Cole takes centre stage by starting on the left

The first competitive international start for Joe Cole now looks a certainty after the Chelsea man trained yesterday as part of an England midfield that will also include David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard against Northern Ireland tomorrow.

Sven Goran Eriksson will change back to the tried and tested 4-4-2 formation with Cole operating on the left side in what will be the 23-year-old's 20th cap for England. He has started on the right for Chelsea since Arjen Robben's injury on 2 February, but has convinced the England coach that he can be equally effective on the left.

Often disappointed by the marginal role given to him by Eriksson - he was demoted back to the under-21s after returning from the 2002 World Cup - Cole will regard this as a crucial opportunity to show that he has matured under Jose Mourinho. It also means that three players from the West Ham side of the mid-Nineties - Lampard, Cole and Rio Ferdinand - have now graduated to the England first team, with Jermain Defoe, now at Tottenham, waiting in the wings.

Talking about the four players' early days under Harry Redknapp at Upton Park, Ferdinand said that they never really considered their futures. "Because of the traditions of West Ham and England, a lot of fans and staff used to say, 'You lot could do it here'. We have never been big-headed enough. We didn't think about the future. That's bad luck to think far ahead. Joe was still in nappies then.

"It's good for the banter. Around the training ground, me and Frank are always talking about old times, Joey and Jermain Defoe as well. Always talking about 'do you remember when we used to do this and that'? Those days are long gone."

The Football Association yesterday reached a compromise over the scheduling of the season next year, in particular the FA Cup, which will allow for Eriksson to have the four-week break that he regards as crucial to any success at the World Cup finals next summer.

The FA Cup final will now be played on 13 May with the sixth round played midweek to save one week from the season. On Tuesday, Eriksson had put pressure on the FA and Premier League board by saying that he valued the chance to have four weeks to prepare as "gold".

It was proposed by the FA board that any teams involved in European competition would not have to play replays in fifth and sixth-round matches - instead the games would be decided on the day. However, that provoked opposition among smaller teams who would be denied the financial bonuses of a second tie - not to mention the chances of winning - by the rules.

More importantly, the proposal was thrown out by the FA's Challenge Cup committee. With the Premier League refusing to budge on making the start day for the season earlier, the two governing bodies reached an impasse which was solved by Brian Barwick's first piece of serious diplomacy since he took over the chief executive's job this year.

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