Mourinho's nurturing of Cole's self-belief asks questions of Eriksson

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The Independent Football

Under Sven Goran Eriksson England have never lacked a messiah for a day. The likes of Darius Vassell, Alan Smith and Jermain Defoe have come trailing glory on their way to a swelling chorus line.

Joe Cole, though, has always suggested he might be different. Unformed and bedevilled by shaky discipline though it might have been, Cole's talent has offered more than a hint of genuine class and imagination.

Even in the depth of his confusion there was a case, some judges said, for throwing him off the bench and into the terrible bankruptcy that overcame England three years ago in the World Cup quarter-final against Brazil.

Now it seems a sharper, much more relevant Cole may just have a toe-hold in the Eriksson club. The England coach said he would persevere with him along the left after his lively contribution to a win over a Northern Ireland whose incompetence was so profound it hurt the eyes. This surely is the least Cole can expect when England play Azerbaijan on Wednesday night, not only for finally opening up the Irish after plundering a ghastly mistake in their defence, but for far more significant contributions for Chelsea in recent weeks.

In that epic second game against Barcelona, Cole was a paragon of hurtfully applied football intelligence and in this World Cup qualifier against the bedraggled heirs of George Best and Jimmy McIlroy he had only one rival as the star of the show.

Yielding centre stage to the awesome weight of Wayne Rooney's gifts is, however, a fate likely to overtake players of greater ability than Cole in the next few years. Indeed, there were moments here - and most notably when Rooney created England's third goal with a breathtaking combination of touch and power - when no player on earth seemed immune from the fate.

Cole's destiny has come late, but plainly not fatally so, with the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge. Amid all the other webs he has been weaving, Mourinho has wrapped Cole in both discipline and a new depth of self-belief.

Eriksson, having turned his face away, after the briefest exposure, from England's most talented young left-sided forward, Middlesbrough's Stewart Downing, is now obliged to accept Mourinho's gift.

Yet even as he does this he should understand disquiet over the fact that in much less than a year the Chelsea manager has achieved something which had proved quite beyond his own powers in more than three. Yes, it's true Mourinho works with Cole on a daily basis, but then what is the role of an international manager, how does he most usefully organise all that free time? Surely it is to identify and encourage the nation's more exceptional talent - and spend some time attempting to influence it.

The greatest setback to Cole's international career, absurdly, came at Elland Road three years ago when he gave up possession in his own half in a friendly against Italy. The cynical view is that anything that happens in an Eriksson friendly can never be considered remotely significant, but the fact was Cole's slip contributed to a goal.

That a moment of brilliance from the same player created England's score was beside the point - Cole was demonised as terminally irresponsible and from Eriksson there came not a whimper. Of course, it was right that Cole be criticised for his mistake, and this is especially so when you consider why it was that Eriksson's England twice surrendered brilliant chances in international football's most important tournaments. It was because of a chronic failure to hold on to a lead, with the haemorrhage of possession in the group game against France in Portugal last summer the most horrifying example.

The worry is that Cole emerges as a potential Eriksson banker not because he has had the chance to develop in the team in the course of all those grotesquely squandered friendlies, but in a spurt of form with Chelsea - and a profitable afternoon against a team who were flattered by their ranking of 111th in the world.

In the wake of this latest victory some are painting the bright hues of still another new dawn for England. No doubt Rooney, Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and now, maybe, Joe Cole, constitute a formidable core of talent. But will England do any better in translating individual ability into a coherent team performance in Germany next year than they did in Japan and Portugal?

There are few guarantees and the least of them, it would be negligent not to say, is surely the captaincy of David Beckham. After dominating once more the build-up to the game with his risible agonising over the Madrid paparazzi, he was once again utterly marginal to the important action. He has become an island of self-indulgence and justification, if not a speck in the football ocean.