Many a players’ career has been described been one of unfulfilled potential. Many talented teenagers tipped as the next big thing fall by the wayside. Until about 19 months ago, that allegation could have been made against Joe Cole. He was born in Islington on 8 November 1981 and grew up in a Chelsea supporting family, and indeed for a couple of seasons was a season ticket holder. From a very early age though, it was clear that he wasn’t going to be in the stands for long. Almost from the moment he started playing he began to be seen as one of England’s brightest footballing prospects. As a teenager many big clubs were fighting for the signature of the promising midfielder. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to bring him to Man Utd and he even had a trial at Chelsea. However it was West Ham, who have become almost a feeder club for Chelsea in recent years, where Joe chose to continue his footballing education.
Joe was being talked of in the same breath as Paul Gascoigne in terms of sheer ability, and it was being said that he was a certainty to go on and become one of the greatest players of his generation. The skill he was showing with the ball at his feet, the fleetness of foot, the creativity, tricks and flair he showed were marking him out as a midfielder of great potential, a class above his peers. After only 8 appearances for the England U21’s, scoring two goals, he made his full England debut as a sub in the 4-0 home thrashing of Mexico on 25 May 2001. He was part of the England squad that competed in the World Cup South Korea in 2002, but never had the chance to make an impression. His career seemed to plateau. He was performing solidly for West Ham but not really delivering on his promise and was failing to cement a place at international level. However, given the high expectations placed on him from such a young age, when there hadn’t been a young English talent of such skill for over 10 years, then you can understand the pressure he may have been feeling. Part of the problem at international level was that it was difficult to accommodate him. With the likes of Paul Scholes at his peak as an attacking midfielder and given Joe’s lack of defensive ability he rarely got a chance to shine. It was a frustrating time to be Joe Cole.
In 2003, at the age of 21, his career was at a crossroads. The season just gone had been dramatic for him, not only captaining West Ham but also suffering the pain of relegation. It was clear that the time was now right for him to make the step up and challenge himself alongside better players, in order to fulfil his immense potential. Many thought he would go to Man Utd who were interested by all accounts. However by a happy coincidence his availability had been timed just right with the purchase of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, who was spending money like it was going out of fashion. At the age of 21 and after 126 league appearances for West Ham, scoring only 10 league goals, he signed for Chelsea for what now seems a paltry £6.6 million. At last, people were thinking, a club where he can really improve and show his potential at the highest level.
His first season at Chelsea, however, seemed to continue in the vein of his career thus far. A glimpse of great potential and some good performances, but not really being able to establish himself alongside such attacking players as Damien Duff and Frank Lampard, who were establishing themselves as key players in the new Chelsea era under Abramovich. At the end of his first season there were mutterings of his unhappiness and desire to leave. Indeed, it was thought that a new manager may not even want him in their team.
The man who made Joe Cole arrived in June 2004. Jose Mourinho was an intelligent, talented young manager with man-management skills that had fans had not seen the likes of before. He was man who liked his teams to play with flair and skill, but not at the expense of defensive solidity and organisation. Encouraging for Joe Cole was the example of Deco at Porto, a player man thought similar to Cole. Again there were positive signs. Again though, despite coming off the bench to score against Birmingham in the second league game of 2004-2005, he again was struggling to establish himself in the first team.
The defining moment in Joe Cole’s career came at Stamford Bridge against Liverpool. Joe had scored a great winner from a Frank Lampard free kick and people were raving about his performance, including the player himself. Jose Mourinho had a different outlook though. He criticised him for his lack of defensive responsibility and discipline. Joe Cole disappeared from Chelsea first team squads for a while. Many thought, once again, that Joe Cole was bound for the exit door. However over the Christmas and New Year period Joe Cole had his opportunities, mainly from the subs bench, and started contributing. He was working harder, getting stuck into tackles, and not trying one trick too many. Promising. Once Arjen Robben got injured he got a run in the first team. This was his big chance to establish himself as a Chelsea regular, and quite possibly his last. He took it. Playing mainly on the right wing, the change in attitude began to be noticed. The goals started coming, and he was tracking back and defending. The new attitude was summed up by a goal against Norwich. He lost the ball, won it back, beat two defenders and sent a great strike into the top corner. In the 4-2 thrashing of Barcelona he came of age, and people started noticing his all round contributions. He was becoming the player people thought he always could be. Against Bayern Munich, tracking back to a right back position to win the ball back, and chasing a lost cause winning the ball and creating what became a key goal by Didier Drogba. These performances symbolised the transformation of Joe Cole.
In 2005/2006 there was a new challenge in front of him. Shaun Wright-Phillips arrived for £21 million, who was playing in Joe’s new position on the right wing. However, as Wright-Phillips struggled, before too long Joe Cole got his chance again and took it. He became a regular in the first team, scoring key goals and making a few more. His season was summed up in two goals, against Arsenal at Highbury, winning a lost cause and making it into a goal, and that goal against Man Utd which clinched the second successive title. More on that later.
It wasn’t just at club level that he was establishing himself. His performances had forced Sven Goran Erikkson’s hand, and he tried him on the left wing during England’s World Cup qualifying campaign. It worked. Joe Cole started scoring goals and making goals. Cutting in from the left wing and making darting runs into the penalty area. Alongside Wayne Rooney, he was becoming England’s real bright spark. The biggest credit to his achievement is that now there is no perceived problem with England’s left side any more. Joe Cole is an automatic pick for England’s first team. Wayne Rooney got injured at Stamford Bridge on the same day Joe Cole scored arguably his greatest ever goal turning three defenders on a sixpence and firing home at Stamford Bridge, proved that now he had become almost the complete player and was set at the World Cup in Germany to establish himself as one of the best players in the world.
Joe Cole had a good World Cup in particular during the group stages. With Rooney not fully fit and Frank Lampard and to a lesser extent Steven Gerrard not really firing, he looked England’s most dangerous player, who was going to trouble defences and make things happen. He was going to unlock the door to World Cup glory. Against Sweden he became a star. The goal he scored was pure genius, and his skills harnessed alongside a great work rate made him look completely at home in international football. No longer a selfish player, he played a pinpoint cross for England’s second instead of going for glory himself.
He surely has now begun to realise his great potential and is becoming the player that people always predicted he could and would be. He shows great commitment, great attitude and his decision making on the pitch has improved. He’s making more goals and scoring more goals. The scary thing for opposition fans is that he’s only 24. He’s going to improve. At the next World Cup he will be 28 and at his absolute peak. In that time he could have established himself as the key player, certainly for Chelsea and quite possibly for England. In my mind there is no doubt that potentially he could become the best player in the world. He has that much ability, and finally it is beginning to be fulfilled.