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Why the decline of this star shows a wider problem within English football

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Last month former England international Joe Cole joined Coventry City on-loan from Aston Villa on a 35 day emergency loan deal. As you might expect, the move received rather more attention than your average League One transfer, with social media in particular revelling in the news. Coventry City themselves even made light of the surprise nature of the transfer, tweeting “Welcome to #CCFC Joe Cole, yes actual Joe Cole. Seriously, Joe Cole. The real Joe Cole.”

Cole was 33 when the transfer went through, and has since turned 34, so a decline in the level in which the midfielder is capable of playing at may seem natural. However, Cole is one of the most technically gifted players England have produced in a number of years now. He is a former West Ham Player of the Year, Chelsea Player of the Year and PFA Team of the Year member, yet his move was not one of sentiment or nostalgia, the midfielder has no ties to Coventry, but rather the defining moment of Cole’s decline in recent years, and a damning indictment of how the midfielder has been misused and under-appreciated, just like so many English talents.

Joe Cole established himself in the 1999/2000 season, in which he played 32 games, 22 of which were in the league, and began playing for England U21’s, as a fast emerging 19-year-old talent. He went from strength to strength at the Boleyn Ground, and by the age of 20 he’d won his first England cap in a game against Mexico. At 21 he boarded the England team plane along with rest of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s squad for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/South Korea. Cole was the youngest member of the squad, but already had 6 caps to his name, whilst the likes of Frank Lampard – who was three years his senior – was overlooked, a mark of the regard the youngster was held in at that time.

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Cole continued to grow as a player at West Ham, his flair, intelligence, technique and versatility making him a valuable asset in a struggling West Ham side. In 2003, in a West Ham squad containing the likes of David James, Michael Carrick, Jermain Defoe, Paolo Di Canio and Les Ferdinand, it was a 22-year-old Joe Cole who was named West Ham’s Player of the Year. As West Ham suffered relegation it was clear he was the clubs most prized asset, he rejected and new contract and joined Chelsea for £6.6 million. Claudio Ranieri said he saw Cole as the perfect replacement for Gianfranco Zola, high praise indeed, but not as generous as the words of Pele, who described Cole as having “the skills of a Brazilian.”

In fact, it is all too easy to forget just how gifted Joe Cole was in his early years. Harry Redknapp described him as “the best young player I’ve ever seen,” whilst Rodney Marsh said he saw Cole playing as a 16-year-old and was taken aback, describing him as “sensational”, noting his ability to beat three of four opposition players with relative ease. In England, we complain that we don’t produce enough genuinely quality attacking creative players. It was too late by the time that we realised we had one in the form of Glenn Hoddle, and the same has happened again with Joe Cole. He has been criminally misused and under-appreciated, by both club and country.

An attacking player, Cole looked most comfortable in a free role, whether that be through the middle or coming inside from the left. Yet England struggled to find a place for him within a rigid 4-4-2. The same English national team that played Paul Scholes as a left midfielder and wondered why he didn’t have the same impact as he did at Manchester United. Even at club level Cole was misused. His best years at Chelsea came in 2004/05 and 2005/06, both under Jose Mourinho, who shoehorned him into a left midfield position but still managed to capture some of the spark which made Cole such a tricky opponent. He played 47 games in the 2005/06 season, scoring 10 goals and being named in the PFA Team of the Year as Chelsea lifted the Premier League title.

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Such success virtually assured his place in England’s 2006 World Cup team, where Cole was arguably England’s finest player. He started every game, putting in his finest performance against Sweden in which he scored one of the greatest goals ever scored by an England player, as well as assisting Steven Gerrard; contributions which were recognised as Cole won the Man of the Match award. Still only 25 years of age, this should have been the stage in which Cole really kicked on to become the player he was capable of, but two injuries in the 2006/07 season saw him play only 13 league games, although he would bounce back under the guidance of Avram Grant the following season, winning Chelsea’s Player of the Year award as the club reached the Champions League final.

Grant’s departure effectively marked the end of Cole’s career at Chelsea. He would spend another two seasons at the Bridge, under three different managers; Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti, but would fall out of a favour with all three. He left Chelsea in 2010 as a free agent, and joined Liverpool. Upon his arrival, Steven Gerrard described Cole as being technically as gifted as Lionel Messi, a comment that the Liverpool captain received much ridicule for. His time at Liverpool was not a happy one, sent off on his league debut and missing a penalty in his first European outing setting the tone for a miserable first year at Anfield.

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In his second season Cole joined French champions Lille, where he made a rather brighter start. He beat four players before providing an assist on his debut, adding a second in his second game. In total, Cole played 43 games for Lille, scoring 9 goals and looking thoroughly impressive. Lille tried to sign the Englishman, but newly-appointed Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers stated he was very much in his first team plans. Just as Cole seemed on course to re-ignite his career within English football, he tweaked his hamstring and a young Raheem Sterling took his place in the Liverpool team.

A return to boyhood club West Ham showed early promise, as Cole made two assists in a 2-2 draw with Manchester United on his debut, reminding the Hammers fans of his class. In his second season, Cole suffered a hamstring injury again, a tear on this occasion. He left West Ham after 18 months, with 37 appearances, 5 goals and 3 assists to his name. Cole joined Aston Villa in 2014, where he has looked an absolute shadow of his former self; 15 appearances in 18 months tells its own story. Since joining Coventry on-loan Cole has made three appearances, scoring a very well-taken free-kick.

Ultimately, Cole’s move to Coventry may seem intriguing or amusing but it is actually the culmination of an almost decade-long decline of one of the country’s most gifted footballers. Cole has arguably only had two good season in the last 10 years; one with Chelsea in 2007/08 and the other with Lille in 2011/12. That is to say he has only really had two good seasons since his early twenties, which is nothing short of a travesty in footballing terms for a player of Cole’s natural ability.  Cole moved to France at the age of 30, the same age that Glenn Hoddle did. Had he remained there, he probably could have had another 5 years at the top, rather than ending up in League One. We will live to rue the mistakes made with Joe Cole, given far less talented individuals – with the greatest of respect – such as James Milner have won more caps for the England team. Perhaps the most damning thing is that we still don’t appear to have learnt our lesson.

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