Ashley Cole Driven by Ambition in Latest Venture

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Ashley Cole is loving his role as assistant manager of the England U21s. He makes no secret of that fact. Sometimes the right project comes along at just the right time. The ex-England ace has spent the years since retirement picking up his coaching badges and starting his coaching career where so much of his legacy as a player was honed: Cobham, Chelsea.

When incoming manager Lee Carsley asked Ashley Cole to leave Chelsea and become his assistant manager with the England U21s, he jumped at the challenge. Partning Ashley would be his former England teammate Joleon Lescott — who he started alongside as part of the back-four under Roy Hodgson during England’s run to the quarter-finals at Euro 2012.

“At times, it’s very difficult for young players to get to grips with that, but that’s normal,” admits Cole. He is speaking to EnglandFootball.org about how much more significant England youth team caps are now, compared to what they represented during his playing days or even earlier.

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“In line with the senior team, we’re really trying to create an environment where players want to come, are happy to come and enjoy it and learn and compete against top quality opposition, at times. The pathway is there. You see in the past weeks with Emile [Smith Rowe] and Conor [Gallagher].” Cole refers to these two as they were both asked by Gareth Southgate to leave the England U21s camp midway through in November, in order to join up with the senior team. Both made their senior debuts last month. Smith Rowe even found himself on the scoresheet in England’s win in San Marino.

“So joining up with us, of course you’ve got that opportunity now — if Gareth needs a body or a player, and you’re doing well at club and doing well here — to join up and be in that group. Emile did fantastic when he was here. He got his well-deserved call-up, and the same with Conor. Great start in the Premier League; he’s come here and continued his performances at a high level, and now he’s got the opportunity to go up with the senior team and get a first England cap.

“The pathway is there, but it’s a lot of hard work. Players have got to be playing week in, week out, for their club to get the opportunity. We try to make this U21s environment a tough one to get into. We have to be very understanding within that. But the opportunity and pathway is there, and Gareth is so open-minded to using our players when needed and giving opportunities for U21s if they’re playing and competing at the level he expects and wants.”

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Cole knows what it takes to be an England asset more than most. Few would argue with the sentiment that he is likely the greatest left-back to have donned Three Lions on his shirt. It is interesting to hear how he now, aged 40, speaks of his time with the national team.

“I think it’s always an honour to represent and play for your country. I probably didn’t realise, getting 107 caps, what it actually meant to me. Now, being on the other side of that and being a coach, it’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had as a player — being able to play against all the countries in the world, get the opportunity to travel, play in some amazing stadiums. As a young kid, you live your dream representing your country. In terms of highs, I probably took it for granted in terms of my first cap and then didn’t really appreciate the 107 because I see it as something you have to do, it’s something you must do, it’s normal to represent your country at the highest level. But there was a lot of hard work that got me there and went into that.

“In terms of me now, I try and sit on the other side of that and really try to push and emphasise that wearing this t-shirt with three lions: it means a lot. You’re living a lot of young kids’ dreams. In terms of bad memories, reflecting now, I don’t think I have any. It’s a pleasure and an honour to represent my country. Of course I’d like to have won something, but we can’t all win and be that lucky. Wearing this badge, I think it’s a tremendous achievement. To get an England cap, these players should really cherish that.”

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Cole is aware of the unique position he finds himself in. Not many players have played over 100 times for England. Cole is one of only nine. And even fewer are both 100-cap men and working on the coaching staff with the England U21s. He is the only one. These players look up to him as a role model. They take inspiration from the career he enjoyed, because they want a piece of that for themselves. The seven-time FA Cup-winner is comfortable with that. But he is keen to explain that tactical understanding is what will keep him in this job. That is what truly counts here. Not his tally of international caps.

“I think Lee really emphasised when I had the first meeting with him, I wasn’t coming here to be just a cheerleader. I was going to take the tactical side of it — which I have. The set-pieces, I’ve delivered that. So, at times getting me out my comfort zone, but I wasn’t here just to be a cheerleader, so giving the real detail to the players in 1-v-1 defending or unit work. Also, the tactical work. Lee has given me great licence — and Joleon also — to be free to express our thoughts, our feelings. If we want to change anything, he’s very open to that.

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“The experiences so far have been great. Players are very open to, maybe, a different tactical mindset that they’re used to in their clubs, a little bit of detail that we’ve tried to implement and given, that’s put them outside their comfort zone. So far it’s working well, but still we’ve got a long way to go in terms of the qualification. But, I’ll go back to the Czech Republic game,” he says — recalling the U21s’ 3–1 win at Turf Moor in November.

“I thought we really started to see the high tempo that we want to play, how we can control the game at times, and put our stamp and authority on games. And I think that was all the coaches coming together and trying to build our identity and style of play.”

This seems very much to be the right project at the right time for Ashley Cole.

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