“I just want to play football for Chelsea,” said Joe Cole, in an interview with the Sun newspaper last week. How many times have we heard that down the years from players whose contract talks have stalled? Have you lost count already?
As supporters, we would all love to play for Chelsea Football Club, sadly though, for 99.9% of us, our childhood dreams come to nought, thwarted most obviously by a deficiency of the skill and dedication it takes to become a professional footballer. So what about the 0.1% then? The kids who could turn their dreams into reality, swapping the replica shirts of their youth for the real thing? I’ll tell you what? We’d love them with a passion. We’d adore them because we could identify with them, because they were truly one of us. The sad thing is though, at Stamford Bridge, ‘they’ don’t exist.
In the 21st Century, John Terry is the only player to have made the transformation from promising Chelsea youth to True Blue legend … but he grew up supporting Manchester United. Why do Liverpool fans adore the likes of Gerrard and Carragher? Why were Everton fans devastated when Rooney left Goodison Park for Old Trafford. Why did the Geordies ill-fatedly believe Alan Shearer was the new Messiah? Why? Because these are the local boys who made good.
Much has been made of the shortcomings of Chelsea’s high profile and monstrously expensive youth setup and the why’s and wherefore’s of the Club’s inability to scout local talent at an early age. Listen in to any Blues related conversation in match-day drinkers round and about SW6 and I’ll guarantee you sooner or later someone will ask, ‘where are the Chelsea kids?’ Where indeed? Nowhere to be found, and so this is why, despite the fact he came to Stamford Bridge via Upton Park having spent the formative years of his career in the claret and blue of West Ham United, Joe Cole, Chelsea supporter, is a prince among men. Quite simply, Joe is the closest thing we Blues have to a ‘Carra’ or a Stevie G … and boy can he play a bit.
Part of a small group of 300 or so Blues supporters who’d made the journey to Slovakia to witness the dawn of Mr Abramovich’s Chelski revolution in a Champions League qualifier against MSK Zilina back in August 2003, I was fortunate enough to see Joe Cole make his Chelsea debut as a 70th minute substitute for another new-boy Damien Duff. Rapturous applause greeted Joe’s arrival onto the pitch. Joe Cole, a Chelsea supporter, playing for Chelsea. Here was something special for sure, and it was Joe who produced a clever little back heel for Eidur Gudjohnsen that resulted in the Blues winning goal as Zilina’s Drahno spectacularly chipped his own keeper from the edge of the box.
That’s how the love affair started …
‘He’s here, he’s there, he’s every f*cking where, Joey Cole, Joey Cole.’
Well he was when he got the chance. At £6.6 million pounds, Joe was an expensive benchwarmer for most of his first season at Chelsea as manager Claudio Ranieri persistently tinkered with his line-ups, a habit which would eventually get him the sack. Enter Jose Mourinho, and the ever patient Cole, taking advantage of injuries to other players, became one of the stars of the team that ended fifty years of hurt and brought the title back to Stamford Bridge. During this momentous season Joe also cemented a starting place in the England team on the left side of midfield, which England had struggled to fill adequately for several years. Joe Cole, Chelsea and England … brilliant!
Goal of the season for Chelsea fans? How about JCs 22nd minute strike against Norwich City at Carrow Road which silenced Delia Smith’s Barmy Army? The goal was all of Cole’s own making as he rode tackles from Shackell and Fleming before unleashing a ferocious drive beyond Green into the top left-hand corner for his fifth goal of the season. ‘You’re going down with a souffle’, we sang. Oh what fun we had on that bitterly cold night in East Anglia, and it was there for all to see that Joe Cole was reveling in it.
The following season Chelsea won the title again and once more Joe scored arguably the best Blues goal of the campaign in a 3-0 victory over Manchester United, a result that confirmed Mourinho’s men as back-to-back Champions. Picking up the ball, 25 yards from goal, Cole twisted clear of Ferdinand and Mikael Silvestre with a twinkle-toed shimmy which saw him drag the ball quickly under the studs of one boot, then the other, before sprinting away. United keeper, Van der Sar rushed out to narrow his options but Cole stayed cool, slotting the ball home before ripping off his shirt and celebrating with the True Blue massive.
The love affair, now a dazzling relationship, culminated in Joe Cole winning the Chelsea Supporters ‘Player of the Year’ award in 2007-2008, but sadly, the knee injury that Joe picked up midway through the following season subsequently hampered his career and he has struggled to regain his fitness and form. In order to do that, surely he needs to be given more time on the pitch. Speaking about this, Joe said recently, ‘there are no niggles. Of course, I am not match fit, but how can I be when I don’t play? I want to be part of the Chelsea team to win the Premier League and the FA Cup. But I need an opportunity to start games back-to-back, I know I can help my team achieve our dream this season if given a chance. I am not giving up on this Chelsea team.’
Carlo Ancelotti has used Joe sparingly this season and yet both he and Chelsea’s assistant manager Ray Wilkins insist that the playmaker still has a future at the club. Against Cardiff City in the FA Cup, Joe was ignominiously substituted at half time and, although he featured for the whole of the next game against Wolves, he was kept on the bench for the Inter Milan match which followed. Those of us who made the trip to the San Siro and endured a one hour lock-in after the final whistle looked on with a mixture of sadness and admiration as Joe cut a solitary figure going through his warm down routine on the pitch long after the stadium had all but emptied out. We sang his name and he applauded, and when he put the ball in the back of the net, Joe got the biggest cheer of the night.
Cole looked frustrated in the opening period of the home defeat against Manchester City that followed the loss in Milan and he was subbed on the hour mark with some critics, demoralised by the spanking meted out by the Citizens, arguing that he wasn’t worth £100,000 a week. Whilst it’s fair to say that Joe clearly remains some way below his best, it’s worth remembering that at the age of 28 he is just coming into his prime and to sign a player of his calibre would potentially cost Mr Abramovich upwards of £20 million and that’s if City didn’t buy him first!
Available on a free transfer when his current deal expires at the end of June, Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool and, God forbid, Spurs, are all eying Cole with interest. “I’ve never spoken publicly about contracts before. I don’t think contracts should really be discussed mid-season. I have always signed mine in the summer in the past,’ said Joe, “But this time it’s different. We can’t seem to find common ground and it’s distracting. At the moment there is no offer on the table, so I know where I stand. I still hope to talk in the summer”.
Clearly then there is a problem to which there doesn’t appear to be a solution. If Joe really is an integral part of Chelsea’s blue-print for the future then why wasn’t he offered an extension to his current contract last season? This is standard practice. At present it seems that unless Cole is prepared to revise his wage demands he is destined to depart Stamford Bridge and, where he to do so, many match-going Blues fans would feel that the Club has sold them short.
Joe Cole … “Everyone at the club knows that when I play for Chelsea I give everything.”
These aren’t empty words from a mercenary; they represent a heartfelt plea from someone for whom pulling on the Blue shirt of Chelsea Football Club genuinely means something. Will a compromise be found? Who knows? It’s for Mr Abramovich to decide. One thing’s for certain though, if Joe Cole is allowed to leave it will leave many supporters questioning the ambition of the Club and the motives of those in charge of its future destiny. Even worse, you can wager high stakes that, just like Jose Mourinho, Joe will come back top haunt us. Still, we can all rest easy in our beds; safe in the knowledge that should he score against his beloved Blues, the lad wouldn’t celebrate.
Mr Abramovich, I do not profess to have a crystal ball, but I have this nightmare vision of Jose and Joe doing the tango at Eastlands … and may the good Lord help us if it ever comes true. Joe Cole and Chelsea go together like fish and chips, like bangers and mash, like curry and rice or best of all like a good quality bottle of light ale entwined with a premium lager.
Altogether now, ‘we want you to stay, we want you to stay … Joey Cole, we want you to stay.’
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics Over land and Sea, Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die and One Man Went to Mow and the co-author of Chelsea here Chelsea there. All titles are available to buy with a discount of up to 50% and free UK postage at http://www.overlandandsea.net/