As we sat though another interminable England Sven-dly at a chill Anfield on Wednesday night, contemplating that certain of the England coach's peripheral players are no more potential World Cup winners than the actor Daniel Craig is a credible James Bond, thoughts drifted back to another tournament warm-up, pre-Japan and South Korea.
Elland Road, 27 March 2002. Result: England 1 Italy 2. It was a night when the performance of Joe Cole, then aged 20, was both intoxicating and infuriating. It had been his dash into enemy territory and exemplary lay-off that fashioned Robbie Fowler's second-half goal. Conversely, it had been the then West Ham midfielder who had displayed a lack of concentration, conceding possession in his own half which contributed to Vincenzo Montella's equaliser. Even that steadfast loyalist Sven Goran Eriksson did not absent himself from Cole's excoriation. Here was an Artful Dodger who was endowed with exceptional cunning, but could he be trusted around the established landed gentry of England football?
English football has always taken players like Cole to its bosom. England football has tended to regarded his like as a bastard child, with something approaching suspicion, instead of cherishing their talents. It explains why Peter Osgood, to whom Cole dedicated his sterling performance against Uru-guay having learned of the King of Stamford Bridge's death only hours earlier, claimed only four England caps.
Four years on from that friendly, on an otherwise uninspiring night, at least for England's wannabes searching for that elusive place on lastminute-worldcup.com, the Islington-born midfielder made as an emphatic a case for a first-choice shirt in Germany as Rumpole habitually does at the Bailey. He who must be obeyed - the England coach - will have been highly satisfied with Cole's winning goal, after he had provided the supply line for Peter Crouch's equaliser in the 2-1 victory, and will also have admired his diligence in scurrying back to help the substitute Jamie Carragher on the left.
Yet had he not been created so ebullient and positive in temperament, Cole's England caps could have totalled single figures, just like Osgood. There have been manifold opportunities for him to sulk and bemoan his lot. He underwent the ignominy of being downgraded to the Under-21s after that 2002 World Cup. Even his club manager, Jose Mourinho, has at times reduced his stature to considerably less than his natural 5ft 9in.
It was in 2004 that Mourinho damned the player who had just won a man-of-the-match trophy with the words: "He has to improve if he is going to do it for club and country. He has two faces; one is beautiful, when he attacks with the ball. The other face is not so good, defensively. I don't like it so much."
The midfielder listened and did Mourinho's bidding. But it still was not sufficient for a manager who, say what you will about some of his posturing, has been primarily responsible for Cole's ascendancy to a position in which his tantalising footwork, playmaking and goalscoring instincts now offer England an alternative to the driving impetus of central midfielders Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
After Chelsea's defeat of Birmingham City on New Year's Eve, Cole was again the recipient of a Mourinho monstering. "I've told him, one more match like that and he's out," said the manager, who had even mimicked Cole's back-heels and flicks on the touchline. "He has to play for the team and not for the public and himself." The Chelsea manager adopts that approach because he knows that the feisty Cole, though nobody's patsy, will accept such chastisement in a positive manner.
How he is perceived at international level has altered since that night at Elland Road in March 2002. He still indulges in the little shimmies, the nutmegs, the Cristiano Ronaldo-like step-overs, on occasions he fancies himself as Joe Cole of the Copacabana. But these days they bring reward, not merely applause. And, though he recognises that his body is never going to develop at the prodigious rate of Wayne Rooney's, his stamina and concentration levels have been enhanced under Mourinho's direction.
Once the luxury item, Cole has made himself indispensable as Eriksson prepares his travel bag for Germany, and though by no means a natural in that left-sided role, he is sufficiently disciplined to provide balance to a midfield quartet the composition of which otherwise must still be disconcerting for the England coach.
David Beckham continues to beguile Eriksson, and there can be no doubt that, if fit, he will start that first game against Paraguay. His crossing on Wednesday varied between the excellent and execrable, but when he does hit the spot it remains a potent weapon for England, as do his free-kicks. But otherwise, you could happily dispense with his presence. It is unkind, but no less true, to suggest that if ever football was divided up into mini-segments, like its American counterpart, you would just bring on the England captain for set plays and crosses.
The debate over Gerrard and Lampard, and whether one should be sacrificed for the team benefit, is - or should be - redun-dant by now. Eriksson would be foolish indeed not to embark on any World Cup matches without either of this pair of performers, who are fundamental to the England mission.
What it does require, though, in the absence of any desire to adopt a 3-5-2 formation, is for the England coach to deploy them effectively. Tottenham's Michael Carrick may have a significant role to play although, for this observer, he will always be a creative if rather unobtrusive presence and not the variation on Nicky Butt that some have in mind for him as a role. A couple of precision passes, both to Cole, were testament to that quality, but too frequently at this level his delivery was predictable and square. In a true "holding" role, it may be that Owen Hargreaves would be a preferred option.
Speaking of whom, back at that game at Elland Road, the Bayern Munich midfielder put in a fine exhibition. It was also a night on which Robbie Fowler not only scored but in the second half donned the captain's armband. He could not have foreseen then that his international future was in terminal decline.
Cole's career could have followed the same route. But with a "Special One" to guide him, he has come through, albeit bruised, to approach the summit of his ambitions.
The worry lines: From Becks' back to Rio's head
DAVID BECKHAM: Having been in excellent form for Real Madrid until they met Arsenal, appears to have caught the malaise infecting his clubmates. Had admitted to a minor back problem and chest infection, which may have contributed to below-par 45 minutes, and another silly yellow card.
RIO FERDINAND: Being labelled "lazy" by the coach has not had the desired effect on Ferdinand, who was infuriatingly casual against Uruguay, twice caught in possession in his own half. Fortunately it is in Man United's interestto work on his concentration.
INJURIES: Frank Lampard's pulled hamstring in training was a reminder of how easily even the fittest can suddenly be laid low. It is vital that he and other key performers stay fit. Nine contenders, led by Ashley Cole, were unavailable for Wednesday and several will not make Germany.
GERRARD-LAMPARD: Eriksson insists England's two best midfielders are intelligent enough to play together without duplicating roles, though he confesses that "a real sitting midfielder" like Michael Carrick or Ledley King may be necessary at times.
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