As featured on Guardian Sport
“Yes, the actual Joe Cole,” the tweet read. “Seriously, Joe Cole. The real Joe Cole.” Coventry City’s Twitter feed wasn’t the only one incredulous. Joe Cole, three-time Premier League title winner, two-time FA Cup victor and owner of 56 England caps had signed on loan for a League One side who, until recently, were unable to play home games in their own stadium. Although from the outside it may look like a case of the mighty falling, both Cole and Coventry have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t happened regularly throughout his career – they can use him properly.
There is nothing that the British media loves more than hype. We are a nation so starved of footballing star quality that we thrust enormous amounts of pressure and expectation on the fragile, underdeveloped shoulders of any youngster that shows a glimmer of something special. It’s a mistake to think this is a more modern phenomenon; the frenzied media circus around Joe Cole was already in full swing before he had even made his professional debut in 1999.
As damaging as this tendency is, it’s easy to see why the media fawned over him. You need only watch his performance over both legs of an FA Youth Cup final against Coventry City, of all opponents. It was breath-taking and highlighted all of the qualities that he possessed as a player: creativity, flair, technical ability, vision and overflowing self-confidence. He was the ethereal, ill-defined concept of ‘the West Ham way’ made flesh – a nutmeg incarnate, a rabona in a flat peak cap. In short, he had all of the attributes to play as a trequartista, a player tailor made to play as a number 10. It’s just a shame that managers rarely ever used him as one.
It is often said of some players that they were born in the wrong era. This line is often trotted out regarding hatchet man centre halves and lumbering target men, and is generally used to refer to the physicality of a modern day player being more suited to the Neolithic era of the game where you could physically assault your opponent and come away with a stern telling off from the ref at worst. But I think, as a sentiment, it’s more applicable to Joe Cole – someone who was born an era too early, who has been a victim of tactical circumstance. Cole’s potential was hamstrung by being born in a time – and a country – with slavish adherence to tactical systems that had no room for a pure attacking midfielder of his ilk.
Shortly after pulling on the claret and blue for the first time, it was apparent just how talented Cole was, frequently showing great invention and assuredness in possession beyond his years, the sort of player who could do a Cruyff turn in a phone box. After making a handful of appearances for the rest of the season, it didn’t take long for the Londoner to become an established member of the first team. He showed great leadership at West Ham, always willing to receive the ball and take on the responsibility of possession in a side that, at times, struggled to keep hold of the ball.
It was this maturity that saw Glenn Roeder give him the captain’s armband at the age of 21. Despite the flashes of brilliance, he was often shunted out wide and wasn’t used to his full potential. Both Harry Redknapp and Roeder were strict disciples of the gospel of 4-4-2, meaning that there was no opportunity for him to play in a more advanced area with freedom. Cole’s versatility and ingenuity counted against him as he was frequently forced into playing wide to accommodate other players.
Playing with a dedicated attacking midfielder is a luxury that struggling teams can rarely afford, so perhaps it’s understandable that he had to sacrifice his game for the good of the team. His talents were enough to earn him the Hammer of the Year award in 2003, but not enough to stop his boyhood team being relegated.
Cole had impressed enough, despite his team’s plight, to catch the eye of Claudio Ranieri, and the Italian signed the West Ham skipper, referring to him as “our new Gianfranco Zola” and highlighting Cole’s dribbling as a vital attribute. Such glowing praise was rarely matched with follow through though – for all the talk, Cole found himself plugging gaps all across midfield, a footballing equivalent of Polyfilla, more often than he operated as a true successor to Zola. Still, he had a fruitful first season at Chelsea as they qualified for the Champions League with a last-day victory against Leeds. Then, José came along.
Joe Cole’s move to Chelsea brought him great success and much was made of Mourinho moulding him into a better player, instilling Cole with a more committed work ethic and a more defensive mindset, but did he lose some of his spark in this transition? It’s certainly debatable. Cole found himself hindered once again by tactical circumstance, with Mourinho’s strict adherence to 4-5-1 meaning the only opportunity was out on the wing. During his time at Stamford Bridge, he changed from the sort of player who could win a game by himself into just another cog in the Mourinho machine.
He was undeniably effective in this role, capitalising on the opportunities granted to him by his injury-prone winger teammates. Cole’s trickery and one-on-one ability enabled him to flourish for spells, being a reliable source of goals and assists for the Blues. At times, though, he was an isolated figure, his impact diminished by having to play his game on the periphery of matches rather than at the heart of them. José’s influence made Cole a better winner but did he make him a better footballer?
Burdening Joe Cole with disciplined tracking back seemed to shackle him; an artist made to try to paint with boxing gloves on. This has always been the terms of the Faustian bargain when it comes to playing for Mourinho – your soul for medals; a man so consumed by the force of his own personality that he must coach it out of his players. In retrospect, Cole’s development could act as a blueprint for what happened at Chelsea with Kevin de Bruyne and Juan Mata: learn to defend first or you’re out.
Still, it was the most successful period of his career and it was during this time that Cole cemented himself as a fixture in the England squad. A combination of his wide role for Chelsea, Sven’s dogmatic insistence on playing 4-4-2, and the national team’s dearth of left-footed wingers meant that Cole had to do the graveyard shift on the left of midfield.
He is one in a long list of examples of England failing to make the most of their most creative players; Glenn Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and Paul Scholes all found their impact on the national stage limited by either not being played in their best position or barely playing at all, and is indicative of a nation that consistently fits players to suit a system rather than fitting a system to suit players. Joe Cole performed admirably in what was a broadly thankless task but it was nowhere near the best use of his abilities. There were glimpses though – his razor sharp volley against Sweden in 2006 giving a taste of what could have been.
A string of injuries hampered the end of his Chelsea career meaning his game time had been severely limited so, at the end of his contract, a free transfer move to Liverpool represented a fresh start, both in terms of club and role. First impressions can be difficult to shake though, and it’s difficult to think of many worse first impressions than Cole’s Liverpool league debut, which lasted just 45 minutes after a red card for a late challenge on Laurent Koscielny. He followed this up by missing a penalty in his next competitive game, and he never truly recovered from these initial setbacks to impose himself in a leading role. Liverpool was a chance for Joe Cole to establish himself as the creative force he always promised, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, he found himself farmed out on loan the following season to Lille, where he proved to be a wildly popular figure, and where he arguably got the closest to fulfilling the potential as a playmaker. Lille were coming off a title-winning season and were looking to supplement their squad for a Champions League campaign, and Cole was a low-risk option. It proved to be a much better fit for him than his time at Liverpool. Rudi García had a clear appreciation for the potential benefits of allowing your most creative players to play free of restrictions – you need only look at the way Eden Hazard, Ludovic Obraniak and Dmitri Payet were allowed to express themselves. The French side actually deployed Cole in his best role, giving him the license to go and play with unbridled creativity, to exchange passes with his fellow playmakers, and to allow other players to do his running.
There are frequent calls for more British players to go and play abroad, and while Cole should be applauded for his willingness to go and experience playing in another country, the praise comes with a few caveats. Cole was commuting to the North French coast from his London home. It’s not difficult to imagine Joe Cole, Pearly King jacket jangling, trotting through the cobbled streets of Vieux Lille one afternoon after training frantically searching for a pie and mash shop, desperate for his daily dose of jellied eels.
Given that, it should come as no surprise that Joe ended up coming home. Like a Cockney sparrow coming home to roost, or a salmon struggling back upstream so he can spawn in the lake where he was born, he found his way back to Upton Park. It’s testament to him that he wasn’t ever booed when returning as an opposition player to the Boleyn Ground; just think of the receptions that Lampard, Defoe and Ince have received after jumping ship. But even though this was a markedly different Joe Cole to the one that left a decade previously, it was never going to work out with Sam Allardyce – you couldn’t find less of a Big Sam player if possible.
Cole was relegated to cameo appearances from the bench and even then, it was coming on to play on the wing. He had never been a player who had relied on pace in terms of attacking space in behind defenders, but he required a quickness of feet that allowed him to manipulate the ball fast enough to beat his marker. Injuries and age meant that he often struggled to impact games as some of his sharpness had been dulled; he was now more spatula than scalpel. It was not the happy homecoming he desired.
It was the same at Villa, playing in a side that couldn’t afford to play with a pure attacking player due to the threat of a relegation scrap. He was afforded even less game time at Villa Park than he was in his second coming at West Ham, although Sherwood did find time to praise him for the positive influence he had on Jack Grealish, a player who could easily fall into the same trap that Cole did – having his clear inherent creativity coached out of him in order to produce a more industrious type of player.
A loan move away seemed inevitable, but it’s surprising that he dropped two levels. This move presents a real opportunity for both Coventry and Cole. They could actually utilise him properly by allowing him to play centrally with the sole responsibility of finding space and manufacturing opportunities for his teammates. He had the misfortune of rarely finding himself playing for managers that value the type of player he is by nature. He’s likely to be something of a marked man due to his reputation, but it’s a challenge that Cole will undoubtedly relish.
Given a chance, we could see him return to the carefree playmaker he was in his youth and perhaps in the process catch a glimpse of what could have been if things had turned out differently. All we can hope for is that he is granted the same creative freedom that Coventry City’s social media team were.
By Tom Mason. Follow @Mase159