There is no mistaking the esteem in which he holds the West Ham prodigy. "Sometimes," says the England coach, "you look at him and you think, `How do you do that?' And then you realise. It's just talent. He is exciting, like Michael Owen was, although he's a different type of player."
Cole is just one of the reasons why the new Premiership season cannot come soon enough for Keegan. Despite making only occasional sorties into first-team football last season, the 17-year-old had a reputation sufficient for Keegan to summon him for training with the England squad who faced Sweden and Bulgaria. Now he wants to view him performing regularly for his club.
For all the gloomy prophesies of England's future that have accompanied the influx of yet more foreign players this summer, Keegan can point to the likes of Cole, Leeds' Alan Smith and Jonathon Woodgate, Everton's Francis Jeffers, and Aston Villa's Gareth Barry as evidence that the blooms in the Premiership garden are not all flowering exotica brought in from afar. Also present are strong, home-grown examples of flora.
"One thing I am looking for this year is for Joe Cole to play through into the West Ham side," says Keegan. "From what I have seen when he spent five days with us, and you can ask any player, is that the things he did were tremendous. But obviously he has to break into the West Ham team. I think he has been nursed along by Harry [Redknapp] and rightly so, but I would be surprised if he does not break in this year."
It is quite conceivable that Cole, who possesses impeccable control, balance and vision that belie his years, could be assimilated straight into the England first team, just as Owen was. "It's not luck. You cannot do things he did in that training session and not be able to do them in the Premiership," insists Keegan. "I think there's a shortage of that type of player. He is a Gascoigne-type player, a one-off. He can make things happen, hold things up, let the ball run. He's number one [of all the young contenders] mainly because we need that type of player. That doesn't mean to say if he gets into the West Ham side he will come into the squad for the Luxembourg game, but he's certainly a talent.
"It's up to him, isn't it? Owen forced his way into the England side. You just had to pick him. Glenn [Hoddle] resisted for a while and maybe he was right to do that, but he had to put him in. If he produced that form in the first month of the season, then I have proved before with Woodgate, who didn't play in the Under-21s, that I could pick him. If they are good enough, they are ready. Jonathon did very well in Bulgaria."
Keegan is also looking for Cole's West Ham team-mates Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard to reinforce their England claims, and there was also great encouragement for Matthew Upson to prise his way into the Arsenal back four. "If he gets into the Arsenal side," Keegan says, "straight away he becomes a contender for a place in the England squad."
Foremost for Keegan, as he prepares for England's two remaining qualifiers, followed by the probability of a two-legged play-off, is the desire that he will be able to select from a strong squad, something that has thus far been denied him. Tony Adams has never played for him, nor Michael Owen, Darren Anderton, Chris Sutton, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne.
England's progress will depend much on the health of his players' limbs, but for the moment Keegan will not even consider the prospect of failure to qualify. "I don't think about that possibility because I'm not made that way," he says.
"I thought we would win those games against Sweden and Bulgaria. I really did. But we still have it in our hands to qualify and I'm the eternal optimist." With young players of the calibre of Cole emerging, he should be.Reuse content