Having acquired the solitary point needed to secure the Premier League title at the home of their most intense local rivals, the Arsenal players celebrated in tandem with the jubilant pocket of red and white clad fans that had witnessed on that day a scenario many of them believed only existed in their wildest dreams.

Their choice celebrations were almost as eclectic as the group of players performing them; some jumped up and down and sang songs, some imagined their water bottles to be expensive champagne which they soaked one another with, some failed in their fight to resist the urge to partially disrobe in order to have shirts to swing around their heads like giddy children. Ashley Cole, however – though he may have willingly indulged the memorable occasion in each of these fashions and more – chose to commemorate his team’s achievement in one very specific way.

With an inflatable plastic replica of the Premier League trophy in his hands, Cole evoked the image of an embarrassing modern British stereotype: the drunken reveller abroad. Absurd as he may have looked, though – singing and laughing with the merry lads in his company, without a shirt and adorned in both socks and sandals, waving around a blow-up toy – Cole’s antics and appearance seemed unequivocally mundane in comparison to the remarkable sporting reality represented in his celebrations.

Cole broke away from the group, sprinted to the White Hart Lane centre circle – the very heart of Tottenham Hotspur – and on its white spot thrust down the inflatable trophy, in effect marking the land as property of he and his championship-winning team. “I raised the trophy high above my head and brought it down like I was sinking a flag into enemy territory,” Cole gleefully reminisced while interviewing with Amy Lawrence for her book, Invincible. “It was the best moment.”

For Ashley Cole, the celebrations were the result of his second Premier League trophy in three years – an incredible return for a player who had yet to turn 25. Far more importantly, though, for the north London-born footballer, was the fact he had won trophies with Arsenal, the team he had spent the whole of his young life watching, supporting and dreaming of one day representing.

A vital compartment of an exceptional footballing machine, gaining ground on his peak years, it seemed for all the world as though Cole would surely go on to play for the Gunners for many years to come, some even believing he would one day captain Arsenal, a view shared by Patrick Vieira, the captain responsible for leading Arsenal to their famous unbeaten title of 2004, who said on the subject, “For me [Cole] was going to be the next Tony Adams.” For reference, Tony Adams, despite retiring from the club more than a decade ago, is still referred to as ‘Mr. Arsenal’ by the adoring Gooners among whom he will forever be remembered fondly.

But such a fairytale eventuality wasn’t to be for Cole. Far from becoming club captain, far from securing for himself his very own place in the hearts of Arsenal supporters as an all-time great, to their fans, Ashley Cole became the chief villain, the new millennium’s most maligned mercenary, when he crossed the London divide and signed for rivals Chelsea.

The transfer that saw Cole depart his boyhood club for pastures blue was a protracted one, underlined by controversy, filled with angst, and punctuated by huge fines. Undoubtedly, it would go down in history as one of the Premier League’s most divisive transfers.

Far more than just constituting a controversial change of club, Ashley Cole’s transfer to Chelsea inadvertently captured the zeitgeist of the times in English football. An almost literal passing down of the torch, Cole’s move from Arsenal to Chelsea signalled a partial relinquishing of the Gunners’ powers, a redoubling of Chelsea’s efforts to become the Premier League’s principal footballing force, and embodied a substantial shift in the direction of both clubs that today in 2017 still seems to be as evident as ever.

 

Though he would go on to become one of England’s greatest ever full-backs, the Ashley Cole of the early-1980s, the young and innocent dreamer, the apple of his mother’s eye, grew up in awe of Arsenal’s exceptional attackers, most notably fellow Londoners David Rocastle and Ian Wright, two players who routinely stole for themselves most weeks’ headlines.

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It was in the footsteps of these two particular idols that Cole began to follow when he began his own journey into football as a striker. But despite his love for the position and the adulation its successful application would bring, Cole was happy to trade personal preference for progress when opportunity came his way.

Impressed by his speed, athleticism and technique, despite being just 14-years-old, the Arsenal academy offered Cole a chance to play for the under-16s. Only they wished to deploy him at left-back.

A youngster blessed with less confidence than Cole may well have turned down the opportunity, fearful of what lasting damage a move that far down the pitch may do to them – god forbid they surrender their scoring expertise indefinitely – but Cole recognised the opportunity and jumped at the chance to represent Arsenal. Such was his love for the club, there’s every chance he’d have bitten their hand off even if they had offered him the role of mascot.

As unique a talent as he would become, Cole’s ascent from promising youth prospect to first-team favourite followed a well-trodden path through four common stages of development; youth academy, low risk first team debut, followed by lower league loan spell, then into the first team by virtue of an injury to a more senior player.

After four years of hard graft in the academy, during which time he set about mastering the art of the left-back and honing the idiosyncratic dynamism upon which his game was so meticulously crafted, an 18-year-old Cole was afforded his starting berth in the senior squad for an ill-fated league cup tie against Middlesbrough.

This was soon followed by a conventional loan spell at a lower league club, where he spent the 1999-00 season building confidence while attempting to ride the rigours of first team football at Division Two club Crystal Palace, before arriving back in N5 just in time to pick up the baton dropped by Arsenal’s first team left-back Sylvinho on account of a long-term injury.

Sylvinho was part way through only his second season at Arsenal and was enjoying a fine start to life in London having joined from his native Corinthians in 1999. No doubt, given his contribution thus far, he would have fully expected to regain his place in the starting line-up following his return to full health. Ashley Cole, however, had other ideas.

As Cole himself would surely concede, his early days in the Arsenal first team weren’t all as golden as the one-of-a-kind Premier League trophy he and his teammates would later receive in 2004. The nadir of the young full-back’s emergence played out in February 2001, at Old Trafford, as Cole was hauled off at half-time as his Arsenal team found themselves 5-1 down at the break, humiliated by Sir Alex Ferguson’s men, in a game they would eventually lose 6-1.

It was in part due to the indefatigable fashion in which Cole responded to setbacks that would see him become Arsenal’s most trusted left-back. Certainly, his incredible speed and stamina gave him an athletic edge over his rivals, who could only dream of replicating the ease with which Cole contributed to both the attacking and defensive phases of his team’s game. But Cole’s physical attributes were augmented immeasurably by his temperament, his hatred of losing and his determination to succeed.

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To even the most passive observer it was clear Cole was born a winner and, as he left his teenage years behind him, he was soon on the cusp of becoming even more accustomed to winning than ever before.

First came the double in 2002- the Premier League and the FA Cup- won playing in front of Seaman, alongside Lauren, Keown and Campbell, and behind Parlour, Pirès, Ljungberg, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry. Another FA Cup followed them home again the year after.

Then came Arsenal’s greatest ever prize, the Premier League title of 2004, a trophy for the club and the name Invincibles’ for the players, quickly followed by another FA Cup, a third in four years. Cole was a key instrument in a dazzlingly synchronised orchestra, quickly running out of space in his trophy cabinet, and living everything and more he had ever dreamed of. But like all good things, Cole’s time as an Arsenal player was destined to come to an end.

 

Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.” Those were the evocative words chosen by then-Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein to describe the situation that in the early knockings of the 2003 summer transfer window faced Arsenal.

Having finished as runners-up to Arsenal in their first season under the rule of Abramovich, in the summer that immediately followed, Chelsea attempted to prize from Arsenal’s firm grasp two of their most distinguished talents in Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira with enquiries that were, without hesitation, unequivocally rebuffed by Dein.

Undeterred, Chelsea would go on to prove that they needn’t employ the services of Henry or Vieira to be capable of finishing above Arsenal; finishing above everybody in the league, in fact. In the 2004-05 season, having turned their attention away from Arsenal’s stars and instead fluttered their eyelashes across Europe in the direction of Didier Drogba, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Arjen Robben and Petr Čech, all of whom joined Abramovich’s burgeoning empire and aided Chelsea significantly in their pursuit of domestic domination, Chelsea secured the Premier League in emphatic style.

Not only were Arsenal forced to sit back and watch as Chelsea overtook them in the league but two years on, and another Premier League title later, Chelsea once again set their sights on relieving the Gunners of one their prized assets, and this time they’d make sure to get their man.

“I nearly swerved off the road. ‘He [Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein] is taking the piss, Jonathan!’ I yelled down the phone. I was so incensed. I was trembling with anger. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I suppose it all started to fall apart for me from then on.” This is how Ashley Cole, in his autobiography My Defence, recalled the situation he faced when offered by the Arsenal hierarchy a salary of just £55,000 per week.

At the time, Cole was said to be earning around £27,000 and Arsenal believed that by offering to more than double Cole’s wages they had fairly acknowledged their left-back’s vital role in the team. But Cole had asked for £60,000 and was unwilling to budge. In his eyes, it was exactly what he deserved and there was no room for negotiations, at least not with Arsenal.

On 27 January 2005 a clandestine meeting took place at a London hotel between five men: Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon, Chelsea manager José Mourinho, so-called super agent and Chelsea owner Abramovich’s friend Pini Zahavi, agent Jonathan Barnett, and Barnett’s client Ashley Cole.

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Exactly what was discussed at this meeting remained somewhat classified but the fact it took place at all was enough to make national news and put every one of those in attendance in hot water.

Ashley Cole maintained his morality, even when the case was handed to an independent Football Association disciplinary commission who investigated the meeting and its subjects, treading the line very carefully in saying, “I can only speak about what was said and not said while I was in the room, and in those 15-20 minutes, the chit-chat never strayed anywhere near what could be considered an approach by Chelsea. Not once was there anything mentioned about figures, transfers, further meetings or even leaving Arsenal.”

Nevertheless, Cole had met with representatives of Chelsea Football Club without the written consent of anybody at his present club and that was sufficient to see all parties – Cole, Chelsea and the agents involved – breach Premier League rules regarding the prohibiting of unsanctioned contract negotiations.

In the fallout, the guilty parties, as they were deemed to be by the verdict given by the FA, were hit hard in their wallets. Chelsea were fined £300,000 and handed a suspended three-point deduction for “making an approach to a player under contract without obtaining permission of his club” and breaching rule K3. Cole was fined £100,000 for breaching rule K5 in “making an approach to a club with a view to negotiating a contract without prior written consent from his club.” Despite his protestations of innocence, José Mourinho was fined £200,000 for his role in proceedings, while Cole’s agent Jonathan Barnett was fined £100,000 and saw his licence suspended for 18 months.

Cole and Mourinho later had their fines reduced to £75,000 by the Appeal Board and Barnett’s suspension was reduced to 12 months, though the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled against an appeal and deemed the initial verdict regarding their breaching of Premier League to have been ruled correctly.

The saga stretched every sinew of the relationship between Cole and Arsenal to almost breaking point and as such many believed, despite their shared declarations of innocence, it was simply a matter of time until Cole and Chelsea were united officially.

A sudden and momentary glimmer of hope appeared on the horizon of those who still held Cole dear to their hearts as a month later, shortly after lifting the FA Cup, Arsenal announced they had reached a deal to extend Cole’s contract for a further year, increasing his salary to around £70,000.

This led many to assume the tapping-up debacle was little more than a ploy from Cole and his agent to force his club into paying him what he felt he deserved. Underhanded though his tactics may have seemed to the Arsenal fans, if his ploy resulted in Arsenal and Cole staying together, perhaps it could be overlooked. After all, such was Cole’s ability, it was a common belief that there were few finer left-backs in the world.

Instead it only delayed the inevitable. Kenyon and Mourinho may have denied any interest in signing Ashley Cole in 2005, but in the summer of 2006, formal discussions began over the transfer of Cole.

Arsenal initially insisted they wouldn’t be held to ransom, demanding their valuation of £25 million be met or else no deal would be reached. But with the possibility of holding onto a deeply out of sorts Ashley Cole becoming ever more likely as the hours of the summer transfer window ebbed away on deadline day, the Gunners eventually settled for a swap deal that saw Chelsea defender William Gallas fill the void left by Cole, on top of remunerations to the tune of £5 million. Cole signed a five-year contract with Chelsea worth around £90,000 a week.

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After making his move to west London, Cole made no effort to hide his feelings from the club he once cherished as he remarked publicly: “Arsenal hung me out to dry, using me as a scapegoat to get back at Chelsea. [Arsenal] fed me to the sharks. The board ‘rewarded’ me with an insult and threw years of loyalty back in my face. It changed my view forever on the club I regarded as family.”

Throughout the entirety of the scandal, Arsenal remained adamant they wished to hold onto Cole. David Dein told reporters “we want Ashley to remain at Arsenal, he is a world-class player” while manager Arsène Wenger repeatedly reiterated the same stance.

When the two clubs met on 10 December 2006, for the first time since Cole and Gallas had switched allegiances, Arsenal fans performed similarly poorly in concealing their feelings towards Cole as they chanted “Cashley” mercilessly towards him and tossed fake £20 notes that were blue in colour and adorned with Cole’s face in place of the Queen’s.

Whatever the truth behind the move, however mistreated Ashley Cole had truly been by the suits that occupied the boardroom at the Emirates, or to what ratio the allure of money and the honest pursuit of sporting greatness Cole’s move could really be attributed, his transfer drew a line in the sand that to this day is yet to be erased. Though Cole’s transfer may not have signalled the shifting of the tides, it certainly teased their permanence.

In the 11 seasons since Ashley Cole’s move from Arsenal to Chelsea – though Cole himself departed the Blues after eight successful seasons – Chelsea have won two Premier League trophies, four FA Cups, two League Cups, a Europa League trophy and European football’s most coveted prize, the Champions League.

In the same period, Arsenal have won just two FA Cups and have finished above Chelsea in the Premier League only twice. This for many people, including Cole most poignantly of all, evidences his decision to leave Arsenal for Chelsea as the correct one. As Cole once put it himself: “I didn’t come into the game to make friends. I go out and give my best and play to win.” Though it may pain many to admit it, at Chelsea winning is exactly what Cole did.

 

While successfully keeping Ashley Cole free from the clutches of Chelsea’s petrodollar-laden hands may have exited the realms of possibility for Arsène Wenger entirely, given the fashion in which the move was eventually made, it remains an intriguing hypothetical: just how different could the decade following 2005 have really been should the transfer of Ashley Cole never happened? What could have become of Arsenal and Chelsea had Cole never moved?

So many of the game’s most storied tales have hinged on the scoring of one goal, the inch-perfect placement of one particular pass or the fingertips grazed of a single save. Fleeting sparks of on-field ingenuity or accident that alter the potential history of players, clubs and nations indefinitely.

In this case, the future history of two of England’s greatest clubs may well have hinged on just one unsatisfactory contract offer, one misunderstanding or bluff, or one brief meeting at a London hotel. Even after all the years that have passed, the scores of players that have come and gone from north and west London alike, Wenger still bears a sense of regret that Cole left Arsenal at all. “A regret of my career,” he called it. “[The rest of his career] should have been here.” The Arsenal captain that never was.

Just how different could the fate of the two clubs been should Cole have stayed, taken up the armband and fought against the rise of the blues as opposed to aiding it? The answer will forever remain one of the great chapters that simply shan’t ever be written 

By Will Sharp    @shillwarp