"When you’re older, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren you were at Upton
Park the day Joe Cole signed his first professional contract."
West Ham PA
"Lionel Messi can do some amazing things but, anything
he can do, Joe can do as well, if not better."
Steven Gerrard, August 2010
This is the man parts of England’s World Cup squad almost went to war with Fabio Capello over last summer, and someone who can look in his trophy cabinet and see at least three Premier League and two FA Cup winners medals gleaming back at him, along with more than 50 England caps.
But while this time last year, Cole was seen as the saviour of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, this summer he is contemplating a backward step. A move away from one of England’s biggest clubs and into the second, or maybe even third, tier of Premier League sides.
So how has it come to this and what does it say about the development of English football that a player so gifted, and not yet even 30, is now being ignored and marginalised by some of the game’s top managers?
Cole has grown up as a footballer directly in the public eye perhaps a result of having the neither shy nor retiring Harry Redknapp as his first manager.
Even when Cole was a young teenager, he was talked up by Redknapp, who would let it be known Sir Alex Ferguson was a big admirer and willing to offer big money or big names to take the Islington-born youngster to Old Trafford.
Not that Cole needed any hyping from his manager. He was clearly a special talent from a very young age and he and Michael Carrick were the star turns in a West Ham youth side that thrashed Coventry 9-0 over two legs in the 1999 Youth Cup final.
But while Carrick was built by the Hammers academy as a latter-day Trevor Brooking, all controlled passing and midfield authority, Cole was quite different.
He had flicks and tricks but with a purpose. He would drop a shoulder and take players on, play incisive one-twos and create chances. He would also score goals. Cole didn’t have enough power to shoot from the edge of the box, but that would come with age.
By January 1999, he was ready for his West Ham debut in an FA Cup tie against Swansea and, at the end of that month, Redknapp took great delight in showing off his prize possession during West Ham’s trip to Manchester United.
Cole’s progression was rapid and he was soon a regular fixture in the West Ham side. Redknapp’s preferred tactics of attacking the opposition suited his play and he quickly became a fan favourite.
But while adored in East London, to many others Cole was seen as a luxury player and one who couldn’t be trusted.
This was a view reinforced in March 2002, when Cole, now an established international, gave the ball away in a dangerous area to allow Vincenzo Montella to score for Italy in a game England lost 2-1. Cole went on to play a minimal role in that summer’s World Cup.
To those who watched him every week at Upton Park, the luxury label was unfair, but it stuck. I was in an England press box when a journalist kept shouting “give us another trick, Joe” as Cole and the rest of the side struggled.
His final season at West Ham should have proved the doubters wrong once and for all. Despite big names around him, such as Paolo Di Canio, Fredi Kanoute and David James, Cole was named captain and worked tirelessly to try to keep the struggling Hammers up.
There was nothing luxurious about the way he battled away in central midfield in a relegation fight the Hammers ultimately lost. And with the drop came Cole’s departure to Chelsea. He was clearly too good for the Championship
Free from the shackles of a relegation dogfight, and surrounded by quality players, Cole was the right age and in the right environment to flourish.
His Stamford Bridge career began under Claudio Ranieri, who appeared a good fit for Cole’s natural talent. But lack of silverware led to the Italian’s removal and, while the incoming José Mourinho proved good for Chelsea, he proved a disaster for Cole and England.
Mourinho is a control freak. Granted, a hugely successful one, but a control freak none the less. Despite sitting on the touchline, he likes to be in control on the pitch and that means having players who follow his instructions to the letter.
He appears to distrust players who think for themselves and are unpredictable. At Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps the first Mourinho player granted a free rein. But, rewarded with more than 50 goals last season, the coach can afford to make an exception. Cole, by contrast, was denied a free pass.
While Mourinho will point to the success Cole enjoyed under him at Stamford Bridge, he stripped the flair from the player and built him into a bog-standard wide midfielder.
For an easy comparison, look at pictures of the wiry, fleet-footed Cole who broke into the West Ham team with the bulked-up sturdy version who eventually left Chelsea in 2010. Of course, over the years Cole was bound to grow but, under Mourinho, his physicality changed and it affected his game.
Mourinho’s desire to play 4-3-3 also meant Cole was marginalised on the left-wing. While the likes of Frank Lampard, Claude Makélelé and Michael Essien would patrol the centre, Cole was directed to attack and defend along a narrow strip of the pitch, making sure he was always on hand to aid Ashley Cole should the opposition attack.
Defend first, then think about attacking a methodology completely at odds with how Cole should have been used.
While Cole was picking up trophies with the Blues, the fact he was having his natural flair coached out of him failed to register with the media and fans. Where it was clearly noticeable was with England, where supporters could not rely on Roman Abramovich’s millions to buy star players for them.
By rights, Cole should have been a sensation in an England shirt. His ability to open up tight defences would have been a huge asset at international level, but he was never entrusted entirely with the responsibility in a similar vein to creative gems Glenn Hoddle and Matthew Le Tissier before him.
Virtually unused at the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, Cole, along with the rest of England’s “Golden Generation”, was due to come of age in Germany in 2006. Sadly, it wasnt to be.
With a stunning volley against Sweden, he was arguably England’s best player in the group stages. But as the tournament progressed, Cole’s influence diminished and his World Cup came to a disappointing end when he was substituted minutes after Wayne Rooney was sent off in the quarter-final against Portugal.
Four years later in South Africa, Cole was once again a peripheral figure in coach Capello’s plans. After opening draws against the United States and Algeria, there was a national outcry for him to be included in the vital game against Slovenia. Chelsea team-mate John Terry went so far as to call for his inclusion in a press conference, a move that clearly challenged Capello’s authority.
But sadly, by then, the Joe Cole who fans, the media and team-mates were demanding had long gone.
The tricky midfield dynamo with a dozen tricks up his sleeve, the player who would move spectators slightly closer to the edge of their seats when he received the ball, was no longer there. By 2010, Cole was just another in a long line of so-so left-sided midfielders who would do a job, but would not be expected to change the game.
Capello clearly understood what Cole had become and refused to bend to the will of media, keeping Cole on the bench until 20 minutes from time. He performed a similar role in the second-round defeat to Germany, to date Cole’s last England appearance.
Cole’s brief performances in South Africa came as an unattached player after Chelsea had refused to meet new contract demands and let his existing deal expire.
By the end of his time at Stamford Bridge, Cole was far from a regular. Injuries hampered his attempts to impress Carlo Ancelotti but, even when fit, the Italian chose to put his trust in the likes of Florent Malouda.
Despite brief interest from Redknapp, now at Tottenham, and rumours of a homecoming to West Ham, Cole decided his future lay with Liverpool.
The signing was portrayed as a great coup for new boss Roy Hodgson and with the likes of Reds captain Gerrard comparing him favourably to Lionel Messi, Cole was clearly rated by his team-mates.
But his first, and possibly only, season at Anfield proved a disaster. Sent off in his first game and then struck down by injury, by the time Cole was ready to resume, Liverpool were a club in crisis.
He rarely featured under new boss Kenny Dalglish and, with the rebuilding signs up around the Liverpool squad this summer, it looks as though Cole could be sacrificed.
He only turns 30 this November, but it seems Cole’s career has peaked and it’s only downhill from here. He has been linked with yet another reunion with Redknapp, but if that doesn’t come off, then Fulham or Queens Park Rangers are also mooted as possible destinations.
No offence to the two West London clubs but, by this stage of his career, Cole should be a regular feature in a title-winning side built around him.
So what went wrong?
Well, Mourinho must shoulder some blame for changing Cole as a player. During seven years at Chelsea, he went from midfield maverick to steady left-winger – a description which clearly doesn’t shout progress.
But Cole must also take some blame. Maybe he was never as good as we all thought. Maybe the excitement that caused the Upton Park PA announcer to talk so highly about him all those years ago was just hype.
Cole was clearly a class apart against players his own age but. when it came to the Premier League, maybe he didn’t have the tools to stand out on a consistent basis.
Perhaps the failure to marry the tactical discipline required by Mourinho with Cole’s natural creativity is more the fault of player than manager.
Or maybe it’s something different. Maybe there is just no room for the flair player in English football today.
Manchester United won the title last season with a functional side, while despite Roman Abramovich’s desire to see Chelsea play exciting, attacking football, they are still most comfortable in the tactical straightjacket imposed in Mourinho’s day.
Even Arsenal, the standard bearers for the type of passing football Cole would revel in, do not have a standout player. Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshere are clearly the best of the bunch, but are they exciting to watch? Is there a hush in the crowd or a rumbling of excitement when they get the ball?
Perhaps the only modern player comparable to what Cole could have been is Messi. Nurtured by Barcelona, and able to marry attacking verve with tactical responsibility, he has made his small size a virtue and is rightly seen as the best player in the world.
Could the young Joe Cole have developed into an English version of the great Argentinian? Possibly, possibly not. Sadly, we will never find out.