Joe Cole : The English Enigma

With Joe Cole announcing his retirement during the week, we take a look at a glittering career that might have turned out even better.

“It has been a dream come true. All of it.”, Cole said in the statement announcing his retirement. Words on hearing which one cannot help but wonder if all of it had indeed been as dreamy as Cole had described. As much of an honor putting on the England jersey was, had he envisioned his international career would halt in such anti-climatic fashion – his last call up being the 2010 World Cup, a selection that resulted in only 2 substitute appearances. Had he ever dreamt of the downward spiral he would end up in post – Chelsea, falling out of favor at Liverpool, West Ham and even Coventry? Surely not, given the way he started.

Having started off in West Ham’s youth set-up, Cole made waves as a youngster, making his debut at 17. He went on to captain the Hammers at age 21, before being snapped up by Chelsea as the Roman Abramovich era came to life. He was diminutive, agile and extremely skillful. Part of England’s ‘Golden Generation’, Cole was a gem even amongst them and as the Chelsea revolution went full speed – his trophy cabinet grew. It’s widely believed however, that Cole actually lost his essence at Chelsea. On his way in, Cole was a carefree playmaker, bristling with creativity. On his way out, not so much.

As the new era at Chelsea started, the new manager did not take long to make his presence felt. “He needs to make an impact on me, not the crowd.”, Mourinho said of Cole, clearly looking for a reaction. Immediately, the affable Mourinho had an impact on the young Cole with his mind games and although the tough love made him a champion through and through – contributing immensely to Chelsea’s two consecutive titles, he was no longer the creative fulcrum that had walked in and by the time he walked out – Cole had perhaps already lost the intuitiveness that made his game so unique.

Departing Chelsea on a free transfer to Liverpool, Cole was heralded as a coup for the Anfield side – Steven Gerrard even comparing him to a certain Argentine. “Anything he can do Joe can do as well, if not better”, Gerrard said, comparing Cole and Messi. His time at Anfield was ultimately underwhelming as he departed on loan for a minor renaissance at Lille. Cole’s good form earned him an Anfield recall but fell out of favor once again and he moved to West Ham, then to Villa and Coventry before his final payday in the USA.

In the midst of all of this lies the actual conundrum. What do we make of Joe Cole’s career? Was he one of England’s most talented of the 21st century, the kind of player they’re crying out for right now? Or was he just another pretender, another ‘new Gascoigne’? Truth be told, he is both and he is neither. While it’s not possible to truly pinpoint what went wrong, it’s fair game to say had things gone slightly different, history might have been kinder to him. Perhaps a more ‘beautiful’ manager might have done the trick, or maybe a move to United instead of Chelsea when Sir Alex came calling. The possibilities are endless.

Whatever be the reason for his unfulfilled destiny, it was surely not a lack of trying. As Mourinho himself put it later in his first season “Joe has two faces, one is beautiful and one that I don’t like. But I can improve him, and he wants to learn.” All he ever wanted was to learn, and learn he did.

While a little more of the beautiful face might have been better, but his three Premier League titles surely mean Joe Cole will not be losing much sleep over what might have been.