How far could Joe Cole have gone if he hadn’t been wasted?

Date published: Friday 22nd May 2020 1:26

Who’s this then?
Joseph John Cole is a 38-year-old 5′ 7″ Londoner. Born in Paddington, he has played for West Ham United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Lille, Aston Villa, Coventry City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He is currently coaching at Chelsea. That states his career baldly but does not indicate just what a talent he was.

An outrageously good player since an early age, he came up through the Hammers’ youth system. In all my years following football, I’ve never known a player’s reputation go before him in such a profound way.

From the mid-90s there were rumours of this wunderkind at West Ham, a kid who could do anything and who was going to be The Next Big Thing; the new Gazza but without the unstable genius tag.

When I first saw him playing for West Ham’s youth team against Middlesbrough’s kids, a few of us had gone to see the game purely to see Cole play because his reputation was already so widely known. That day he was ridiculously good. Not just head and shoulders above anyone else, but on a different planet.

“I first saw Joe when he was 11,” said Harry Redknapp. “It doesn’t seem like five minutes ago but he was 11 years of age out there on the pitch at Chadwell Heath playing against Norwich on a muddy day. After about 10 minutes we couldn’t believe what we were watching. This kid was doing things which really were a different class.”

Even back then, he had a huge armoury of kickabout-in-the-street type tricks. One I vividly remember was the ability to take a pass with his back to a defender, drag it from left foot to right, while throwing his weight in the opposite direction and back heeling it past the defender, then scooting around him to collect the ball – all done in a single flowing movement. He did it three times to three different players and none of them even knew where the ball had gone, leaving them slack-jawed and floundering.

Playing for England Schoolboys he scored seven in an 8-1 thrashing of Spain. In 1997 Manchester United reportedly offered the Hammers £10m for even when he was just 16 but they held onto him until the 2003 relegation when, after winning Player of the Year, he went to Chelsea for £6.6m. His seven years at the Blues was a mixed period. Winning three league titles and two FA Cups, a League Cup, and a Champions League runners-up medal, it couldn’t be called anything other than successful, but injuries at crucial times kept stalling his career.

There was also a constant feeling that Jose Mourinho didn’t really fancy him, constantly berating him for not doing the snot ‘n’ sweat hard yards, instead preferring to play attractive and entertaining football. He did keep picking him, and Joe worked on his game to do what his manager wanted, but at times it was all too clear that he was squandering his gift and creativity in doing so. Many felt that Mourinho was just the wrong manager for him. At times your heart went out to Joe: here was a supreme, high-class player being turned into a grunt and chase midfielder. It was like asking a ballet dancer to become a bricklayer.

He rarely seemed to be playing in his best position, sometimes shunted out wide on the left, and it was the same when playing for his country.

He debuted for England in 2001 against Mexico, eventually getting 56 caps and scoring ten goals. While he had come through playing largely as a progressive attacking midfielder, Sven put him out on the left. Was he really a winger? Well he was good enough to make a decent fist of it, but it meant he never really got the ball enough to maximise his abilities.

This was to be a recurring theme throughout his career.

In 2010 he left on a free to go to Liverpool, this time to play for the ill-fated Roy Hodgson. He’d arrived at the wrong time at probably the wrong club. In two periods across two seasons he played 42 games for the Reds, scoring five times, but by 2012/13 he cut an almost tragic figure. All that talent was just evaporating. So he made a smart move to go on loan to French champions Lille.

In France, his now desiccated talents began to be fed and watered again, and he was a very popular player, turning out 43 times and scoring nine goals. He looked closer to the old Hammers version of Joey. Playing with Eden Hazard, at last he could utilise his skills without having to do the labour. There was a similarity to how they both played; there was even a slight physical resemblance. There’s an argument to say that Hazard is the player Cole could’ve been had he been born later and in a different country and had a player like himself to help bring him through.

He won a lot of hearts in that year, learning French and broadening his horizons. As he became an important player, doing what we knew he could do, but which had almost become a folk memory, some even began to wonder if he’d have a late career bloom and regain his England place. Lille wanted him to stay for another season but tragically Brendan Rodgers was now Liverpool manager and wanted him back at Liverpool. Why? It was cruel. This was yet another blow. Things were going so well in France. So back he went, though he didn’t complain – that doesn’t seem to be in his nature – and by January he’d left for West Ham on an 18-month contract. It’d surely have been better to return to Lille at that point if at all possible.

After 37 games and five goals, he transferred to Aston Villa but things didn’t go well, playing just 16 times. Hands up who remembers that he then went to Coventry City in 2015/16? Fifteen games later, he made his final move, this time to Tampa Bay Rowdies. It was to be a happy final three seasons and in 86 games he netted 20 times and there were flashes of the genius we’d seen 20 years or more previously. Injury and age had taken away some pace but he could stand still and be a better footballer than 90% of the rest.

His career in total stretched to 677 games and 95 goals. The feeling that too many years were lost to injury, inappropriate management and outright bad luck is inescapable. Who could blame him at times for being demotivated, as he fell out of favour with managers who basically had no idea how to get the best out of him? He was frankly messed around too much and in that, one of the top creative talents of post-war England was diluted and denatured.


Why the love?
He could do things with a football that mere mortals ought not be able to do; things that made you blink twice and wonder if it was actually possible.

If anyone was ever going to score a goal like this for England, it was Joe. If you’d followed him since his youth-team days, this is exactly what he had instinctively done from an early age. This is no casual hit and hope. There’s no mere luck about it. It was perfect ambition, executed perfectly.

He was a superb connector of midfielders and forwards, always playing vertically, taking people on and beating them or winning free-kicks. Whilst hardly an Olympic sprinter, he moved fast and smooth across the grass, radar always switched on, always knowing who was around and where the space was.

If he had a fault maybe he didn’t have a thundering powerdrive on him, and I doubt I ever saw him head a ball. But throughout his career he has conducted himself impeccably, even when he had good cause to be very disgruntled. All report him to be a thoroughly decent chap who had been brought up well by a strict father. Joe just loved football to his bones; all he ever wanted to do was play. Even now, he still obviously loves and is knowledgeable about the game.

A graduate of the intimidating Lilleshall academy, run out of a gothic mansion, fellow alumnus Jamie Carragher says Cole learned so much there. Indeed, the band of brothers that he was part of stayed in touch for many years, even if they didn’t make it as a player. Everyone will tell you there was just never any side to him. He is very much an Honest Joe.

The notion, oft-expressed, that he was too good for English football has some truth to it, but more than that, he just needed to play in a team that was designed around him. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last English flair player to be thought of as a luxury and to be berated for not tracking back. Other nations and other clubs celebrate the brilliant skillful player; Joey was never really lauded in the way he should’ve been. At times it appeared he was wilfully misunderstood.


What the people love
He wowed so many of us, so there’s no surprise my mail sack was full this week. We all want to say thank you to anyone who has thrilled us, don’t we? Especially when he’s such a nice chap.

‘I never felt we really got to know Joe as a player. But since he’s joined us at BT Sport it’s been great to do exactly that. Joe’s enthusiasm for football is huge. He’s still like the kid in the playground when he breaks down goals and discusses great moments. He’s a fan through and through and loves being involved. As a bloke – top class. Great company, great stories and great fun. A top fella who’s a joy to work with and it’s been an even greater joy getting to know him’ – Darren Fletcher, broadcaster.

‘Was a wonderful player. Incorrectly categorised by many as ‘being ruined by Mourinho’ whilst at Chelsea. Scored some critical goals (Liverpool H/A), Bayern Munich, that wonderful spin and finish against United in the title-winning game in ’06. A joy to watch and always gave everything.’

”Never understood the “he never made the most of his talent” rhetoric. His contributions for Chelsea and the trophies he won would suggest otherwise. Played more often than Arjen Robben in those first two seasons under Mourinho – clearly he thought he was alright.’

‘Very good career as a PL footballer. I believe that he underperformed as a match winner for England, primarily because of the obsession with getting Lampard and Gerrard playing together in the starting XI.’

‘I still have that ‘what if’ feeling about Joe Cole even though he won league titles and played for England. Hats off for him going abroad, surely he should have stayed in Ligue 1 for longer instead of coming back to the Prem and knowing that Lille wanted him to stay.’

‘He did something that drew gasps of appreciation from the Stadium of Light when playing for Chelsea. A double drag back, or similar. Outrageous, and perfectly executed in a packed central midfield. Every fan of the game likes Joe, don’t they?’

‘It seems weird to me that he scored more goals than he got assists in the Premier League:

‘378 appearances, 46 goals, 36 assists. When he came through I saw him as a creative player, but that’s not borne out by those stats. I wonder why.’

‘He was utterly brilliant. I don’t think he was properly appreciated, but if he’d played in Europe at his peak we’d have seen a different end to his career. Similar in a way to how Carrick was under appreciated for so long.’

‘Love Joe Cole, that stretch from 2002 to after the WC in 2006 saw him play some very beautiful football games and as a Man United fan that goal in the 3-0 loss that secured the PL title for Chelsea in ‘06 was a bittersweet moment. Great guy too.’

‘When he signed for Coventry, seemingly out of nowhere, there was just gaping, gagging, glorious disbelief. Even at 34 years old, it was Yer Actual Joe Cole in a Sky Blues shirt.’

‘Seem to recall Harry R gave him his league debut, was it at Old Trafford? He looked about 14. Very good player.’

‘I was at the United vs. West Ham cup game when we hammered them 6-0 in 2003. I’m sure he captained them that day and he ran himself into the ground up to the last whistle. He never stopped trying to win that game, even though they were well beaten at the time.’

‘Love him. Has a permanent place of residence in the Hotel Favourite Players. He made me dream that Gascoigne might not be a one off, that England had another genius on our hands. Also, a strange case of a player having a great career but somehow not reaching his full potential.’

‘England’s “Brazilian” , class.’

‘Remember him being announced to the crowd  ahead of his West Ham debut as the next footballing superstar (or words to that effect) – what pressure as a kid! Such a talented player, but unfortunately cursed with the English disease of not knowing what to do with flair and guile.’

‘I always think of Joe as still being a 21 year old gifted, cheeky, whipper snapper. Some players should be forever young in our minds and he’s one of them.’

‘The amount of pressure he had was unreal. Signed his first pro contract on the pitch. Stories in the media about how good he was. He was class for us. Mourinho changed him to fit his system and not sure for the better. If only he had returned under a different manager. Should have played more for England. Putting him left wing wasn’t going to bring out the best in his talent. The relegation season when just 21 he carried the hopes and expectation of the entire club when others couldn’t be bothered. A true gent and technique out of this world.’

‘Great player. Couldn’t believe it when we got him on a free @LFC. Didn’t quite happen though. Brilliant career despite the ‘new Gazza’ hype etc which never seemed to affect him like it might’ve done to other players. He just loved playing football.’

‘He was the point at which football became ‘efficient’. He was joyous to watch, and Mourinho ruined him.’

‘I met him in a flight club bar in London. He’s a really nice guy, and smaller than he looked on TV if that’s possible. Said he liked my jacket too so the man has style to match that wonder goal v Sweden.’

‘He was once kind enough to open the door for my mum at Leicester Forest services and she mentions this every time he appears on television.’

‘I love that when he was on loan at Lille he sat in cafes reading l’Equipe to improve his French, as I’d done the same during my year in Burgundy as part of my degree. He seemed a bit out of place in English football towards the end of his career, and yet he was sought out by Lille to mentor Eden Hazard, who absolutely tore up the Premier League.’

And of course, David immortalised this in one of his brilliant cartoons.


Three great moments
A scrawny young Joe lashes it home to win the game with quick control and shot back in the mid ’90s. It is almost identical to a goal he would later score v Norwich for Chelsea.

A classic Cole trick. He had dozens of these in his grab bags of skills.

A backheeled goal v Manchester United? Don’t mind if I do.


What now?
He’s been working as a coach at Chelsea and doing some interesting punditry too. If you missed his interview on 5 live a couple of weeks ago, I highly recommend it.

As a pundit he is articulate, thoughtful and sympathetic. And there’s still obviously no side to him.

It is amazing that he’s still only 38. It seems so long ago since seeing him as a teenager in 1996. His talents will surely not be lost to the game but I suspect much of what he was so brilliant at was purely instinctive and something that can’t really be coached. You’ve got it or you ain’t. And, oh, Joe had it like few others in English football have ever had it. And for that, we all loved him.

John Nicholson

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