn’t hire a private room. It was a meeting room in a hotel, and the meeting before was Jose and Kenyon meeting an agent about another player. I walked in. Then someone serving sandwiches came in and, wanting to make money, said there were contracts on the table. It was lies. There was no conversation with Chelsea.

Cole as an Arsenal player with the Premier League (left) and FA Cup trophy (right) in 2002

Cole as an Arsenal player with the Premier League (left) and FA Cup trophy (right) in 2002

Former defender Cole celebrates winning the FA Cup in 2010 with his Chelsea team-mates

Former defender Cole celebrates winning the FA Cup in 2010 with his Chelsea team-mates

REDKNAPP: Tapping up does happen in football, though. When I was at Liverpool, I had a call from Arsenal. Because I was from London, they thought I might want to come back. If I wasn’t happy at Liverpool, I wouldn’t have thought twice about meeting Bruce Rioch if they’d asked. I’d want to hear what my potential new manager’s plans might be for me. But it came out in the media that you apparently met Chelsea behind Arsenal’s back.

COLE: They said I was cheating on Arsenal. I’ve been caught in a ‘secret meeting’ which wasn’t that at all. It sold papers and painted me in a bad light with the fans. They had signs that said I was a ‘traitor’ when I hadn’t done anything wrong. I talked to David Dein and Arsene Wenger. ‘No Ashley, this is not right, you can’t do this…’ That fuelled more anger in me.

REDKNAPP: That was in 2005. You obviously stayed at Arsenal for another season after signing a one-year extension. Then you signed for Chelsea in 2006. How did that happen after all this?

Singer Cheryl Tweedy of Girls Aloud and Cole were dating in 2006 but later separated

Singer Cheryl Tweedy of Girls Aloud and Cole were dating in 2006 but later separated

COLE: A year later, I was married, I’d moved into a new house. My agent called and said: ‘Chelsea have come in for you.’ I’d agreed with Arsenal I could go for £5million to anyone. Then Newcastle called me: ‘Hey! Thank you! It’ll be great to have you with us!’ I was like: ‘What? Where have you heard that?’ They said they’d agreed a deal with Arsenal. OK, £5m, fair enough, we had an agreement. Then when Chelsea came in, it was: ‘No, £30m.’

REDKNAPP: What was the eventual fee?

COLE: I went for £5m — with William Gallas going the other way. Transfer deadline day, I’m away with England, about to do a medical. My agent calls: ‘Deal’s off. They want Gallas.’ I’m asking: ‘Well how’s that going to work?’ It’s nearly 12am, I’m late for my medical. Apparently everything is agreed but Chelsea have just got to let him go. Surely Arsenal have had a conversation with Gallas then? But wait, that would be tapping up! That got me angry.

REDKNAPP: The deal managed to get done in time, though.

COLE: I was excited to go to Chelsea and start again. I watched them and the players would be hugging and together after wins. I wanted to be a part of that and to further my career.

Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden (right) brought two Icelandic girls back to their team hotel

Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden (right) brought two Icelandic girls back to their team hotel 

One clip of Cole from November 2006 at Old Trafford shows the then-Chelsea player committing a heavy — but fair — challenge on Ronaldo. The Manchester United forward responds by signalling to be substituted. Cole responds by motioning to his pocket, as if to say that’s where he’s kept Ronaldo. Long before he became one of the game’s greatest left backs, however, his Arsenal debut came at the age of 18 in Middlesbrough. It was his upbringing, along with Tony Adams and Sportsmail’s own Martin Keown, which saw him develop a ‘never say die’ mentality.

REDKNAPP: I remember one game in particular. Arsenal v Tottenham at Highbury. Simon Davies is sent off, there’s a melee, I’m telling you to ‘f*** off’ and you’re telling me to ‘f*** off’ back!

COLE: I was a rat on the pitch! But that was the players I was with. Keown set the tone. It was all about togetherness. If one of us was having a fight, we’d all be having one. Where I grew up wasn’t great, with a single mum looking after two kids. My mum worked hard to give us what she could. You had to fight your way through life. I carried that personality on to the pitch.

Cole was fined £75,000 for allegedly meeting Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in 2005

Cole was fined £75,000 for allegedly meeting Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in 2005

REDKNAPP: I’m going to put you on the spot. The Invincibles versus the best Chelsea team you played in — who wins?

COLE: (pauses for some time) On their day, the Invincibles. We were unpredictable. We didn’t have a game plan, and we never did patterns of play in training. It was all natural.

REDKNAPP: The attacking full back is fashionable now. You were doing this over a decade ago.

COLE: I had Robert Pires in front of me and he wasn’t going to track back, so I knew as quick as I run forward, I’ve got to run just as fast back. Whenever I did bomb on, I’d hear: ‘Ashleeeyyy.’ It was Adams. So I’d sprint back. I can’t jog back — it’s Tony Adams! My duty was to defend and I loved it. If you gave me an option between scoring a goal or clearing off the line, I’d clear off the line.

Cole ended up staying at Arsenal for another season before leaving to join Chelsea in 2006

Cole ended up staying at Arsenal for another season before leaving to join Chelsea in 2006

REDKNAPP: How did Mourinho’s Chelsea compare to Wenger’s Arsenal?

COLE: First Chelsea meeting, Jose has every player’s name written down and their details: height, whether they’re left or right footed… everything. Every player I’m up against, we’d go through video analysis. With Wenger, it was about trusting the players and learning by your own mistakes. With Jose, you can’t make mistakes or you won’t play. If you didn’t do your job, then the ruthlessness of Jose was: ‘Bye bye.’

The final appearance of Cole’s career came in the Championship play-off final for Lampard’s Derby, who lost to Aston Villa in May 2019. Now he coaches the Under 16s at Chelsea, where he has also been working with Reece James. Ben Chilwell is the latest full back to join, as part of a £200m-plus spending spree. One of Chilwell’s first acts was to text Cole.

COLE: He sent me a message: ‘Can you come round for a chat?’ Fine with me. ‘What’s life like at Chelsea? What are my expectations of him?’ I tried to give him an insight into the club, how he could improve the team, and what he needs to work on. I liked that he asked for that advice.

REDKNAPP: You played with Frank, then under him at Derby. Did you ever see him lose it?

COLE: I played under Wenger, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Guus Hiddink, Rafa Benitez, Avram Grant, and I’ve never seen a battering as bad as the one Frank gave out at Derby. Even my head went into my neck! Frank’s got that edge to him. I’ve seen it.

REDKNAPP: What’s the five-year plan for you? Coach? Pundit? Manager?

COLE: I wanted to be the best player I could. Now I’m trying to be the best coach. It is my plan to become a manager. I’m not the most articulate. I’m from east London. This is the way I speak. But doing TV has helped take me out of my comfort zone. I’m in development right now but I still have that mentality of wanting to win every game. We won 13-0 at the weekend. It made me so proud. I want to feel that in a first-team environment.

Redknapp and Cole play at Redknapp's house in London during the interview

Redknapp and Cole play at Redknapp’s house in London during the interview

REDKNAPP: The lack of BAME coaches in football is no secret, and Raheem Sterling recently named you as someone who could give back to football.

COLE: Everything in the world changes on a daily basis but this hasn’t. It’s easy to say that there aren’t enough black coaches, but we have to ask why. I love Raheem for saying what he said, but I had to start here first, at Chelsea’s academy. I appreciate everyone saying I need my chance — I hope one day I will get it — but I needed to go through this process. I’ll know when I’m ready.

REDKNAPP: When you mention that 13-0 win, I’m jealous because I can sense your pride in your players. But management is a cut-throat business. You’re only ever a few matches from the sack, and you could be hammered by critics every day of the week. I’m not sure I could handle that!

COLE: I can!

With that, Cole takes his tea-stained cup to the sink to wash up, having realised the time. He has training to take at Cobham and can’t be late. Cole the player divided public opinion. Cole the coach hopes he can start with a clean slate.

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