Cole's maturity to the fore in drive to finals

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Just after the 1998 World Cup and with England having suffered early elimination at the hands of Argentina, there was naturally plenty of debate about who were the young players coming through who could finally guide this country to international success.

With another World Cup looming, the question is whether a Chelsea midfielder can stamp his class all over the tournament in Germany. The player people expect to do great things is Frank Lampard.

The view seven years ago was rather different. Although he was only approaching his 17th birthday, word went around that West Ham had a special talent and it was Joe Cole they were talking about.

Having worked his way through their youth system, he made his first-team debut in the 1998-99 season and his then manager Harry Redknapp predicted he would light up the game.

No one would say that Cole has endured hardship since then, but the intervening seasons have seen the teenage boy become a 24-year-old man and all the more accustomed to how football can treat a fledgling talent.

Bought for £6.6m in the summer of 2003, Cole has long been overtaken - by John Terry and Lampard among others - in Jose Mourinho's affections and it has taken just as long to convince Sven Goran Eriksson of his worth to England.

From experiencing such adulation at Upton Park to suffering public humiliation at Mourinho's hands, it explains why Cole says: "I try not to make football the be all and end all. But every day I wake up, realise how lucky I am and that's a good attitude to have.

"This game is all about consistency so I have to keep my feet on the ground, carry on and hopefully success will keep coming.

"I've had a different upbringing to any other player. People expected me to come into the team at 17, dominate games for West Ham and be a world-class player.

"But you have to learn the game first and I've had to learn it in public under scrutiny from the whole of the football world which has probably made me stronger as a person.

"When people talk about attitude being the most important thing, you think they are talking rubbish because you think all you need is to control and pass the ball.

"But it's about the knocks and how you bounce back. It's about whether it takes you one hour, one day or one year to come back."

Since he left West Ham, Cole feels he has not had an easy ride with any of his managers. Claudio Ranieri brought him to Chelsea and actually picked him in 35 league games but the impression was of being under-valued.

"I didn't have the right opportunities and nothing against Claudio - he's a great fella - but I didn't get a chance. I fought my way in, I had a great 2005 and I want to keep that going."

His second season at Chelsea saw him dropped after Hallowe'en, criticised by Mourinho for his lack of team play. "It crosses your mind that you might have to leave. But I just tried to stay positive," he said.

He did not regain a regular place until the end of February, but when he did, Eriksson picked him as well and he gave a fine display against Northern Ireland last spring and his prospects look far better for Germany.

But prior to that, the Swede had not always been kind to him. He took Cole to Japan and South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, but he played only 10 minutes against Sweden. Two years later, in Portugal for the European Championship, and it was an even less productive tournament as he did not play a single minute in any of England's four games.

Those memories still hurt. "I must have been the most warmed-up player on the bench. I don't want to go to another tournament and not play, so that's the motivation. People say the left-sided position is a problem. But since Northern Ireland, I have acquitted myself well. There's no point worrying now whether I will start the World Cup because what will be, will be."

Ever the patriot, Cole said he would be excited by the draw for Germany 2006 last night but he knows he has to focus today against Wigan to help the Blues retain their Premiership trophy. Do that, and in seven months he will be re-negotiating his contract, possibly in the knowledge that, at last, he was Chelsea and England's finest midfielder at the World Cup.

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