Friday, 30 January 2009

The Rabbit That Roared

There was a time, not long ago, when it appeared Carlton Cole would have found the task of hitting a cow's backside with a banjo a considerable challenge, observes Ken Dyer. For all his selfish, powerful play outside the box, he was firing blanks where it mattered most and the Upton Park crowd were letting him have it in spades. Gradually though, with a little help from his friends and his manager, the big West Ham striker has begun to score the goals which were missing from his game - and has won over the doubters in the process.

Cole is keen to pay tribute to Gianfranco Zola, for helping him achieve the best form of his career and win over supporters who had been vocal in their criticism. The striker's goal in Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Hull City was his 10th of the season and equalled a post-war club record set by Tony ­Cottee that had stood for more than two decades. Naturally, Cole is in ebullient mood but he admits his success could not have been achieved without Zola's help off the pitch. In truth, he says, his manager has unleashed the lion in him.

"Claudio Ranieri gave me two options when I was at Chelsea — become a lion or a rabbit," recalls Cole. "For a long time I was a rabbit but I think the lion in me is coming out. At one stage football was just secondary to me. But now I’m thinking I have only got one chance and I’m going to take it with both hands." The former Chelsea youngster is in the form of his life at the moment, to such an extent he was linked with a move to Italian giants Juventus- and a reunion with Ranieri- earlier this month. La Vecchia Signora's alleged interest should not surprise, even if the Italians subsequently denied it. When he was Chelsea manager, Ranieri declared Cole the best youngster with whom he had ever worked. Presumably the Italian kept an eye on the one-time prodigy and has noted that now, at last, Cole has started to fulfil his formidable potential.

Not that he is the finished article, far from it, but he is getting there. His strike on Wednesday night made it five in as many appearances for United, but the 25 year old is still not happy with his record in front of goal. "I need to get more goals, more of the easier ones,” said Cole. "I'm proud - but I just need to keep on going and add more goals to my game." With new found pragmatism he added: "I could have scored a hat-trick against Hull but I musn't be greedy."

Such is Cole's confidence that he was even able to smile after those several glaring misses against the Tigers. That, he admits, is partly down to the more relaxed atmosphere he finds himself playing in now, specifically at home, where he was regularly the target of abuse from frustrated supporters. "It's nice to have the fans on my side now," he said. "When you have a relationship with the fans you can make mistakes and know they are not going to get on your back. That's why it's nice to have them on your side. I've been there when the fans ain't been really great to me and that's been tough. You have to take the rough with the smooth but I'm happy I have them on my side now and they really help me out with my goals."

It's not only the fans who have sat up and taken notice either. Purring with satisfaction at the big striker's current strike rate is the man who could lose the record tomorrow, West Ham legend Cottee. The former striker was at Upton Park on Wednesday night to see Cole score one and miss a few more and he said: "Confidence is the key word for all strikers. I remember that season of 1985, I didn't hit the target for the first seven games while Frank McAvennie was scoring for fun. That spurred me on though and I soon began hitting the back of the net. It's a great feeling when you're on a run like Carlton's because you go out in every game convinced you're going to score. My advice would be not to think about it too deeply but just enjoy it, because those sort of scoring runs don't come along too often in your career.

"Carlton could certainly have scored a hat-trick the other night but I wouldn't be too worried about that if I was him. Strikers usually have to get three chances to score one and although you always want to score more, he's doing fine. I heard someone the other day say some nice things about the rest of Carlton's game but added that he doesn't score enough goals. The harsh reality is, although you might be playing well for the team and doing everything else well, a striker is ultimately going to be judged on how many goals they score. The fans often don't see the runs you make or the hard work you put in. If you're a striker it's the end product which really counts and Carlton is certainly achieving that."

Yet the hottest striker in the Premier League insists he will not allow his current blistering streak to turn him into a big-time Charlie, despite a run of form that has reportedly catapulted him into the thoughts of England boss Fabio Capello. "My personal opinion is that it might be a bit too early to talk about Carlton and England but if he goes on improving as he is, he won't be that far away," insists Cottee. "After all, if Fabio Capello wants to play a big man up front the choice is limited to Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch and Carlton, who is different to the other two."

Cole will lead the line for Gianfranco Zola's side at The Emirates on Saturday, where victory would be the Hammers' seventh in eight matches and could take them seventh in the table, just five points off a Uefa Cup spot. "The statistics will show that this is best form of my career but I've just got to keep on going," said Cole. "I'm not going to let it get to my head. I know what I'm capable of and I just have to keep getting in the right positions." While his record would go by the wayside if Cole scores against Arsenal, Cottee is hoping the former Chelsea man makes it six in a row. "Players are very protective of their records," he admits, "but if West Ham win 1-0 and Carlton scores the goal, I will be happy."

"The boys know what we can do, We're playing well, training even better and people can see how confident we are at the moment," enthuses Cole. "We just need to keep it going now. The keyword for us at the moment is unity, we're at one with each other. Obviously we have a lot of respect for both Arsenal and Manchester United because they're both great teams but we can only go out there and play our game. We're certainly not fazed by the thought of playing Arsenal but on the other hand we're not getting ahead of ourselves because if we go to The Emirates thinking how good we are, we're going to get brushed aside. We just need to carry on with the same things we've been doing so well in the last few weeks. When you step out on that pitch though you have to feel confident. That's the most important thing for a player, to have confidence in your ability to try and get the right result. For me personally I would love to score against any of the top four teams because that would put me on a different level."

The former England U21 international was a trainee at Chelsea during Zola's time at the West London club and enjoyed loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Aston Villa before settling at the Hammers in 2007. Since Zola took over from Alan Curbishley in September Cole has blossomed with breathtaking effect. "I'm playing with more awareness now," said Cole of the effect of the man he used to play alongside at Chelsea. "That is because the manager has made an effort in trying to make me aware of what's going on around me on the pitch and that only comes with games. When you play more games, the more aware you become of things around you. Now I know I can play at this level, I just need to keep on going."

Like the Lion who develops the taste for blood, Cole admits: "The goals have changed me. I have been playing the same all year, but now I am notching a few and that is all I was missing. You need to follow your own instincts and you only get that when you play more games in the Premier League. I did a lot last season to warrant a place in the squad and I am just happy that everything is working out for me now and I am getting the goals this club deserves."

Whether Cole will get the English place he deserves should not even be open to question. Paul Doyle, writing in The Guardian, sees Cole's rise as another feel good story in what has been a great season for 'Jilted of London'. As Arsenal fans have been denouncing Arsène Wenger for his short-sighted sales of Lassana Diarra and Matthew Upson, and Tottenham have gone down on their knees and pleaded with Jermain Defoe and even Pascal Chimbonda to forgive and forget, for a huge fee, the loudest laugh could yet belong to Carlton Cole, a player passed from pillar-to-post in his nomadic early career. For in Premier League terms, argues Doyle, Cole is now better in the Heskey role than Heskey is. He may have been central to England's wins over Croatia and Belarus, but Heskey's England days are numbered and, since Dean Ashton is crocked and Kevin Davies is (a) nearly 32 and (b) Kevin Davies, Cole is the obvious heir.

Cole boasts all of Heskey's vaunted physical attributes plus a surer touch, superior finishing and a better football brain. As Doyle notes, it is easy to find strikers with better scoring rates than Heskey – and Cole has eight league goals this season to Heskey's four – but Heskey's preposterously poor goal haul is frequently excused on the grounds that he is a selfless grunt whose work enables others to enjoy the glory. Thing is, Cole is better at this side of things too. Last season he had more than three times as many assists as Heskey (indeed, only four forwards – Ashley Young, Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Salomon Kalou – contributed more assists than Cole) and that trend has continued this season. Cole, then, has the technique you would expect from a player regularly picked by Gianfranco Zola.

Cole, like Heskey, still sometimes comes across as infuriatingly dozy, as if he needs a few pokes with a cattle prod to convince him to harness his power, but mostly he appears to have found a consistency that has long eluded him. Clearly he is benefiting from a sustained spell of first-team action; though he has been knocking about for years, he has only made 80 first-team starts in his career, exactly the same as Heskey made at Wigan.

The final word on Cole goes to Doyle: An Emile Heskey-a-like who also scores goals? Isn't that a Didier Drogba? Well, not quite. But it's certainly someone who deserves a call from Fabio Capello.

No comments:


Copyright 2007 ID Media Inc, All Right Reserved. Crafted by Nurudin Jauhari