Happiness can exist only in acceptance...Perhaps Thomas Wolfe was wrong. Maybe you can go back home to your family, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to lyricism, to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of 'the artist' and the all-sufficiency of 'art' and 'beauty' and 'love,' away from all the strife and conflict to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time, back home to the escapes of Time and Memory. As Joe Cole settled back into the familiar bosom of West Ham United on an 18-month deal in January, still bright-eyed but no longer fresh of face as he returned to where it all began, a couple of stories came to mind recalls Oliver Kay.
The first, courtesy of a former team-mate, concerns a training-ground conversation about the best players in world football. Cole was gushing about Paul Gascoigne, Roberto Baggio and Zinedine Zidane and was asked what he admired most about them. "The flicks, the tricks, the skills," came the misty-eyed reply. The second is a tale from Chelsea’s training ground some years later as Cole, by now aware that his trickery on the ball would only get him so far in English football, was putting himself through a new daily routine in the gym. José Mourinho looked in. "What are you doing?" the coach asked. Building up the strength to start playing in the centre, a smiling Cole replied. Mourinho, straight-faced, could not resist the opportunity: "Back in Setubal, I have a donkey. It can run all day but it will never be a racehorse."
They are the tales that always come to mind, along with images of dragbacks and pirouettes, usually as a teenager in West Ham colours, when Kay thinks of Cole. Perhaps it is because they seem to say something about the journey on which his career has taken him, from wide-eyed ingénue at West Ham to his battle for acceptance at Chelsea, through the injuries, the ill-judged move to Liverpool, the flickering hint of a renaissance at Lille, back to misery at Anfield and finally, full circle and back to Upton Park for a new start in the most reassuring of surroundings. This is not how it was meant to be for Cole, widely identified in his youth by those at the top of the game, never mind by a captivated media or public, as the world-class No 10 that English football had been crying out for. The medal count tells us he has had a very good career (three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups for Chelsea, 56 England caps) but he cannot be developed in line with the expectations he or others had for him.
Cole’s story will be cited in some quarters as another black mark against English football, where tactical orthodoxy dictates that the game is played in straight lines, stifling the creativity of such a maverick talent — "too lightweight, chuck him on the wing", that kind of thing. The flaw in this argument is that the managers who have chucked Cole on the wing have tended to be foreigners (Claudio Ranieri, Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello) with the exception of Steve McClaren. When he has been indulged in central positions, it has been by English managers (Harry Redknapp and Glenn Roeder at West Ham, Roy Hodgson, briefly, at Liverpool) and it has rarely been successful. Does this not suggest that English football’s great missed opportunity with Cole was less in his deployment than with his development and, thereafter, with perception? Did the teenage Cole truly have all the attributes — mental, physical, technical, tactical — to be a world-class player or did he just, by English standards, have extraordinary skill on the ball? Did he, in other words, have the tricks and flicks that he admired in Zidane and Baggio but lack the vision or the game-intelligence, quite apart from the physique and hard-nosed determination, that made them into players of the highest class?
English football has a strange relationship with what a generation of players like to refer to on Twitter as #tekkers, argues Kay. Our sadness is not the searing kind but more a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us when such a talent arrives, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind. The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our national game remains. It is why there is distrust at times, but there is also, at times, a misplaced awe. After Cole’s arrival at Liverpool in 2010, Steven Gerrard drooled about the tricks that his new team-mate could perform, saying that "Lionel Messi can do some amazing things, but anything he can do, Joe can do as well, if not better". It comes down to more than skills on the ball. The idea that Cole could have been English football’s Zidane or Andrés Iniesta seems a little misplaced. Zidane and Iniesta are two of the most intelligent, artistic footballers European football has seen — more intelligent and more artistic than Gascoigne and the like. Whether it is an issue of nature or nurture or something of both, Cole did not seem to develop, whether in his youth or his later career, the all-round game that would have made him the player that English football wanted him to be. Nobody can particularly be blamed for that.
Indeed, thinks Daniel Taylor, perhaps we were all a little bit guilty of expecting too much. Maybe we were too seduced by the hype. The first time he came across Cole was back in those days when everybody had heard of him but very few had actually seen him play. Cole, he explains, was part of a youth team at West Ham that had brought in journalists to advise on media training and, though it's going back a few years, a couple of things still stand out. One was that, out of everyone, he seemed the most eager to understand the mechanics of the newspaper industry. One player, no older than 16 or 17, got himself into a hole during the mocked-up interviews, questioning whether Ian Wright, 34 at the time, was past it – "he can't have long, can he?" – and cheerfully debating the possibility of taking his place until another boy let him know, with an expertly administered dead leg, that he had better stop talking. Cole was far more savvy. He had, he explained, already been taking advice, anticipating all the attention coming his way.
Secondly, the West Ham academy at the time, run by Tony Carr, was one of the best in English football, if not the very best and it would be hard to find too many clubs that developed players as astute as Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson and Jermain Defoe in the same era. Yet it was Cole, notes Taylor, who all the other players looked up to. By that stage he had already scored seven times in an England youth international against Spain. Ferdinand tells the story of going to see Cole, then 13, in a schoolboys' game in Southend. "He flicked the ball over his head, then over another player, ran round the other side and collected it. The only time I'd seen anyone do that was Ossie Ardíles in Escape to Victory." Except Ardíles, one imagines, didn't do it in one take. At 15, Cole was invited to train with West Ham's first team. "He was the best player out there," Ferdinand confirms. John Moncur nicknamed him "the Conjuror". For Cole, by far the most hyped of West Ham's Bright Young Things recalls Jacob Steinberg, the limelight was blinding. A year before he had even made his professional debut, Redknapp was writing about him in his programme notes, dismissing reports linking a 16-year-old boy with Manchester United, and on his 17th birthday Cole signed his first professional contract on the pitch at Upton Park before a game against Chelsea. The date was 8 November 1998. "You can tell your grandchildren you were here when Joe Cole signed," said the pitch announcer, Jeremy Nicholas. No pressure, kid.
The other youngsters were all appreciated but none were as adored as much as Cole. He was not Joe Cole, he was Joey Cole. He made his debut in January the following year, coming off the bench in the third round of the FA Cup against Swansea City and a week later he made his first appearance in the league in a 4-1 defeat against United at Old Trafford, where he grabbed the attention with his fearlessness, showing off the flicks and tricks that define him. By now he was impossible to ignore, writes Steinberg, and in May of that year he helped West Ham win the FA Youth Cup. In a hopeless mismatch Coventry City were beaten 9-0 over two legs in the final, West Ham winning the second leg 6-0 at a packed Upton Park. By the time he had turned 21, Cole had played for England eight times and was about to be named captain of his club. Frank Lampard, to put it into context, was still waiting for his first cap at that age. Carrick had two.
It's funny how it works out sometimes, thinks Taylor. By now, you might have seen the archived footage that has found its way on to the internet, from 1996, of a question-and-answer session with West Ham supporters when Redknapp was manager. It's glorious stuff, with one gentleman trying to pin down Harry about how on earth he could justify selling a young lad by the name of Scott Canham – "for peanuts" – when Lampard was in the team and "not good enough". Canham's story after West Ham is an undistinguished journey via Brentford, Leyton Orient, Chesham, Woking, Farnborough and a few others. But nobody in the audience spoke up for the young Lampard when Redknapp was being accused of picking him for no other reason than being his uncle. The camera cuts to where Lampard is sitting and it's all a bit awkward, to say the least. He's smiling, but it's a default smile, the kind of smile when someone has just had bad news and is trying to tell everyone it's OK.
As it turned out, Lampard didn't do too badly, still with an outstanding chance of playing in the next World Cup even though he will turn 36 during the tournament. Carrick, another player who could polarise opinion among the West Ham crowd, has similar aspirations, playing with the control and authority for Manchester United that makes it difficult to understand why Roy Hodgson did not try harder to involve him in Euro 2012. Cole, meanwhile, has found himself in decline for longer than he probably wants to remember. As much as he had the crowd on their feet when the ball was at his, there was also a feeling that a lack of football intelligence and tactical discipline meant he did not make the most of his talent at West Ham. Despite Redknapp playing Cole behind two strikers, his end-product often left much to be desired; there were not enough assists and he only scored 13 goals in his five years with the club. Cole ended up playing some of the best football of his career when Roeder made him West Ham's captain in December 2002 and moved him to a deeper midfield role. The player flourished but, despite his manic efforts, West Ham still went down at the end of that season, unable to reel in Sam Allardyce's Bolton Wanderers side.
So would Cole have done better had he been raised by Spain, as the popular argument goes? Possibly, thinks Kay, but it is a hypothesis that ignores the reality that, in Spain, his technical abilities would seem less exceptional, something to work around rather than something that would make him a superstar. Cole has had some great moments in his career — a personal Kay favourite is an Iniesta-like pass that set up Didier Drogba for a goal against Valencia in the Champions League in 2007 — and he has a handsome medal collection. What he has not had is a true sense of belonging in any team — since leaving West Ham as a 21-year-old, in 2003, he has only twice started more than half of his team’s league matches in a season — and therefore the opportunity to make a sustained impression.
Kay and Taylor were both at Roots Hall on the night that Cole ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in an FA Cup third-round replay against Southend United four years ago. He has never been anything like the same player since — his performances in a turbulent 2½ years at Liverpool, during which he made only nine Barclays Premier League starts, were sad to watch — but even before that injury there was a sense, at the age of 27, that his career had already come to a crossroads. He also lost his place in the England set-up and has not played for his country since the 2010 World Cup finals, even if he believes he still has plenty to offer club and country. "I’ve had a great career but by no means am I finished," Cole insists. "There will always be the England thing in the back of my mind because I played 56 times for my country. I haven’t played since the World Cup in 2010, so something is missing there. I still want to be part of that, but you can’t talk yourself into England squads, you’ve got to perform." Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, beat Redknapp, his Queens Park Rangers counterpart, to Cole’s signature in January and believes the midfielder can force his way into Roy Hodgson’s plans. "If he can recapture his old form and plays on a regular basis for us, Joe is bound to get a bit of interest from Roy," he said at the time. "But his main focus will be making sure he plays for West Ham on a regular basis and producing the form we know he can."
If Cole's career went down a cul-de-sac then the sincere hope is that a return to Upton Park will eventually help him rediscover the spark that made him such a joy to watch in his teenage years. For we depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them, noted de Botton in his study on how human needs and desires manifest their ideals in our environs. We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. As Cole explained to Graham Moody: "It’s very inspiring being back and, at the moment, it all feels like a dream, seeing the same old faces and the same places. It’s different but it’s the same. I can picture myself when I was young sitting in the same places and playing on the same pitches. It’s amazing. I will be inspired here and I can feel how I felt as a youngster again. I play my best football when I’m happy. The 18 months at Liverpool were difficult because I didn’t play as much as I would like. I need to play consistently, and if I’m playing consistently and I’m happy I’m sure I will be the same player I was."
Cole's second coming as a Hammer began encouragingly, delivering the crosses for both goals against Manchester United and playing with the sureness of touch, football intelligence and penetration that wasn't seen enough at Liverpool, bar his time on loan at Lille. West Ham certainly feels like a snug fit thinks Taylor, and it would be nice, too, to trust in Allardyce's famous restorative powers; even if we have reached the point in Cole's career when we probably just have to accept he may never be the player English football wanted him to be. Back where it all began, where they have always thought of him as one of their own, he should benefit from knowing he has the club's trust and affection. This time, however, the expectations have to be considerably lower. Moving back to London may have therapeutic effects but, for all the nostalgic qualities about returning to his first club, the bottom line is Cole would not be back in claret and blue if his career had turned out as everybody thought.
As harsh as it sounds, it boils down to this: When Joe Cole came on the market in January the Premier League's then 11th-placed club gazumped the bottom one, QPR, while the "serious clubs" kept out of it. Not only that, it needed Liverpool to write off a small fortune in the process. You know things haven't been going well when a club would rather give you a £3m payoff than wait any longer on the off-chance it might work out. Of those nine league games Cole actually started for Liverpool, he was sent off in the first and played the full 90 minutes in only three. The last time he started and finished a Premier League match prior to his Upton Park return was two years to the day of his second debut as a West Ham player. The other two occasions go back to September 2010. Cole, earning £92,000 a week, didn't get so much as player of the month. Or even a single man of the match. They paid him off in the end because the alternative was stumping up another £7m in wages over the remainder of his contract. However it is dressed up, it represents an astoundingly bad piece of business.
Perhaps we will always be left wondering why he never fully realised all that rare potential. Maybe he will never properly bridge the gap between a player who can dictate football matches rather than one who merely decorates them, laments Taylor. Yet he is plainly taking the business of reinventing himself seriously and it is enough for now to see him reminding us all why so many people care in the first place. More than anything, it would feel like a terrible waste if, at 31, we have to talk about his gifts in the past tense. Even if he will never be the player English football wanted him to be, suggests Kay, it would just be nice for him to remind himself, as well as the rest of us, of the player he was — that he is a thoroughbred, with some running left in him, rather than a donkey ready to be out to pasture.