Yesterday it was announced that Joe Cole, England midfielder, would be returning to the club where it all began for him. My team, West Ham. On a free transfer from Liverpool, where he never established himself in two seasons of injury and frustration, although he had a decent loan spell at French club, Lille, last season.
I was excited but also sceptical when the news came through. Excited, because like many West Ham fans, I have fond memories of the young prodigy who promised so much and always gave his all to the team. Sceptical, because it’s been a few years since we’ve seen Joe at his best, after a succession of injuries and (non) selection problems. Realism says we won’t see the sparky play of the young Joe Cole – but maybe we will see some of the vision and artistry which West Ham are rather lacking at the moment. He could just be the catalyst for a strong second half of the season, after the rather wobbly spell in recent games.
Joe made his debut for West Ham as a 17 year old in January 1999, in an FA Cup tie against Coventry. There had been a buzz about him for some time. He was touted as the most talented youngster in England. The new Gazza, but not as whacky. The English Maradona. (OK, I made that one up, but I bet someone said it). There were rumours that Man Utd had bid £10 million for him when he was sixteen.
It was a time of optimism for West Ham fans. We’d come fifth the previous season and the team was full of promise – we still had Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard at this point as well as players like Trevor Sinclair, John Hartson, Eyal Berkovic, and just arrived, the mighty Paolo di Canio. Michael Carrick was nearly ready for the first team. What a team it could have been. But of course, being West Ham, with an eye for the money, so many of the best players from the youth academy have been sold over the years, reaching their peak at bigger, richer clubs. Rio left in 2000, for Leeds; Frank in 2001 for Chelsea, soon after manager Harry Redknapp had been sacked. The club blew what may have been its most promising ever opportunity to establish itself as a major player. In 1999-2000, Joe’s first season, we came 9th. Then 15th, then 7th – looking up – then in 2002-3…. relegated!
The club went down with the record number of points for a relegated club – 42. The rule of thumb is that 40 keeps you up, and recently the safety number has gone as low as 35. Glenn Roeder, the manager who had taken over from Harry was never very convincing, and he had to depart temporarily due to illness with a few games of the season left. The team was riven with dissension, with di Canio, the hero, turned villain. Trevor Brooking – Sir Trevor – took over and almost rescued us. But not quite. We went down after a 2-2 draw with Birmingham. There’s only one thing I really remember from that game now, which is that Joe Cole played his heart out and was clearly gutted at the end. Could we say the same about Jermain Defoe, who slapped in a transfer request the next day?
We knew then that Joe would have to leave. He had an England career to think of. His future. I rather hoped he’d go to Arsenal, but the soon-to-be Invincibles had no need. He went to newly cash-rich Chelsea, under Roman Abramovich and manager Claudio Ranieri. Things really took off for Chelsea with the arrival of Jose Mourinho as manager in 2004, and Joe played a big part in that. He has two Premier League medals, won a few domestic Cups, and played in one Champions League final (when Chelsea lost to Man Utd on penalties). He played for England 56 times and was at three World Cups. He was Chelsea’s player of the season in 2008.
Not many players can look back at such a record. And yet, and yet, there’s a nagging sense of underachievement about Joe Cole. He never did become the next Gazza, certainly never the English Maradona. Instead of being the midfield supremo, the playmaker, or the man in the hole, the number ten, he was turned into a hard working, occasionally tricksy winger. Glen Roeder started it, possibly in anticipation of the fact that out on the left was Joe’s best bet for the England team. But Mourinho cemented it. A brilliant manager, but the ultimate pragmatist, he didn’t need Joe Cole doing his fancy stuff in central midfield. He wanted positional responsibility, tracking back, getting the ball up to Didier Drogba. And Joe complied. Did his best. Won all those medals and awards. And maybe lost a bit of his spirit.
You can’t just blame Mourinho and Roeder and the England managers. Maybe Joe just didn’t quite have it in him to boss a game from start to finish. Maybe managers correctly detected a lack of true discipline in Joe’s mercurial talent. Maybe they were right to feel that he didn’t have the mental strength to dictate the game from the furnace of central midfield. Or even the finishing skills to be a true number ten, in that hole.
But how I wish a manager had had the nerve to liberate Joe Cole and see what he could really do. Especially for England, where we just got bogged down by the Lampard v Gerrard question and obsessed over Rooney’s fitness and state of mind.
When I watch the mighty Barcelona, with their short passing, geometrical, devastating game, with Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Busquets, now Fabregas, buzzing, pressing, carving up even the most stubborn defences, I sometimes think, Joe Cole could have done that. Think Iniesta, especially. Drifting in from the left. Joe had all the skills. Did he have the application, the mental discipline? The confidence? Who knows? I would guess the answer is yes, if someone had really believed in him. But it’s too late to find out now.
But hey, let’s look to the future instead of the past. West Ham have just got themselves a remarkable footballer, who is still only 31, on a free transfer. Reasonable wages too. And a deep love for the club already instilled. It could be a match made in heaven.
I’m not sure Big Sam is about to liberate Joe Cole, and that number ten attacking midfield position is the property of the club caption, Kevin Nolan. Big Sam’s old mucker. So it’s probably wide left I’m afraid! But maybe darting in, like Robert Pires at Arsenal, or Iniesta, or even Joe Cole in 2008. A jink here, a cutting pass there, geeing up the crowd, who do and will love him.
And first match on his return? What better than Man Utd at home! FA Cup, probably off the bench, but it is going to be a great moment. An emotional moment.
Welcome back Joe!