When the news broke that Ashley Cole was out of England’s crucial game against Montenegro and possibly the team’s next fixture against Poland, the hyperbole that usually accompanies the withdrawal of a key England player was unnervingly absent. It wasn’t splashed across the back pages, it wasn’t the top of the hour story on sports news channels and it wasn’t really a major talking point on the usual social media platforms.
The understated reaction to Cole’s withdrawal is certainly no slant on the Chelsea man. But perhaps more of a nod towards the calibre of his potential replacement; Leighton Baines.
The Everton man’s displays down the left-hand side for his blue employers have earned him many admirers in recent years. Most notably those who pick the Premier League team of the year (in which Baines has featured the last two consecutive seasons), his own supporters, who voted Baines as their player of the season at the conclusion of the last campaign and Manchester United, who courted his signature relentlessly throughout the summer months.
And yet, despite his superb showings, Baines has never been able to usurp the immovable Cole when it comes to the national team.
Roy Hodgson has flirted with the idea of playing Baines ahead of Cole, and often in friendlies, the introduction of the former Wigan-player at left-back has been the England manager’s first change. But Hodgson is a cautious manager by default, and for the crunch games he has stuck with the reliable, trustworthy figure of Cole.
Not that there is any travesty in that. Cole, after all, remains a fine player and one of the world’s outstanding left-backs. Let’s not forget, he has won the lot at club level, and his haul of 105 international caps needs no aggrandizing. His achievements really do speak for themselves.
But at this juncture, there is a growing belief that Baines has played himself up to a level by which he is quite simply the better player of the two. And a couple of strong performances in the next two games might just see Everton’s most indispensible asset become a permanent fixture in the England first team too.
For some, it would be a shift that has been a long time coming, and it begs the question, why hasn’t Baines been given a proper chance? Is it down entirely to Hodgson’s patent for solidarity and defensive caution?
There is a common conception that Baines might not be as strong as Cole from a defensive point of view. But a glance at this season’s statistics suggests there is very little to separate the two. Granted, we’re only seven games into the current campaign, but even if you factor in the figures from the 2012/13 Premier League, the Evertonian made more tackles, more successful tackles, blocked more shots and intercepted more balls than Cole.