Football: Rivals long for a piece of Cole

The latest West Ham prodigy has highlighted the importance of the home-grown.
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The Independent Online
HE WAS on the pitch for no more than 25 minutes but those inside Upton Park for last week's FA Cup-tie against Swansea were privileged to witness the event and said so in a deafening acclaim for a 17-year- old substitute taking his first steps on the professional stage. Welcome, Joe Cole, superstar footballer for the Millennium.

West Ham are proud of their schoolboy discovery and grateful that with competing offers to go elsewhere, young Cole decided to play for them. Despite his still tender years, and a frame to match, he is now ready to be unleashed on the Premier League, and the losers in the frantic scramble for his signature are about to discover what they lost.

In fact, if we didn't know Harry Redknapp as one of the game's decent guys you might almost suspect he has deliberately delayed Cole's Premiership bow until today to drive home that very point to Manchester United.

Alex Ferguson is sore that he failed to entice another Cole to Old Trafford and even now the United manager's first words to his West Ham counterpart are along the lines of "How's the boy coming along?" The same goes for Arsenal because, with his roots in Islington, they will have expected to claim territorial rights on England's newest hot property.

Sore too are those other big concerns who attempted to persuade Cole to play his football elsewhere. In an echo of the problems highlighted by Notts County last week before they gave up the fight to hang on to Jermaine Pennant, the 15-year-old wing wizard who has joined Arsenal (absolved, it should be said, by County of underhand dealing) for pounds 2m, the West Ham manager claimed they could have named at least a dozen clubs guilty of making an illegal approach for their midfield prodigy.

"In fact, we let Joe play the field and go off and talk to these other clubs," said Redknapp, who will name Cole for bench duties at Old Trafford this afternoon knowing the time is fast approaching when he will become a fixture in the starting eleven. "We were open and honest with him and maybe that helped us to sign him. I think the kid enjoyed it here and felt comfortable with us."

The competition for the nation's richest talent has intensified because an investment of time and effort in the early years can save fortunes in the transfer market later on. A happy by-product is that the emergence in the first-team of young stars can help persuade the generation following that they will be given every opportunity to progress while satisfying the established players that the club is going places.

"The only chance a club like ours has is to produce our own players because we can't pay the really big transfer fees," Redknapp said. "You like to think you can keep them for a long while but how realistic is that. The days when people like Trevor Brooking stayed with one team all their career have gone but having said that we want to end this idea that West Ham is a selling club. We want to be the best in London and players like Joe can help us."

The belief that here was a player with special gifts hit home when Redknapp first caught sight of the diminutive 11-year-old from a council house background. He has said that, apart from Duncan Edwards, he has not come across another teenage performer so obviously well-equipped to make it to the very top.

Cole's smooth control and snaking runs soon won him recognition in schoolboy circles. Terry Howard, coach to the Camden and Islington Boys, remembers him for one mesmerising piece of skill. "When he turned up for his trial I nearly had a heart attack when he ran at an opponent in his own penalty box, back flipped the ball over his head and kept on running," Howard said.

"I told him to be more cautious and that there was a time and a place for fancy tricks like that. But when he did it again to score I just said, 'Do what you like from now on son.' I've been coaching for 20 years and have never seen such a combination of flair, pace and commitment while he was also the most modest."

Conclusive evidence for Redknapp has come in the way Cole handled the chance to train with the first-team squad a few weeks ago, an opportunity that would have come earlier had his development not been interrupted after smashing three toes while out jogging on holiday in Turkey. "Some kids freeze while others like Joe and Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard before him think nothing of it," he said. "The hype has followed Joe for a few years now and he's got it all to prove but I've no doubts about him. He's a genuinely nice kid who refuses to get carried away by things and just wants to get on and play his football."

The established Hammers are also convinced of the youngster's pedigree. When he was sent on as a substitute for the reserves in a practice match against the first team at Chadwell Heath, Ian Wright shouted: "No, not yet, we're only three up."

Interestingly, Redknapp is not attempting to influence Cole's development away from the game and, in stark contrast to the methods Ferguson uses to try to shield his starlets, is building no safeguards against the exposure to fame.

"Joe has told me he doesn't wish to do interviews but in any case why should I go round telling him not to speak to this person or that. I am asking him to do a man's job on the field and I can't molly-coddle him off it. He has to stand on his own two feet. Michael Owen is able to go in front of the television cameras and it doesn't seem to have done him any harm."