The boy wonder is growing up. At 24, Joe Cole has learnt that even the most naturally gifted of footballers - a category into which he indisputably fits - have to harness their ability to the team. Chelsea and England have reaped the benefit, and last Tuesday's man-of-the-match performance against Sweden ensured that this weekend the national team are through to the second round of the World Cup as group winners, confronting Ecuador and not the hosts Germany.
Only 18 months ago, Cole's standing was still the subject of debate. He did not even enjoy the full trust of his club manager, Jose Mourinho, who picked him no more regularly than Claudio Ranieri had done, and famously cut him down after a winning goal against Liverpool: "I needed 11 players for my defensive organisation and I had just 10. He has a lot to learn." Meanwhile, Sven Goran Eriksson had awarded the most skilful player in his squad a quarter of an hour's football at the last World Cup and not a single minute at Euro 2004, even though Paul Scholes, wilting in the heat, had to be pulled off in every game.
During the first half of the following season, Eriksson's search for Scholes's replacement on the left of midfield seemed to be governed by a phil-osophy of ABC - Anyone But Cole. Steven Gerrard and Wayne Bridge had a go; 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 were employed. Finally, against Northern Ireland at Old Trafford, Cole was at last given a chance and seized it with both feet in a 4-0 victory. The discipline and tactical maturity demanded every day at the Chelsea training ground by Mourinho had begun to pay off.
Both qualities were in evidence last Friday, when Cole suddenly began to sound like a seasoned professional. "Football's moved on from the days of having two wingers crossing the ball for two big centre-forwards," he said. "International football's about keeping the ball and intricate passes and making angles. Some games, out wide you get lots of the ball and can run at the full-back. Other games, you don't see much of the ball and have to dig in, but as long as I'm disciplined and keep the structure right and don't go off at a tangent, the gaffer's happy with me. Sometimes I have to force myself to give us width on the left. I'm a winger now. With my attributes, I can play central, but to get the ball down and get running at players, that's what I'm good at. The only place to do that in modern-day football is out wide. It's too congested in the middle."
There were lessons, he admits, which had to be learnt and which he might have assimilated more quickly after breaking into West Ham's first team amid rave reviews at such an early age, the boy from the Camden council estate who was going to be English football's next big thing. "Expectations were pushed on me from 16 years old, and now I'm older and wiser and stronger, you know. I think people expected me to be a world-class player at 17, 18, but I hadn't learned the game then and I had to do all my learning and make all my mistakes in the public eye. Everyone just got on the bandwagon and it just started rolling and rolling. Theo [Walcott] is in the same boat I was in a few years ago."
If young Master Walcott requires a role model, he could do worse than look at Cole, above all retaining a wonderful love of the game for its own sake rather than the unquestionable material rewards it has provided. "That was always the punishment, it wasn't taking my computer away it was taking my football away. I used to sleep with a football. I just love the game as much now as I did when I was 13 or 14. Some people don't believe that, but I do. Playing in the World Cup and then going home and watching the game, it's brilliant for me, I love it."
Going home to Cobham and his dogs, you feel, would be even better, which is why he welcomes the presence of friends and family close by in Baden-Baden: "Anyone who thinks having the wives and girlfriends is a distraction must be mad, because when we're playing three games a week at home you don't go and lock yourselves in a hotel room to get a bit of normality."
But there is no shortage of thinking time, which he has been using to contemplate the fall-off in England's performance over the second half of matches. "We've been talking about it. We tend to switch off a little bit maybe. But when you're playing international football, you don't dominate teams for 90 minutes, there's times when you have your backs to the wall."
Some serious thought has clearly been given as well to the composition of the midfield, in which Cole, used to having Claude Makekele behind him at Chelsea, turns out to be a strong advocate for an anchorman. He also points out that his partnership with Ashley Cole down the left has only recently been re-established and should get better: "Ashley makes so many runs for me and is brilliant to play with. He plays with Pires for Arsenal, who likes to come in off the left and give him space, and I think I'm doing that and enjoying it. He's a great player."
Amid all this grown-up logic, however, there is still room for unfathomable superstition, a series of rituals Cole will run through before today's game. Last off the pitch against Sweden, he might have been supposed to be drinking in the atmosphere. Instead, it transpires, he was searching for a lost, lucky shinpad. Fortunately it was found and England's World Cup quest remains, however shakily, on track.Reuse content