Joe Cole has always had the capacity to incur any manager's exasperation while simultaneously endearing himself to him. It was Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho who once remarked that there are two faces of the midfielder, "one beautiful; the other I do not like". Even yesterday, in receipt of the highest accolades from his international coach Sven Goran Eriksson there was this pointed observation: "He didn't lose the ball in the stupid way that he did in his past."
One suspects that such remarks are made less out of cruelty, or indeed, any lack of appreciation, but merely to mete out to the England midfielder a verbal slap, a constant reminder to him that his responsibilities extend to rather more than elaborate artistry on the ball.
Cole was under severe scrutiny here on his first competitive start. He had played just five minutes in the last two World Cup qualifiers, against Wales and Azerbaijan, and did not figure at all in the friendly against Spain. Eriksson may have selected him, but you sense the coach required convincing that his decision was correct.
The 23-year-old did not disappoint him on an afternoon when his tenacity, strength and vision compared favourably to the days when he laboured under a belief that he had just had to turn up and dazzle the opposition with a virtuoso performance.
And the goal helped, of course, even if the opportunity was provided by an atrocious attempted clearance from defender Tony Capaldi. Cole, the player who, a year or so ago, may have seized upon the opportunity and thence gave us a demonstration of his subtle skills but with no end product, did not dally.
"Jose" Cole, as he may now prefer to be known, in testimony to the Chelsea manager who has planed down a few of those more ostentatious edges and turned him from a peripheral component to a first-team regular at Stamford Bridge, struck the ball as sweetly as you like round the goalkeeper Maik Taylor. It devastated England's opponents who for 45 minutes had repelled England with grit and valour, and who may have just contemplated the thought that a famous lock-out was viable.
That goal and an overall mature contribution emphasised to Eriksson the breadth that Cole has added to his game since he arrived amid flattering but ridiculously excessive claims that he was the "new Stanley Matthews".
Now there is the rather more problematic question. Is he the missing factor X, who will hitherto settle England minds about the lack of left-side balance? Frankly, we should reserve our opinion on that until England's opponents offer them a greater challenge than Northern Ireland.
Cole dutifully maintained a disciplined enough presence there yesterday in front of his namesake, Ashley, but the reality is that he is a player who relishes freedom, pushing through centrally, or from the right, and linking up with his attacking colleagues.
Never mind. For the moment, he'll do for Eriksson, who enthused: "He has really learnt that football is not always about tricks. It's to choose when to do them, and when not to do them. In your opponents' third, you normally have eight men behind you. If you do them in your own third, you can put your team in difficulties." The England coach added: "But he was absolutely perfect today. He played in a very mature way." Asked whether he had solved the problem left-hand side, Eriksson produced that weak smile of a man who probably has no idea, and declared: "It is a problem which, if he goes on like this, it will be difficult to move him."
Cole himself was anxious to emphasise what was presumably a pre-match Eriksson mantra of the "importance of the team keeping its shape, and discipline". But when pressed about this being a defining moment in his international career, he parried the question with the words: "I won't get carried away. You know in football things can turn round in a second."
The midfielder was one of a trio of Chelsea performers here among the England élite, with Frank Lampard and John Terry both enjoying rich afternoons, and who knows how many Blues Brothers the west London club may boast by the time that Eriksson's men arrive in Germany next summer? Ashley Cole to add to Joe? Steven Gerrard, despite his protestations to the contrary this week?
Few players would not be tempted if they received the summons, such is the improvement that is so evident in Mourinho's England men. Terry, a prime candidate for Footballer of the Year, has achieved the unthinkable and deposed both Sol Campbell - admittedly not available yesterday because of injury - and Rio Ferdinand as first-choice central defender in many experienced judges' minds, while Lampard was again at his best.
The triumph must be placed in perspective, however. Whether Lawrie Sanchez wore one of those wristbands bearing the legend "make poverty history" and favoured by Tony Blair in recent days, is not known. Well he might. Only three of his team played in the Premiership last weekend, and of the remainder, unless you are an aficionado of the likes of Crewe, Bristol City, Hull, or Plymouth Argyle, you would have been hard-pressed to claim you were familiar with them. What Sanchez could have done with just one performer of the class of the watching former Manchester United triumvirate of George Best, Norman Whiteside and Sammy McIlroy?
The reality is that Northern Ireland will continue to remain third world while England continue to prosper.Reuse content