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Thursday, 10 January 2013

Joe Cole: A Victim Of English Football

In the space of 15 years Joe Cole went from teenage prodigy to a story of ‘what might have been’. In many ways this isn’t a reflection on Cole himself but a reflection of football in this country; Joe Cole is a victim of English football.

Even before Cole signed professional forms at West Ham there was a mystique about him. There were stories flying around about a kid so talented he was training with 1st team at 15, a kid who could do things with a football that us mere mortals could only dream of. It’s an often repeated story that at the time Alex Ferguson would open any conversation with Hammers manager Harry Redknapp with ‘How’s young Cole coming along’. Coaches from Lilleshall still delight in tales of ‘the best 14 year old we had ever seen’. It seemed the saviour was coming.

He made his debut in the 1st team aged 17 against Swansea in the 3rd round of the F.A Cup. It may have only been a short glimpse of the teenager but his appearance sent the hype machine into overdrive. Further cameos followed, and so did the comparisons to the likes of Michel Platini and Glenn Hoddle. When he was 18 West Ham made him the highest paid teenager in British football, signing him up to a deal worth £20,000 a week rising to £30,000 if he played for England. He played the game without fear; entertainment was the name of the game. All sorts of tricks and flicks were common place; he also had an eye for little defence splitting passes. In short he had a natural god given talent to be able to produce the extraordinary, and he was English. This was too good to be true.

But sadly this is where the troubles began and things started to go wrong. But strangely for a young English player this didn’t mean him going off the rails surrounded by cocaine, strippers and glitter. A backlash began from certain sections of the media and the fans themselves. It seemed Cole didn’t play the game in an ‘English’ way. People questioned why he didn’t pass it square 5 yards when he would take people on, he didn’t work hard enough, he didn’t ‘get up and down’, I got bored of hearing that he should ‘keep hold of it’ when he tried a flick that didn’t work. It seemed that what people wanted to do was to take away everything that made him special and turn him into a boring winger who ran up and down, worked hard and never did anything other than pass the ball sideways and cross it into the box hoping that a forward may get on the end of it.
But most worryingly it seemed that managers didn’t know what to do with him either. English football had confused itself by producing a player with a level of natural flair and ability that would be at home in Spain and Italy. It wasn’t used to this. Now anywhere outside the UK Cole would have been seen as an ideal number 10, playing just off the main forward, creating chances and chipping in with goals himself. He would be used in a position which would get the most out of his talent. Or at a push he would be played wide. Or wider. But not as a winger, he would start wide but would basically be allowed to do whatever he wanted going forward and not be expected to contribute that much defending in his own half. But no this is England. He was put on the wing and expected to run up and down and defend in his own half. Now, there is a common held belief from pundits (normally ex-players) that you ‘can’t have any passengers.’ Manchester United won the league and the Champions League in 2008 with Ronaldo playing wide and not really defending in his own half. I’m not suggesting Cole is as good as Ronaldo but it shows it can be done.

Since these brief halcyon days at West Ham Cole has had a strange career. He went to Chelsea when the Hammers were relegated in 2003 and was very successful. Not always a regular in the side but he was part of a squad that won trophies, but sadly the flair was gone. The Mourinho team had an emphasis on work and putting it all on the line for the team. Yes, Cole won trophies this way but you couldn’t help but think on a personal level he could have done more. He then went to Liverpool on a free transfer where he was paid a lot of money and produced very little. Yes injuries played a part but, when he was given chances to impress he didn’t take them. He enjoyed a brief renaissance on loan at Lille last season. There were still signs of life but back at Liverpool he was again back out of the team.

And that brings us up to now. Cole has just gone home. He has again moved on a free but this time back to West Ham. He marked his return with 2 assists on his 2nd debut against Manchester United. He is unlikely to win any trophies here but he is home and will once again enjoy playing football. Yes throughout his career injuries have played a part, he lost a little bit of something with his knee injuries, but the talent is still there. Just with excessive focus on work-rate it has been well and truly buried. As a football fan I hope Cole will prove he still has what it takes and prove that he isn’t just a victim of English football.  

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