The day Joe Cole had a ball

Chelsea's new-model midfielder comes of age for his country as Eriksson's greatest headache eases
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The Independent Football

Joe Cole proved a point to the doubters on his first competitive international start yesterday. He thumbed his nose at critics who see him as a decorative enter-tainer lacking in substance by scoring the vital opening goal to garnish a mature, man-of-the-match performance as England demolished Northern Ireland. Goodbye "Circus Boy"; hello England midfielder.

"It's nice to get the goal but I wanted to show the boss that I could be disciplined," the Chelsea midfielder said after the World Cup qualifying Group Six match at Old Trafford. That comment suggests that he really has grasped the meaning of football life, as Sven Goran Eriksson acknowledged. "Joe did exactly what we hoped he'd do," the England coach said. "I gladly say congratulations to him. He is a different player now in a positive way."

But has he solved England's problem position on the left side of midfield? "Of course, if he carries on playing this way," Eriksson said. "His talent is incredible. He beats people, he scores goals and I don't think he gave the ball away in a stupid way once today, as he has done in the past."

The Chelsea midfielder had to go some to upstage Wayne Rooney, who ran him close as the star of a highly competent, patient England performance against dogged, but limited, opposition. Rooney cut a sharply contrasting figure with a typical bullocking display. After Cole had pounced on a rare defensive error to open the scoring with a delightfully placed shot two minutes into the second half, Frank Lampard barged his way into the penalty area to set up a chance that was deftly taken by Michael Owen.

Then Rooney's power play came to the fore. Having hit the post with a clever header and forced yet another excellent save from Maik Taylor in the first half, the Manchester United forward bundled his way behind the right side of the Northern Ireland defence and hammered the ball across goal, where Chris Baird turned it into his own net while holding off Owen. Three goals in six minutes. Game over.

Lampard wrapped up the scoring with a 25-yard shot that deflected off Colin Murdock to set the seal on what Eriksson called "a very professional performance". The new, disciplined Joe Cole set the tone and, no doubt, his club manager, Jose Mourinho, will bask in a reflected glow of satisfaction at the transformation. "I owe Jose Mourinho a lot," Cole said. "Chelsea is a great club to be at, the best in the country and I am just delighted Jose has shown great faith in me and taught me a lot of lessons."

Cole's sudden maturing has deflected some attention away from the bad publicity that has haunted Mourinho and his club since they touched down in Spain for the first leg of their Champions' League encounter with Barcelona. Perish the thought that this far from ordinary Joe's display be described as frisky. Nor could his goal be listed for posterity as: Cole tap-in.