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Ashley Cole has said he “was a little bit stubborn” when he decided to leave Arsenal for London rivals Chelsea in 2006.
Speaking during an appearance on Sky Sports Monday Night Football (h/t Football.London’s Josh Challies and Robert Warlow), Cole referred to himself as “young, naive, stupid” when he left his boyhood club: “I should have sat down with more people and gone through it with an ice-cool head at the time. I was a little bit hot-headed at the time and didn’t realise what I was doing at the time.”
Cole is now at Championship side Derby County where the 38-year-old been reunited with Rams manager and Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer, Frank Lampard.
While Cole said he doesn’t regret his decision to become a teammate of Lampard’s 13 years ago, he still laments the animosity the move generated towards him from Arsenal supporters: “I do kind of feel sometimes sad because it was my club, I played there since I was nine. To have that ill feeling still, it’s hard sometimes.”
On some level, Cole’s move from north London to Stamford Bridge will always rankle Gooners. For one thing, the nature of the eventual transfer was fractious and controversial.
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Cole was found to have met with Chelsea officials, including then-manager Jose Mourinho, at a London hotel as early as January 2005 to discuss a move. Cole, Mourinho and Chelsea subsequently received fines after the Premier League concluded an investigation into allegations of tapping up.
While Cole didn’t move on for another 18 months, his reputation with Arsenal supporters took another hit when he recounted the moment he decided to leave. The defender wrote in his autobiography how he was left “trembling with anger” after Arsenal offered him a new contract worth £55,000 per week.
Cole had been expecting an offer of at least £60,000 and expressed his anger to agent Jonathan Barnett. The incident famously involved Cole having to pull over in his car to compose himself after his agent revealed the Gunners had apparently gone back on a previous agreement.
It was bitter blow for some to swallow, especially since it involved a player who had progressed through the Arsenal academy and into the first team. Cole went from a youth product to the most dynamic left-back in Europe after entering the first XI in 2001 following a loan spell with Crystal Palace.
While he endured initial struggles defensively, Cole became a major threat going forward. His combination with Robert Pires and Thierry Henry on the left flank was the cornerstone of Arsenal’s golden period under Arsene Wenger.
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The Gunners won a league and FA Cup double in 2002 and claimed the title without losing a game in 2004. They also lifted the Cup in 2004 and 2005 as well as becoming the first London club to reach the UEFA Champions League final in 2006.
A period this fruitful should have ensured Cole instant legend status at Arsenal. Yet Wenger would later rue the “misunderstanding” between the club and Cole’s agent that led to player’s departure, something the Frenchman dubbed “a regret of my career.”
As successful as he was at Highbury, Cole added even more honours with Chelsea. His haul included the League Cup, three more FA Cups, a Premier League title, the Champions League and UEFA Europa League.
Ironically, while Arsenal fans rued what Cole went on to achieve, many felt their team had gotten the better deal when the full-back left town in 2006. The Gunners had received £5 million plus versatile centre-back William Gallas.
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It looked like a terrific piece of business, but Gallas never appeared comfortable as an Arsenal player, enduring an ill-fated spell as captain during the 2007/08 season. Meanwhile, Cole maintained his place as a key figure for both club and country as he matured into arguably the best player at his position of his generation.
Even so, his latest comments about regretting the way he left his boyhood club will likely have Gunners supporters wondering what might have been had one of the best players in Arsenal’s history stayed put.
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