Cole excels at lost art of the unpredictable

West Ham's midfielder brings a formidable appetite for knowledge into England's squad
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The Independent Football

Kevin Keegan sat beside him as a sort of minder, but Joe Cole was in no need of protection from the media, handling himself with a maturity beyond his years - in fact not unlike his performances on the field every week for West Ham. Besides, the precocious midfielder looks in no need of wet-nursing, cutting a much more formidable figure these days, the result of considerable work in the gym during the past few months.

Kevin Keegan sat beside him as a sort of minder, but Joe Cole was in no need of protection from the media, handling himself with a maturity beyond his years - in fact not unlike his performances on the field every week for West Ham. Besides, the precocious midfielder looks in no need of wet-nursing, cutting a much more formidable figure these days, the result of considerable work in the gym during the past few months.

The first of what will probably be countless press conferences over the next 15 years or so at which he is the centre of attraction went so well that the only time Keegan felt the need to intervene was when Cole - who asked David Beckham if he could have his shirt after the game at Upton Park last month - said that there were "loads of players who I'd like to get the shirts off their backs. I can't have them all".

The England coach interjected: "I will have to check the shirts before he goes - we're always losing kit."

I am not sure about shirts, but it is obvious that nothing would please Keegan more than to award Cole his first senior cap. And from what he said yesterday at the team's headquarters at Burnham Beeches, it looks as though it could be as substitute in the World Cup qualifier against Germany on Saturday, but more than likely a start against Finland in Helsinki next week.

Keegan admitted that he had been "dying" for the 19-year-old Cole to become a regular choice at Upton Park so that he could promote him to the seniors after just one appearance for the Under-21 side - an absolutely stunning full debut against Georgia last month. Cole mentioned how disappointed he was to find himself omitted from the West Ham squad for the opening game of the season, against Chelsea. "Whatever his disappointment was I can tell you it was twice as much for me," Keegan said. "It was a long way to go and I was trying to work out why he wasn't even... I don't think he was on the bench, was he?"

Cole is very much a part of the first-team set-up now and in a matter of weeks he has found himself part of the England set-up, too. So how did he feel? "Just shocked and then happy and then worried and back to happy again," he replied. Asked if he thought Harry Redknapp, his manager, had gone overboard a bit when he said that he knew Cole would play for England when he first saw him at 11 years of age, the young man replied: "I've seen lots of players at 11 who I thought were definitely going to play for England and they didn't."

Having dealt effectively with that one, he volleyed the next question into the top corner. Do you think you are ready for the full England team? "If you'd asked me when I was 13, I would have said I was good enough to play for England, but that's just kids, you know. It's come along now, and I'm happy to be here, but I don't want to be just here for the ride. It's down to me. The ball is in my court. I've got to try to impress the manager and hopefully whatever happens will happen."

He is aware of criticism of his game from some quarters, that he is nothing more than a circus act, but both he and Keegan insisted there was much, much more to him than that.

"I know Harry wouldn't have a ball juggler going out to play for him every Saturday," he said. "I never go out to show off or anything. It's always with scoring a goal in mind. It's never just to do it to say look, 'I can flick a ball'."

He refuted that he lacked aggression. "You might not see it, but I am aggressive and I do have a will to win," he said. "I hate losing. I'm a sore loser." In fact, he had noted Stuart Pearce's aggression in training and had tried to imitate it.

"He was the first to congratulate me when I came," he said. He looked to take "the best bits" from everyone's game, including his idol Paul Gascoigne, and from Paolo Di Canio "for his brain and the way he reads the game".

"I've always said that Gazza has been my idol," Cole said. "It is just unfortunate that everyone wants to compare. It happens a lot in football, you are always looking for the next person to come along... but if I think he does something really well, then I'll try to do it in my game - I'll try and learn off all the players."

Cole showed an example of his coolness when playing against Bradford on Saturday. He was chopped down by Dean Windass but did not react.

"Reading the papers on Monday I think a few of them wanted me to get up and start throwing my arms about," he said. "What's the point in that? If I had done that everyone would have been putting a question mark over my attitude. You can't win, you know. As long as I know myself that I give 100 per cent, I'll be all right."

If he does play a part on Saturday, it would not be the first time he faced Germany at Wembley. He played against them at the old stadium as a schoolboy and finished on the winning side then. "That was brilliant," he said. "It was the first real time I played in front of a massive crowd, and it was special."

He took no offence when he was asked if it helped playing for "a smaller club" - he turned down the chance to join Manchester United after a trial. "It's always been West Ham for me," he said. "I don't know why. I sort of fell in love with the club and the people there."

Keegan conceded that he was the kind of player who could turn a game - "quite honestly, we haven't got 10 players in that hotel behind us that can do that. He does bring something different to the table".

Where to play Cole is the problem, because he does not fit conveniently into any obvious pigeon hole. Clearly, though, Keegan has it in his mind to play him eventually in a fairly attacking role. "I think when you've got talent like his you've got to find a way of accommodating that," the England coach said. "Some players of his ilk, if you like, can go and turn a game for you, but they can also cost you a game."

But his best position?

"In behind the front one or two, in front of a diamond, or off a lone target man are the positions I would look at. I think Joe's aim has to be to try to get involved in this game. I think that, to be quite honest, is the best he can hope for. There are 27 players all champing at the bit to play. He wants to get into that 22, then he can start thinking about getting into the 11. But, I tell you what, he's certainly going to be here for a long, long time."

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