Cole ready to follow footsteps of Owen and legend of Gascoigne

England's dazzling young midfield talent has high hopes of making impact at the World Cup
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The Independent Football

Was it a coincidence, or a deliberate piece of psychology from Sven Goran Eriksson? Probably the former. Joe Cole's shoulders already carry a weight of expectation a mule would balk at without clothing them in the shirt which made Gazza famous.

But maybe it was deliberate. Cole was on the back pages long before he had played a first-team match yet remains supremely level-headed. Eriksson may suspect pulling on the No 19 shirt, as worn by Paul Gascoigne at Italia '90, will inspire rather than constrict him, go to his feet rather than his head, at the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan.

That is the impression Cole gives in conversation. Speaking before the team headed for Dubai he said: "I know Gazza wore 19 but it is unfair to compare me to him as he's a legend. He's done it on the big stage and I'm a young lad just coming in. I can understand the comparisons, he wasn't a legend in 1990, but he's up there and I've got it all to do. Hopefully, if you're doing the same thing in 10 years then I might have done something right.

"New players always break through at World Cups, but I want England to win more than [I care] whether I play," added Cole. "The expectation on me is not difficult because I just go out and play. I have been playing pressure football ever since I broke into the team. I didn't have a settling-in period, I had to do things straight away. It's not been a help so far, but it might be in the long run."

Cole's fourth and most recent international, against Paraguay last month, was a case in point. After a mixed performance in the previous friendly against Italy it was his last World Cup audition. He said: "I knew I had to play well. To do something to get myself on the plane. That was pressure but I enjoyed it."

Prior to Italia'90 Gascoigne had started five internationals, including all 90 minutes of the final four build-up games, and made six substitute appearances. Cole is yet to start an international, winning his four caps off the bench, and none in a competitive match. A better comparison is, perhaps, Michael Owen who went into France '98 with two starts and three substitute appearances behind him, none in competition. In terms of character, too, Eriksson will be pleased to note, Cole seems more like Owen than Gascoigne.

When he said "I'm ready" it was without conceit, just a cold-eyed assessment of his ability, just like Owen is when talking about himself. Cole added: "All it is is a game of football. As long as you think that, and keep the emotion out of the game, you can do it." Cole heads for Asia after a successful domestic season. Under Glenn Roeder's astute direction he has shown, contrary to Harry Redknapp's belief that he is a free spirit, that he can fit into a midfield structure, either in the centre or wide left. He has also been lasting the pace better, realising he needed to work hard to provide a platform for his talent.

"I've grown and I'm still growing. I've put on half a stone," he said. "All muscle," he added hurriedly. "Part of it is simply coming into a man but I'm also doing weights and fitness training.The last three to four months I've been feeling really good. Being stronger and faster makes football easier."

Cole added: "It's my dream to go out and play and do well. If it doesn't come I'll savour the experience but I'd be stupid to go there and want to sit on the bench. No one wants to do that.

"Even with the injuries the manager has loads of options in midfield. It's up to him. All I know is I will train hard and hope I get a chance. If I do I will take it. I know it will be difficult but I'm playing against some of the best players in the world in the Premiership every week." And collecting their shirts. "I've got loads. Vieira, Djorkaeff, Zidane, Gazza, Gerrard. But I might keep my World Cup ones rather than swap them. They will be special to me."

Cole regards Zidane as the world's best at present. "He's different class. He's got great feet and is a great player." His next, less obvious pick is evidence that Cole studies the game. "I also like the young Turkish player, Emre [Belozoglu]. He's a decent player. He could make an impact at the World Cup." The Internazionale midfielder, a year older than Cole at 21, is also being linked with a move to Arsenal.

But it was Gazza videos that Cole watched as a youngster and Cole looks wistful when his name is mentioned again. "I've spoken to him a few times. I got his mate, Jimmy [aka "Five Bellies"], tickets for Sunderland. That's when I got Gazza's shirt because I've not played against him yet. He's either injured or suspended or I'm injured.

"Not playing against him is a regret. Every year I look for the fixtures to see when I could play against him, but maybe now its not meant to be. Maybe one year I will play against him in a testimonial."

Gascoigne had just turned 23 at Italia '90. Planet football was at his feet. But he never played another World Cup. It is a reminder that nothing in football is guaranteed. Everyone hopes this is Cole's first opportunity of many but, just in case it is not, he intends to make the most of it.