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John Sadler  Wednesday, June 06, 2001  14:32 GMT

HOT STUFF ... Ashley Cole prepares
for tonight's Greek clash

The last time former member of Tower Hamlets schoolboy squad Ashley Cole played abroad for England he was hit by an object thrown from the crowd.

It turned out to be a cigarette lighter hurled by an irate Albanian not taking too kindly to Cole's extravagant celebration of England's third goal.

Tomorrow, 20-year-old Cole enters the maelstrom of Greece's Olympic Stadium as England go hunting the World Cup qualifying points that will take another chunk out of Germany's six-point lead at the top of Group Nine.

Now the Greeks may be a fiery, passionate lot but it is going to take something a bit more substantial than a lighter to disturb the cool equilibrium of the young Arsenal left-back. Like a flame thrower. Or Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
Cole's career may only be in its infancy yet his experiences over the last six months have taken him rapidly to the very doorway of manhood.

It is hard to believe it is just 10 weeks since Cole made his international debut on a noisy night in Tirana - and finished with a cut face and his nose deep in Albanian turf as England won 3-1.

Not long after that came a first FA Cup final - when a shot of his was cleared off the line by Sami Hyypia. And, of course, there had been the public humiliation of Arsenal's 6-1 thrashing by Manchester United at Old Trafford in February.

It was the day when United's third successive Premiership title was as good as confirmed and the Southerners were sent back to London with their tails not only between their legs but twisted round their necks.

IT was also Cole's first appearance at Old Trafford - and the very reason why his entry into the Athenian amphitheatre will hold no fears. As Cole, still with only 34 Arsenal first-team games behind him, said: "Obviously, the Greek crowd are going to be right on our backs. But after that experience at Old Trafford, I reckon I can handle anything. It was the worse moment of my career and one I seriously hope never happens again."

Arsenal had travelled north with a team hacked to pieces by injury and a central defence of Igor Stepanovs and Gilles Grimandi that would soon be dismembered as well.

As Arsenal dragged themselves off trailing 5-1 at half-time, Cole was replaced - though, in all honesty, every player could have joined him. Even now, the kid shakes his head at the memory.

"I was devastated," he said. "All my family were in the crowd - my mum, brother, uncle, cousin, the whole lot. It was my first game at Old Trafford and I was desperate to do well. In the end, all I could do was apologise. A lot of the Arsenal fans left at half-time but my family had to stay and watch the full 90 minutes. Yeah, it was hard. All I could think about afterwards was whether I was going to get another chance. Luckily Arsene Wenger had faith. He must have thought it was a one-off because he stuck with me and played me in the next four games."

AS for the events in Tirana, these can be shrugged off as part of the deal. "Sure, it hurt," he said. "But it was my first England game, we won and that's all that mattered."

As Cole takes to the pitch tonight - thankfully in a heat that will have dropped from an unbearable 100 degrees to a merely hot 75 degrees - he will take a glance over his shoulder.

But not, hopefully, at a cascade of drachma pouring out from the stands. Instead, he will look back down the long and winding road of the season that even Cole finds difficult to put into words.

Two seasons ago, Arsenal came here to Athens for a Champions League meeting with Panathinaikos.
Cole's services, though, were not required. Not only was he not on the bench, he was not even in the Arsenal reserves.

At the time, he was learning his trade in the youth team. And even at the start of this season, he was very much second left-back and second fiddle behind Silvinho.

As he admitted: "If anyone had said in August I would end the season as an Arsenal regular, having played in the cup final AND in the England team, I would have told them they were round the twist."

Despite everything that has happened this season -despite being hailed as the heir apparent to legendary Arsenal left-backs Nigel Winterburn and Kenny Sansom - the boy still thinks of himself as a reserve.

COLE says: "I know everything could hardly have gone better for me but I still regard myself as Silvinho's No2. I only got in the team because he was injured - he will be first choice at the start of next season. And I don't consider myself first choice for England, either. And, no, I am not saying that just to be diplomatic."

Except, of course, he was.

But his expectations for a season in which he politely doffed his cap to Silvinho for kindly giving him his chance before casually strolling past Phil Neville and Chris Powell into the England team, were way off the mark.

He said: "I started the season in the reserves and thought that would be the story for the next nine months - except for the odd first-team game when Silvinho was injured."

Now, all this. And his second England start tomorrow from a position the younger Neville admits "looks sewn up for years to come".

"It's unbelievable, What I am doing is living out every schoolboy's dream. Even my mates cannot believe it" said Cole.

Should any benevolent Greek decide tomorrow night to offload his Dunhill in Cole's direction, I suggest one course of action.

To pick it up and light the big cigar, he will, no doubt enjoy when England leave the Greek capital with all three World Cup qualifying points.

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