Ashley Cole is a Londoner who rose through the ranks at Highbury to make the Arsenal and England No 3 shirts his own. In an age of cosmopolitan Premier League line-ups, he was a reminder that local boys could still make their mark at the capital's biggest club.
Cole joined Arsenal as a teenager and made his debut against Middlesbrough in November 1999 at the age of 18. A striker in his formative years, Cole had by now been transformed into an attacking left back and his reputation was enhanced with a successful loan spell at Crystal Palace early in 2000.
|Arsenal Career||1997 - 2006|
|Appearances||228 (218 starts, 10 as a sub)|
Cole's exploits at Selhurst Park had not gone unnoticed at Highbury and Arsène Wenger rewarded him with a Premier League debut against Newcastle in May 2000. An injury to Silvinho early in the next campaign gave Cole another opportunity. He took it with such aplomb that Silvinho was never a regular again.
Cole, Tony Adams and Sol Campbell formed a tenacious English triumvirate in the Arsenal back four and they stormed to the Double in 2002. Another FA Cup triumph followed a year later before Cole played a key role in the 'Invincibles' side of 2003/04 which completed an unbeaten Premier League campaign.
The pictures of Cole celebrating with a plastic Premier League trophy at the home of Tottenham - following a 2-2 draw which clinched the title - summed up how much Arsenal meant to the young England defender. Cole had blossomed into a fine all-round left back, improving his defensive work while attacking with as much vigour as ever.
In retrospect, it was probably the high watermark of Cole's spell in North London. Still just 23, he was a vital cog in the Arsenal machine and linked up to devastating effect on the left flank with French duo Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. With that trio unplayable at times, Arsenal eclipsed Nottingham Forest's record unbeaten League run, reaching 49 matches before succumbing to Manchester United in October 2004.
The title eluded Arsenal that season but Cole showed his character with a nerveless spot-kick in the FA Cup Final penalty shoot-out victory against Manchester United in Cardiff. It seemed unlikely at the time but that would be the last winner's medal of Cole's Arsenal career.
A year later, after an injury-hit campaign and an agonising defeat in the Champions League Final against Barcelona, Cole left for Chelsea. For many Arsenal fans his departure left a nasty taste in the mouth but, in hindsight, that particular cloud had a glittering silver lining. Its name? Gael Clichy.