Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Perfect Footballing Tool

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them can stop the time.
Redemption Song
The chronic shortage of established forward options for Fabio Capello means there could be a striking role for the Premier League's most in-form hitman in this evening's hotly anticipated friendly with Spain, reports the Times. Carlton Cole arrived in Seville with the hope of coming off the bench on a night when Capello will use his maximum six substitutes, but the sight of Emile Heskey sitting out last night’s training session in the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán stadium to protect his sore Achilles tendon has raised the prospect of the United striker starting alongside Gabriel Agbonlahor.

It would be a partnership with just one cap between them — from the Aston Villa forward’s bright debut against Germany in November — and England’s striking options, or lack of them, may seem stark when set against those of Spain, the European champions, who have Fernando Torres and David Villa. In the absence of Wayne Rooney, Peter Crouch is another alternative if Heskey is forced to sit on the sidelines, but it was Cole and Agbonlahor who were paired in training yesterday, both bounding around with wide-eyed enthusiasm. And if Cole does not get his chance now, states Matt Dickinson, on the back of good form for West Ham United, he probably never will.

At 25, it is quite late for Cole to be making his senior debut, but then he did choose a roundabout route, with loan moves to Charlton Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, after he failed to make the grade at Chelsea through lack of application. Cole's career has been nomadic; a striker with undoubted talent trying to settle. Chelsea saw promise but the Croydon-born forward made only 25 league appearances in five years, scoring four goals. Cole was loaned out to try to provoke a reaction, but all those spells combined failed to trigger his career, with a modest return of eight league goals in 55 games.

That poor return continued for two seasons before Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke came along, familiar faces and men prepared to give Cole a cuddle. Prior to their arrival as manager and assistant in September, Cole had managed one more goal in the league, but all that has changed now. An impressive return of six goals in seven games, from December into January, signalled Cole's arrival, although his performance against Manchester United on Sunday, in front of Capello, showed both his physical attributes as he brushed off Rio Ferdinand but also the lack of killer instinct as he attempted to score with an over-elaborate chip.

That said, the West Ham striker has come a long way since his days at Chelsea, when he was headstrong and behind Gianfranco Zola, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for a place in the team. Five years previous, at Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri would call Cole ‘My Tyson’ and little wonder. His young striker had just laid out a senior professional on the training ground and there were no regrets. Jesper Gronkjaer had been getting on Cole’s nerves during a practice session, nipping the young cub’s ankles so often that he snapped and punched the Chelsea winger in the face. "It might have looked vicious and some of the lads said it looked like I was going to 'do' him but, hand on heart, it wasn’t like that," Cole, just 20, said at the time. "Everyone was gearing up for the West Bromwich game and things got pretty heated among the players."

As a first-year professional, he struggled to get out of bed in Brentford to make the five-mile drive to Chelsea’s old training ground in Harlington. He was frequently late, fined for snoozing by a manager who still regarded him as the best young striker he had worked with. "I’ve never coached a young player as good as Carlton," claimed Ranieri at the time. "He’s fantastic and he has a very big future at Chelsea."

That was in 2002. Not long after, Cole would play on a Wednesday for Chelsea reserves at Aldershot and then turn out for his uncle Duncan’s Sunday League side in Greenford. He was jeopardising his career, but Cole is anything but a conformist. "The penny has finally dropped but it has taken a long time," said Alan Curbishley, who managed the striker at both Charlton (where he was on loan) and West Ham. "He has everything you want in a modern striker. He is strong, he has pace and he is difficult to mark but the one area of his game he needs to improve is his goalscoring."

Cole was the recipient of the Golden Boot when he was in Chelsea’s youth team, an in-house award given to the club’s leading scorer, and his career was expected to blossom. After he made his debut as a substitute against Everton in April 2002, Ranieri put him in the same bracket as reserves team-mate and future England captain John Terry. But Cole took it too easy, buying a Mercedes 4x4 with his first pay packet and back-chatting opposition defenders with some west London bravado during his frequent run-outs with the reserves.

By then he had a taste of first-team action and believed he was good enough for a place in a side challenging for Champions League qualification without putting in the hard graft with the second string. Eventually, he was loaned to Charlton, then Wolves and Aston Villa, before eventually signing for West Ham. Trouble with a long-standing knee complaint allowed the then Upton Park manager Alan Pardew to negotiate an attractive performance-related arrangement with Chelsea, highlighting why clubs prefer the details of such deals to stay ‘undisclosed’.

Off the field, Cole sometimes struggles with the complexities of day-to-day life, shrugging off a visit from the bailiffs to West Ham’s training ground in 2007 when they were chasing him over unpaid congestion charges. He claimed his friends were driving his car through central London, failing to pay the £8 toll, but he eventually forked out for the heavy fine. His lifestyle remains an area of concern. He was arrested for drink-driving in September last year, but believes he is on the straight and narrow under the pastoral care of Zola.

It helps that he held the former Italy forward in such high esteem when they were together at Chelsea, listening to Zola’s guidance and becoming a more rounded. "He doesn’t have to be nasty to be a very good player," insisted Zola last week. Cole’s performances on the field have improved this season. He scored a notable goal at Newcastle when he controlled the ball with the outside of his boot before lashing it beyond Shay Given. His form has elevated him into the England squad, a reward for the hard work that he has put in this season.

Now 25, Cole is a coruscating mountain of muscle, something Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will readily testify to after he roughed up the best central defensive pairing in the Barclays Premier League at Upton Park on Sunday. "He has grown in stature, but that’s because he is working for a manager who understands him," said Ferdinand. "He is appreciated and working in an environment that suits him. He is a young player, he wants to learn and he is better for it."

Of course, some footballers are born unthinking competitors – like Michael Essien who apparently sleeps all day until you wake him and stick a football before him: instant intensity. Some are less fortunate, condemned to struggle with doubt and insecurity. While most are rarely troubled by physical uncertainty- their bodies are tools, trained through unvarying repetition into automatic muscle response- the training of the mind is much trickier. Just ask Cole. He is 6ft 4in, searingly swift at full lope and blessed with the co-ordination to instantly tame the blur of a passing ball; in short, the corporeal embodiment of the perfect footballing tool. However, he has never managed to master those physical gifts and he confesses to have become plagued by the idea of his own unfulfilled potential. Yet in the past months and weeks something has happened to Cole: he has begun to shed the skin of his old timidity and the result has been revelatory.

He is now the in-form striker in the division, his five goals in seven Premier League games attracting the curiosity of Fabio Capello. Through the faithful cajoling of Gianfranco Zola and his coaching team, combined with the advent of a greater maturity, Cole has flourished into the footballer he has always threatened to be. When he arrived at West Ham, Zola knew there was real ability trapped inside Cole. He had played alongside him as a rangy teenager at Chelsea, seen his capabilities but also how he inhibited them. "The manager knew what I was about, knew I had to build on what I had done last season," Cole said. "He said in front of the whole team that he has 100 per cent faith in me and that if you get the ball up to Carlton, he'll cause the opposition problems. I had to change my mentality. I had to become more selfish. It is hard to change your mentality after playing three or four years in the same way but it's happening now."

Kevin Keen and Steve Clarke have stalked Cole on the training ground with the mantra: "goals, goals, goals". With training becoming more intense, with lots of fast ball-work, Cole has been part of a general elevation of expectations and ambitions. But it has been establishing a personal commitment to improvement that has allowed him to thrive in Zola and Clarke's team. He takes home and studies DVDs of his own performances and works closely with a sports psychologist. He says he "has read whole a host of books" to help with motivation and focus.

Books? Most players prefer the bookies. "I've read about the greatest people in sport. I read about the lives of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, people like that. I'm not saying I'm going to get up there but I'm going to try and get up there. That's the only way you progress in life is if you aim for the highest point. If you keep striving and are never satisfied then you'll do well in your career. I know how important it is for me to take my life seriously. Things happened off the field that were out of my control. It set me back a bit. I don't want to go back into it. A few things have happened away from the field made me realise how important football is and how many people would love to be in my position. There are a lot of people who would rather not think about football, go home and relax. At this stage of my life, I think I have pissed away a large percentage of my career. Well, maybe not pissed away but not been focused enough. I'm making up for lost time, trying to get to a level where I can say I have achieved a lot."

Those troubles off the field – the most recent being that arrest in September – are, he insists, behind him. Cole seems a man finally at peace with himself these days, unlike those early years at Stamford Bridge. "I am unrecognisable as a person from then," he insists. "When I was at Chelsea I was really immature. I made my first team debut at 18 but soon got involved in stupid stuff off the field."

Cole makes special mention of one example of 'stupid stuff' when he and Wigan defender Titus Bramble were among those questioned over an alleged rape case in a London hotel back in 2003. In the event the case was dropped and neither man faced charges. "I've had loads of really low times," he says. "I would get back on track for a while and then go off the rails again. It was partly my fault and partly those around me. I've ditched loads of so-called friends since those bad times.It's unbelievable how many friends I thought I had but turned out to be hangers-on. My life is back on track now and I'm never going back. There was a lot expected of me at a young age at Chelsea. Some people cope with that pressure but I didn't handle it well, I realise that now. In the end I was shipped out so many times to various clubs that I never really found my feet.

"It's only now that I'm getting my life back on an even keel and I'm so happy here at West Ham. I've never played so many games in a season before and that has meant I've grown up on the pitch as well. It's a great feeling, knowing you are one of the team's main strikers. It does my confidence so much good. It's only now I realise I can have a good future in the game and I want to carry on as long as possible. I feel really solid in myself, content." He has a young son with wife Sophia, which puts a new perspective on things, and what he calls the "support system" of his mother and uncle to help maintain his new-found "drive". His mother, who still buys her boy his Marks and Sparks underpants, is from Sierra Leone and he visits relatives there every year. He has also begun to visit Nigeria, his father's home country.

"I go back to Sierra Leone every year. It's funny, I saw Craig Bellamy there last time. He's contributed a lot to a football academy there. I didn't know he was doing it until I saw him there! I said to him, 'You come to my country and don't even tell me!' I've got a lot of family there. I've been going to Nigeria for a couple of years now, straight after Sierra Leone. I was there in the summer and played in Jay-Jay Okocha's testimonial match. The fans are unbelievable. I didn't realise people knew me there. It's crazy. That spurred me on – they worship you. It opened my eyes to another side of football. They approached me to play for the Nigerian national team. At the time I was nowhere near the England set up so I agreed to it. However there were some complications with Fifa. I had represented England under 21s and been captain so it was a bit unfair."

The flirtation with playing for Nigeria shows how far Cole thought himself to be from the England reckoning. How things change. Capello has been impressed with Cole's pace and power and the quality of his approach play, while expressing reservations about his composure in front of goal. He should keep watching. Cole is coming into his own. Not only that, he is finally letting his feet do the talking.

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