In search of the 'real' Ashley Cole

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Judge me on football - Cole

It's a question journalists get asked by friends, family and colleagues after most interviews: So, what were they really like?

Since spending three days this summer in New York with England and Chelsea's Ashley Cole for Football Focus, I've lost count of how many times this question has been put to me.

It doesn't take much working out why.

It's no secret that the man described as one of the best left-backs in the world isn't the most popular person in the country.

Cole was in the Big Apple to announce he was going into business with US rapper Jay-Z. The pair will be opening a restaurant in London next year.

At the time, his relationship with ex-wife Cheryl Cole was front page news for the tabloids. So I wasn't sure what mood I'd find him in.

When I arrived for our first interview, Cole was all handshakes and smiles and could not have made a better first impression. He certainly didn't strike you as the character portrayed in the tabloids.

The interview went well until the questions became more searching. Cole's responses became more spiked.

We discuss how his initiative with Jay-Z will help unemployed people get jobs and how he does a lot of charity work but chooses not to 'shout about it'. I'm curious why not.

"Because I don't need to, because I can't win sometimes," the Chelsea man says.

"I just play my football and if I can help people - then I help people. I don't think it's my personality to be going around telling people what I'm doing."

A number of sports people and celebrities use social media as a tool to control their self-image. At the very least it offers a right of reply to stories. But Cole won't be joining those on Twitter.

"Never," he says with conviction. "I get the reason for it but I don't need to come out fighting over every single thing that's in the paper or everything that's said. I don't need to come out and bat it back at people because my friends and family know the true me."

The next day we meet in New York's East Village - the uber cool part of NYC. Cole turns up in a Cassius Clay T-shirt, shorts and shades. He's smiling and immediately seems much more relaxed. I sense this could be the opportunity to get to know the 'true' Ashley.

We decide to conduct the interview while taking a stroll around the local area.

The conversation is fluid as we discuss his memories of playing football as a youngster with Jlloyd Samuel and Ledley King, his mum's role in his life and Bow, where he grew up in East London.

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He tells me he'd love to play for Great Britain at the Olympics and opens up about the pressures young players face in the modern game. He's engaging, polite and listens carefully to my questions before offering thoughtful answers.

Then suddenly something catches Cole's eye.

"Look at this guy over there on the left in the stripy shirt," he said. "He was following us yesterday. Look! He's papping us. It's nuts!

"I don't know how they know where I am."

It's the paparazzi following us as we do the interview.

"Over the years I've got used to it," he says.

"But it is kinda strange when people know exactly where I've been because they saw it in the newspaper.

"But this is the culture we live in now where people are interested in what you're doing on holiday so we have to just basically accept it."

At the end of the interview, Cole is happy to continue chatting away. I feel I've met the Ashley Cole his friends and family know. The radio silence at the conclusion of our first interview suddenly seems a distant memory.

The next time I see Cole is at the Roc Nation offices. He's there to talk to Jay-Z about the restaurant venture.

Jay-Z doesn't wish to do any media on the initiative and asks the journalists to leave. It seems self-image is everything to him. How he is perceived by the public is essential to his success as an artist and businessman. If he's not looking his best, feeling at his most articulate or is tired - he doesn't put himself out there.

Cole on the other hand is the polar opposite. He's not really concerned with how he's perceived. For him it's very simple. He is a footballer and as long as he is doing this well - then that's all that matters.

Cole doesn't buy into the whole PR game - and on the face of it some would say he's suffered for it. However, it begs the question whether he is naïve or his reluctance to engage with PR is actually quite refreshing.

"I don't do things to try and get publicity or anything like that," he said. "I'm not opening the restaurant for publicity. I'm doing it for the love of meeting Jay-Z and giving people a chance to get back into employment."

Love him, loathe him, the public's perception of Cole raises an interesting debate.

In the modern game, how well you play football doesn't appear to be the main thing the public judge footballers on any more.

But who is responsible for creating that dynamic? The players who employ PR people, the public that crave non-football related information or the media who are knocking on the doors of top footballers' parents?

See the full Ashley Cole interview in the new series of Football Focus which returns to BBC1 on Saturday 6 August at 1215 BST.

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