Extraordinary Joe rewards his protectors

Nick Townsend talks to key figures behind grooming of a special talent
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The Independent Online

As a goal celebration, it wasn't the most original - that passé shirt pulled over the head number - as the Hammers faithful paid due homage at the investiture of their crown prince. But few at St Andrew's on Tuesday night could doubt that the West Ham wunderkind Joe Cole had come of age in the footballing sense, having done so literally last month. By scoring West Ham's winner, his first senior goal, it was rather more than his own elation that erupted. That goal, like an explosive bolt, opened a door unleashing the full force of scrutiny on this assured young man.

As a goal celebration, it wasn't the most original - that passé shirt pulled over the head number - as the Hammers faithful paid due homage at the investiture of their crown prince. But few at St Andrew's on Tuesday night could doubt that the West Ham wunderkind Joe Cole had come of age in the footballing sense, having done so literally last month. By scoring West Ham's winner, his first senior goal, it was rather more than his own elation that erupted. That goal, like an explosive bolt, opened a door unleashing the full force of scrutiny on this assured young man.

The world and his predatory dog have attempted to inveigle him into enhancing their team, including no less than Sir Alex Ferguson. Not even David Beckham in his early years faced anticipation so great. Kevin Keegan was placing him on his wish list virtually before he had dummied a defender and played an extravagant pass for his club, while Trevor Francis is already lauding him as the most exciting midfield talent to emerge since Paul Gascoigne.

Yet, now is when Cole will be at his most vulnerable to distractions, to those who would exploit him. Already the club have erected a no-Joe zone, where even those who have nurtured him are reluctant to comment, even Jimmy Hampson, his adviser and the man who runs West Ham's much-heralded youth set-up, what one might call an academy within The Academy.

West Ham are perhaps wise to do so, particularly as one tabloid has already caused some distress by detailing aspects of his family life, although they must beware of alienating those who merely wish to chronicle the extraordinary progress of a lad "from a hard little council estate in Camden", as he describes his upbringing, to a million-pound a year footballer.

Such media restrictions don't extend as far as the club's own Hammers News magazine. In a revealing insight into his world, it is significant that Cole emphasises the importance of the academy in his decision to join West Ham initially - bearing in mind that that he hails from Arsenal territory - and then remain there despite 11 entreaties from elsewhere. "As soon as I arrived at West Ham I knew that I would enjoy it," he reflects. "I felt at home immediately. You are treated like one of the family."

With the club having produced few exceptional young players between Paul Ince and the introduction of Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard, the youth academy is now proving its worth immeasurably to West Ham. "Take Joe Cole. What's he going to be worth?" says Jimmy Tindall, the club's youth development officer. "He's paid for the academy six times over. And that's without anyone else coming through for the next five years, and I'm sure that there'll be four or five."

Tindall adds: "I remember Joe coming here when he was a 12-year-old and, of course, Rio [Ferdinand] and Frank [Lampard] coming through. Now there's Michael Carrick, Adam Newton, Shaun Byrne and others and it's very satisfying to watch them progress. Kids just seem to come here and don't want to leave. It's like being invited to a wedding reception. If you go with the intention of not enjoying yourself, you won't. But if you go there to have fun, you will.

"We try to make sure that the atmosphere's right while Jimmy [Hampson] and myself, Harry [Redknapp] and Frank [Lampard snr] are always there for parents to talk to."

Being charged with the responsibility of identifying prospective Joe Coles and Rio Ferdinands is an exhilarating, if daunting, task. "I get hundreds of letters a week from fathers and managers of junior teams and you try to watch them all," he says. "Over a weekend, my scouts and I cover about 40 games. They don't all work directly for the club; some are just friends of mine who love West Ham." The Hammers run eight junior teams, right down to nine-year-olds, with around 130 boys at present attending the academy. "We must look at over a thousand youngsters a year. Sometimes I go to a match with nobody in mind. But I'd rather watch a game than sit indoors and watch EastEnders ."

Tindall adds: "When I get up on Monday morning, my wife asks me to leave a photo on the side for her to remember me by. This week I've been out every night: Watford on Monday, our centre on Tuesday, Norwich Wednesday, our centre on Thursday, and Potters Bar on Friday. But I don't regard it as work because it's something I love."

He harbours a strong belief in the importance of character. "I think temperament and right attitude are 90 per cent of it. You can be the best player there is, but if your attitude is completely wrong you've got no chance. Kids don't always realise what they have to put themselves through to be a professional footballers. You've got to be totally dedicated; mates are out, girls are out, drinking's out and parties are out. But you know if you succeed that the rewards are phenomenal."

As Cole has soon discovered. Intriguingly, he did not even play Sunday football until the age of 12 and even then his stepfather George had no idea of the talent that lay dormant. What he does recall is Joe "watching football on TV, particularly Italian and African, then going out and practising what they did".

His first team were called Paddington, for whom he played centre-back, but they lost every game. It was not until he joined a team named Chapel that his potential was appreciated by brothers John and Tony Field, who played for England Under-18s but never made it at the top level. He could have signed for Arsenal, but eventually decided that his destiny lay at West Ham.

Cole is evidently a thoughtful, intelligent teenager, with strong opinions. He is severely critical of some football coaching of youngsters by parents and accused the academic teachers at Lilleshall, where he attended the national school of excellence, of "trying to stop me playing for England if I didn't do my homework". He adds: "They thought I was just a cocky little London lad with an attitude problem."

With good fortune and sensible direction, Cole will emerge emotionally and financially intact in, say, seven years' time. As respected, maybe, as a Bobby Moore or a Trevor Brooking. But for every one of those icons, there are many who fall by the wayside, some victims of absurdly high expectation.

Remember Alan Dickens, the "new Brooking"? Well, you might do if you clamber into the back of his black cab, which is not in any way to denigrate him, merely to bring a sense of proportion to the Cole phenomenon. He will also learn from the perils of the Pauls, Gascoigne and Merson.

The pop star/soap actress/TV presenter/model as an escort will presumably follow at some stage. For the moment, he says that he doesn't have a girlfriend, though there are plenty of admirers, including a woman claiming to be a Thai air hostess "who keeps on writing filth to me". His mother vets such correspondence and both she and his stepfather George, formerly a fruit and veg trader who now runs a mini-cab firm in Kentish Town and attends all his games, clearly provide the support he requires.

So too does Redknapp. It has never been the manager's way to attempt to understate his abilities and he maintains: "Nothing bothers the kid. There's a little bit of cockiness, if you like, in a nice way, but that's Joe. He just knows no fear. I can't hold him back."

The world, it seems, is at the remarkable Joe Cole's feet. Except that for him, you suspect, the world is not enough.

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