The prodigal son made a triumphant return but was denied his deserved reward here yesterday despite creating both goals for James Collins as West Ham came within a couple of minutes of knocking the Premier League leaders Manchester United out of the FA Cup.
Joe Cole, who left Upton Park nine years ago to seek his fortune with Chelsea, was reported to have taken a drop in wages from £90,000 a week at Liverpool to one third of that in order to return to his spiritual home, where he made his debut as an FA Cup substitute in 1999.
He earned an ovation when substituted with 13 minutes to play and West Ham deservedly leading 2-1, but Robin van Persie, a late substitute, equalised right at the death to earn United a replay that had seemed beyond them after a patchy display.
So West Ham were denied one of their famous cup victories over a club their supporters have never cared for, to follow Paolo di Canio’s winner at Old Trafford in 2001 and the semi-final victory of 1964. An absorbing tie was watched by a capacity crowd that included David Beckham, prompting speculation in some quarters that he, too, might be making a return to east London, although he has always said he would never play for any English club other than United.
Sam Allardyce, West Ham’s disappointed manager, said: “It was a great performance and we almost feel like we’ve lost. You’ve never beaten Manchester United until the final whistle goes, but we are still in the hat. It’s a fantastic debut for Joe but the whole team played really well.”
Cole was one of five changes made by the home side, starting on the left of midfield where he was once tipped to be the saviour of English football. He roamed to good effect and was always a threat when coming inside and crossing, as the goals would emphasise.
Sir Alex Ferguson had changed more than half of his Manchester United team, the one surprise being that with Chris Smalling starting at right-back, Rafael da Silva played in midfield where he was an even more enthusiastic attacker than normal, playing a crucial role in the opening goal. That formed part of a thunderous first half-hour in which each team had one effort cleared off the line and then scored.
After 11 minutes, Jack Collison took a corner that Alou Diarra met with a firm header kept out by Paul Scholes. United replied in kind within eight minutes; a left-wing corner, an equally powerful header by Nemanja Vidic and Dan Potts, the young full-back returning on loan from Colchester United, blocked on the line.
Goals did not seem far away and two duly materialised in the space of five minutes. United’s was the result of a fine first-time passing move down the right in which Javier Hernandez played a one-two with Rafael and crossed low for Tom Cleverley to side-foot neatly inside the far post. There was barely time for Scholes to collect one of his regular bookings – for a typically wild tackle on Collison – before West Ham were level. Ricardo Vaz Te fed Joe Cole, who crossed perfectly for Collins to head past David De Gea.
With Van Persie, ominously for West Ham, limbering up, from the start of the second half the pace picked up again. Joe Cole shot over the bar and at the other end Cleverley did the same. When the home side went in front just before the hour it was remarkably via the same combination as before. Joe Cole crossed from an almost identical position and once more Collins rose highest, with Vidic again not close enough to him.
The home crowd were in raptures; Ferguson responded by sending on Antonio Valencia and Van Persie for and Scholes and Hernandez.
The chances of United forcing a replay seemed to have disappeared when, first Danny Welbeck, then Ryan Giggs headed over the bar.
But with four minutes of added time having been indicated to the home crowd’s dismay, Giggs, who had come on for Smalling, sent a wonderful floated pass to the Dutchman who went past James Tomkins and shot into the far corner.
“The pass from Giggs and the first touch from Robin and his finish were absolutely world class,” said a relieved Ferguson.
West Ham (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Demel, Collins, Tomkins, Potts; J Cole (Taylor, 78), Collison, Nolan, Vaz Te (Jarvis, 61); C Cole, Diarra (Noble, 74).
Manchester United: (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling (Giggs,78), Evans, Vidic, Buttner; Da Silva, Scholes (Valencia, 68) Cleverley, Kagawa; Hernandez (Van Persie, 68), Welbeck.
Referee: Martin Atkinson.
Man of the match: Joe Cole (West Ham)
Match rating: 8/10