David Preece: Ashley Cole’s finished – but he has my sympathy

Ashley Cole is in rapid decline, according to David Preece

Ashley Cole is in rapid decline, according to David Preece

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One of the downsides of football being your job is the tendency to over analyse every part of the game and become ultra critical.

Every pass and movement comes under scrutiny and it’s got to a point now where goals, saves and controversial incidents just aren’t enough to satisfy my analytical eye.

To many, it was just a misplaced, ill-judged back pass to his keeper that found it’s way into the path of Kelechi Iheanacho for him to punish in style – but to me it was a sign of his unhappiness, a player in rapid decline.

As imperative as analysis is when coaching, it does detract from your enjoyment of the game somewhat. When you look at matches in such minute detail you lose the sight of the bigger picture in terms of the game as a whole but it’s in these seemingly insignificant moments that I now derive the most pleasure.

Take Manchester City’s pre-season game against Roma on Tuesday. As we had our own friendly against Leicester City that night, I managed to take in most of the game to see, just like everyone else, how Raheem Sterling would fare.

Liverpool fans would be forgiven for smiling smugly as suffered the fate of almost every other footballer at this time of the season as Sterling’s first touch ended with him falling over the ball. The hot weather and the thick lush grass of pitches at this time of the year leads to them being very dry and making the ball sticky under foot.

More often than not, it’s defenders who come unstuck as they cumbersomely feel their way back with the ball after their summer hibernation.

If you’re a striker, there’s always easy pickings to be made by pressuring centre-halves before they have put their safety catch on come August. Like a bear watching deer walk on a frozen lake and waiting for one to slip over, patience is rewarded by the inevitability.

Those with their feet in the Sterling camp will have felt as equally smug as they watched their man nonchalantly slide the ball past Morgan De Sanctis in the Roma goal. No matter what you say, it was those two moments everyone was watching and waiting for and gladly, most thirsts sated were within the first three minutes.

While Sterling was pleasing supporters and detractors alike, another pantomime villain was giving his critics ammunition to load their guns – but far from sneer at Ashley Cole, I found reason to sympathise.

To many, it was just a misplaced, ill-judged back pass to his keeper that found it’s way into the path of Kelechi Iheanacho for him to punish in style – but to me it was a sign of his unhappiness, a player in rapid decline.

Like I said, the smaller details can reveal much more than what at first may be the obvious.

As the ball was played to Cole, he was immediately closed down at pace and he made a split second decision to go home to the safety of his goalkeeper. Now, whether the ball took a bobble as he passed it or not is irrelevant but his first time pass was horrendous and the second he hit it, I muttered to myself ‘He’s gone’.

All players make mistakes, of course they do, but to me it seemed as if there was more to this than simply a technical error. In his prime, the now 34-year-old left-back would have been unworried by the advancing opponent. He’d have taken a touch, protected the ball and given his teammates the chance to offer up other options to him and then if all else failed he could still pass back to his keeper in a less hurried manner.

The fact he panicked tells me his confidence is low and he didn’t trust himself in that situation as he would have when he was at Chelsea. His confident self would have been screaming for the pass and taken the ball in even if he had a player snapping at his heels.

The old cliché that “His legs have gone” is a bit too broad for players who are past their best and rarely applies to many players in an obvious way. Players look after themselves so much more keenly off the pitch that decline in fitness is rarely as sharp as it once was.

What becomes more noticeable in a player is when, as one manager I played often referred to is as, a player becomes “civilised”.

What he meant by that is when the innocence and ignorance of youth is lost and players begin to hesitate in their thinking. It might be a second thought about going into a tackle. It may be deciding against making that 40 yard run that might be in vain. Or might simply be down to a loss of enjoyment and motivation.

It’s down to that last one I see as the major reason in Ashley Cole’s poor form. I saw it in Iker Casillas over the last few seasons and in Pepe Reina in his final days at Liverpool too. I can gauge it in players during the 6-a-side games played at the end of training. A player who has lost that will to win and fear of defeat has lost the drive that took them beyond the thousands of others that didn’t make it.

So when you think of footballers as immature, think twice about whether you want them to ever grow up, because sometimes it’s the worst thing a player can do.