Ashley Cole's long career could come to an end at Wembley in the Championship play-off final. The much-maligned former England full-back deserves to go out in style, writes Adam Bate.
There was a moment during stoppage time of Derby's dramatic win over Leeds when Jack Clarke forced his way inside the Derby penalty area and Elland Road held its collective breath in the belief that this most enthralling of play-off semi-finals might just have one final twist.
Clarke had one yard on his marker but his marker had 20 years on him. Just when the youngster appeared to have found enough space to produce a cross, in came an outstretched leg from the Derby full-back to deny him.
Ashley Cole doing what Ashley Cole does.
Scott Malone's suspension presents a problem for Frank Lampard but an opportunity for his old Chelsea and England team-mate. At the age of 38, Cole is set for an unlikely swansong at Wembley in football's richest game.
He has history at the ground, of course. This will be his 35th appearance there for club and country, more than all his team-mates combined. Four of his seven FA Cup wins, an individual record, came at this very stadium.
But it is not a venue that has always celebrated his talents. Cole's England debut came in Albania where he was cut by a lipstick case thrown from the crowd, but what will have hurt more are the boos endured in front of his own fans.
That reached its nadir in a 5-1 win over Kazakhstan in 2008 after a rare Cole error. Rio Ferdinand hoped that the England fans would be ashamed of their actions when they returned home but few thought it likely.
Sympathy was in short supply. One feature in The Spectator that week responded not with empathy but with ridicule, describing Cole as a "magnificently horrid fellow" and defending the fans who abused him.
He was not blameless given the indiscretions over the years, although this was long before the air-rifle incident of 2011. Delicately put, Cole polarised opinion, although the man himself might wonder just how many were at his end of the spectrum. "Everyone wanted me to fail," he claimed.
Looking back, it seems such a shame that Cole's career was played out against this backdrop. He was only the seventh man to win 100 England caps, yet there was little appetite for the sort of farewell awarded others.
Instead, his international career came to an end at half time in a friendly win over Denmark in 2014. Roy Hodgson later called to tell him that he would not be going to that summer's World Cup and he retired on the spot.
For four years, it seemed that would be the end of Cole in English football and while his own demeanour has softened - his media appearances this season have included a stint on Monday Night Football - the scars remain.
As recently as December, he referred to the "constant lies" told about him throughout his career. He was just 25 when that 'Cashley' nickname stuck and in some ways it has proven to be an insurmountable hurdle.
There seems to be a greater recognition now of the racial undercurrent that can dictate perceptions of wealthy young footballers in this country, but it would be understandable if that comes as little comfort to Cole.
In a sense, he had to endure the treatment meted out to Raheem Sterling without witnessing the sort of turnaround that has seen the Manchester City player recognised by players and journalists alike this season.
A similar reappraisal is long overdue for someone whom Gary Neville believes was the world-class player of the so-called golden generation. That is to say that he was by far the most likely to make any world XI.
As well as being perhaps England's greatest ever left-back and the holder of that remarkable FA Cup record, Cole was a key figure in Arsenal's greatest ever team and Chelsea's only Champions League-winning side too.
A potent attacking threat in his younger days, he later evolved into an accomplished defensive player too, capable of stunning clearances and fulfilling dogged marking duties. He was the complete modern full-back.
Champions League-winning coaches Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Fabio Capello all rated him as one of the best around, while Cristiano Ronaldo regards him to be the toughest opponent of his long career.
"He does not give you a second to breathe," Ronaldo once said. "He was such a tenacious player when he was at his peak, quick, tough in the tackle. You knew it would never be an easy game."
All of which makes this reappearance such an unexpected treat and if there is a sense that the public are enjoying it, what is most pleasing is that Cole appears to be revelling in his role of elder statesman too.
That was not always apparent when at the eye of the storm, but it is different now that he is a bit-part player at a second-tier club. "You are a joy to be around," he said of his team-mates after that win over Leeds.
"It's not really about me any more," he explained in a recent interview with the Telegraph. He spoke of coaching and passing on his knowledge to the next generation. It is encouraging that whatever happens at Wembley, Cole will not be lost to the English game as once had seemed inevitable.
Before all that, there is a job to do and he will want to do it well. In March, he was hauled off at half time against Aston Villa with his team already four goals down. Some Derby fans may well be a little anxious.
The concern is that Villa have pace out wide and that Cole will be targeted, but broadly speaking he has not been a weak link when he has featured. In fact, he was among the better players when he has started and, in particular, dealt well with the threat of Che Adams against Birmingham.
Cole will no doubt back himself to come up with the answers once more. "The bigger the game, the better he plays," Lampard once said of him. That theory will be put to the test one more time at Wembley on Monday.
All the ways to watch the play-off finals...
All three play-off finals will be live on Sky Sports Football.
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