The rise and fall of the cockney Pele
Feted as a youngster, new Liverpool-signing Joe Cole has spent much of his professional career giving the ball away.
What to make of Joe Cole signing for Liverpool? Is it a statement of intent? A ‘message that Liverpool mean business’, to quote Jamie Carragher? Or is it one last big payday for a wasted English talent?
Cole will invariably be labelled a mercenary for snubbing Arsenal and Spurs for a reported £90,000-a-week pay packet at Liverpool. Cole’s decision, however, may have more to do with the prospect of first-team football at Liverpool. Both Arsenal and Spurs have more competition for midfield places and there’s no guarantee that Cole wouldn’t have ended up a bit-part player as he was at Chelsea. It’s hard not to conclude that Cole’s contract with Liverpool is a marriage of convenience for two parties whose ambitions have diminished. Liverpool, mortgaged to the hilt and without Champions League income this season, have been forced to grub around in the bargain basement for Bosman deals. Likewise, Cole can no longer command a first-team place at a big club with realistic title hopes and has accepted that downshifting at Liverpool represents his best chance to resurrect his career.
The really significant twist of the protracted Cole transfer plot was the absence of any bid by Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson has never hidden his admiration for the Chelsea midfielder. So why no approach for Cole? Does Fergie now recognise that Cole is a busted flush?
Cole has certainly been plagued by injuries over the past two seasons. As Chelsea fans will admit, he has never been the same player since his cruciate ligament injury in January 2009. He has lost the acceleration which once terrified defenders. At 28, his career is far from over, but there are serious question marks over whether he can ever recapture his past form and fitness.
Perhaps that explains why so many of the recent articles about Cole’s career have the feel of obituaries. Where did it all go wrong for the child prodigy? Cole promised so much when he first attracted media attention at West Ham’s youth academy. Will Joe Cole’s career potential remain unfulfilled like a string of mercurial English playmakers before him? Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Tony Currie, Glenn Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier – all skilful players whose talents were largely squandered.
‘In years to come, we will look back upon Joe Cole as a new version of Glenn Hoddle’, wrote John Cross in the Daily Mirror earlier this year. ‘The most naturally gifted English player of his generation and yet hopelessly underused and misused by a succession of international managers.’
Invariably the physicality and pragmatism of English football is seen as the culprit. It could be argued that there is no place for a Continental-style playmaker in the English game; that artistry will always be extinguished in a football culture steeped in the antediluvian default mode of ‘kick and rush’ and the dogmatic adherence to the 4-4-2 system. Just as no English manager was prepared to build a team around Hoddle, neither Eriksson nor Capello has taken the risk of deploying Cole as a creative Number 10. It’s a seductive theory, but I’m not sure it stands up to any kind of scrutiny. Paul Gascoigne was England’s last world-class creative. When he was fit he was given licence by Robson, Venables and Hoddle to operate as a playmaker. Gazza’s talents were squandered because of his injuries and legendary ‘refuelling’ problems – not because English managers couldn’t accommodate a skilful midfield schemer.
It’s not just English managers who are sceptical of Joe Cole’s ability to operate as a playmaker. Cole has never been given free reign to operate in central midfield by a succession of foreign Chelsea managers. Some argue that Mourinho, the arch-pragmatist, stifled Cole’s creative spirit. Again, it’s a tempting theory. But it’s wrong (though, admittedly, I regard Mourinho as a demi-god with no discernible human flaws). It wasn’t Cole’s creativity that irked Mourinho but his defensive irresponsibility. ‘I think he has two faces – one beautiful and one I don’t like. He must keep one and change the other one’, Mourinho once complained. ‘Joe can be a regular but he has to improve when the team needs him to be part of a defensive organisation.’
Mourinho frequently berated Cole’s for giving the ball away in dangerous situations. And he was right to do so. If you look at the creative players who flourished at the World Cup – Iniesta, Xavi, Schneider, Schweinsteiger – what marked them out was that they didn’t give the ball away cheaply. Losing possession is an English disease. Our players too often look for the ‘Hollywood ball’, or in Cole’s case, try a party trick, rather than keep possession.
Signing Joe Cole is good news for Liverpool. It’s good news for Joe Cole’s bank balance. But is it good news for Joe Cole’s football career? On the plus side, if he stays fit, he ought to be a first-team regular. He may even force his way back into Capello’s starting 11. But will Capello give him the central midfield playmaker role that he craves? I suspect not.
When he was a teenager Cole was touted as the Cockney Pele. But he has never really lived up to the hype. When he hangs up his boots he will probably be remembered as yet another in a long line of false English Messiahs.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
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