Not many English footballers can claim to have had their game transformed by the personal tuition of Fabio Capello and Gianfranco Zola, but then not many footballers have had the unlikely path to the top trod by the West Ham striker Carlton Cole.
At 26, Cole can finally claim to have arrived this season. He has been capped five times since August by Capello and he has been installed by Zola as the lynchpin of West Ham's efforts to beat relegation. Yet, as befits a career that has had more than its share of false starts, Cole could still end up relegated with West Ham this month, and left out of the 23-man squad that goes to the World Cup finals in June.
In the players' lounge at West Ham's training ground at Chadwell Heath he accepts this possibility with a philosophical nod. West Ham, who play Liverpool on Monday, should just have done enough to be safe after a draw with Everton and victory over Sunderland in their last two games set them four points from the relegation zone. As for England, that is quite a different matter.
This season Cole has been picked for every England squad he has been fit for yet his best hope of a World Cup place lies in the possibility that Capello will elect to take five strikers, or potentially lose faith in Emile Heskey. Either way, Cole will in all likelihood be in the 30-man provisional squad named on 16 May and endure a nervous wait on 1 June when seven are cut by Capello.
"I think Fabio Capello likes me," Cole says. "Maybe he can see I have got the potential to be a good footballer and I am still willing to learn. I have improved over the last 18 months rapidly and I have still got loads to do as well. He can see that I am trying. He loves that endeavour in a player, who wants to learn and never gives up.
"He feels that he can coach a lot in me. He is the same way with the stars, like Wayne [Rooney], [Steven] Gerrard and Lamps [Frank Lampard]. These are all established players but he still thinks he can improve them. That is the sign of a good coach. He feels he can improve the whole team individually and collectively. If you can fit in with that bunch and you can suit a role in the team and improve yourself as a person and a player, then he likes it."
Unlike Rooney and Gerrard, Cole's route to the top has not been straightforward. In fact at one point in our conversation he reflects that as a teenage trainee at Chelsea, "I felt that I was going to have the same kind of career as a Rooney". It did not quite work out that way. "I have learnt a lot of hard lessons," Cole says. "It has matured me better maybe than if I had gone straight to the top."
The man he refers to as "Mr Zola" – once his team-mate at Chelsea and now his manager – has worked intensively with Cole on turning him into the kind of centre-forward that can save West Ham's season and establish himself as an international. Along the way Cole has seen both sides of the West Ham manager.
"When he got to West Ham, he [Zola] felt I had lost my way a little bit," Cole says. "He just had faith in me. He told the team, 'Give the ball to Carlton and he will do what he does best'. He let me have a bit more freedom in my football and I paid him back with a few goals. He gave me the confidence to move on with my football and my life.
"Mr Zola is a very popular manager. You can see how passionate he is. Obviously Italians are emotional people, they take things personally and they want to do everything to 100 per cent. He is a perfectionist in his football. When things aren't going our way, he sticks by us. He never blames the players even though sometimes it is the players' fault."
As for Zola being regarded as too nice to be a Premier League manager, Cole says that the Italian and his assistant Steve Clarke – Cole's youth team coach at Chelsea – have a hard side to them.
"He [Zola] tries to balance out the good cop, bad cop thing. They do it together. Maybe at first when we were doing well there was nothing that he could say but when things started getting a bit rougher he started to change. I have a lot of respect for him. I have seen both sides. I am happy that he has that [harder] side. I always knew him as a nice guy and to see the other side to him is a bit strange, but he does it well. I respect him for it."
Mention of the row between West Ham's co-owner David Sullivan and Zola that blew up after the defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers makes Cole anxious. "I'm here to play football and I don't want to be involved in the politics, that's between the manager and the owner." Did the team feel sorry for Zola? "As a team we felt we let ourselves down," Cole says. "He took some of the blame as well but as for the players... some of the defeats at home did really hurt us."
Last season Cole scored 12 goals for West Ham having signed a new contract in November 2008. This season he has managed nine, the last one against Hull in February, and suffered a serious knee injury that kept him out for two months over Christmas and the New Year. He dismisses rumours that the problem will not go away but admits that he will not be back to full fitness until next season.
"They [the medical specialists] have told me it would take more than this season to get back to where I was," Cole says. "I did my posterior cruciate ligament. It's not really an injury that requires an operation – that is just an option. With conservative treatment you can get back to where you were. It does take a bit longer to get your sharpness back but you can still play.
"It is tightness, aching and swelling that I have to keep on top of and control. As time goes by it gets better. I have done well so far to control it and I am only just now playing as I was – doing the runs I was doing before. My power and my shooting are getting better."
Lately he has spent time on the training ground with Zola, changing the way in which he strikes a football. It might seem remarkable that an experienced professional footballer would consider refining the basics but Cole speaks enthusiastically about his tutorials with Zola. "I would use the side of my foot and try to whip it," Cole says. "He tells me to use my laces a lot more, and over the last month I have improved vastly. Hopefully I can show it in a match soon and then you'll know that!"
He finally left Chelsea in 2006 to join West Ham after three loan spells elsewhere, bringing with him a reputation for being an under-achiever, and an accusation of rape that was later dropped. Now a father of one-year-old son Cayden, he is a thoughtful type who gave this interview having first spent a few hours at an event for the Down Syndrome Extra 21 charity, playing football with children on the Upton Park pitch.
He had just broken into the Chelsea team at the age of 19 when Roman Abramovich arrived in the summer of 2003 and signed some of the most famous players in the world. "It was disappointing to leave Chelsea but I had to move on," Cole says. "The year after I left they had so many injuries up front I would have been playing. They even played Robert Huth up front, that was how bad it got.
"I have had a slow, slow simmering experience with football and I know now I have the foundation that if fans boo me because they think I am not pulling my weight, then I can cope with that. All those little things do affect your football and I have been through them. I hope I can stay away from that but if it happens I can deal with it.
"Because of the amount of good foreign players coming in it is really hard for the young kids to make it in the Premier League. Anyone who does has to be really special. I talked to Scott Parker and Mark Noble about it recently and they both said they were glad they came through the ranks when they did because it is so hard now.
"If it does happen and I go to the World Cup with England, I'll be a proud man. If it doesn't I'll still feel that way. I feel I have come a long way from where I was 18 months ago. It has been a long journey and I am proud of what I have achieved."
*Carlton Cole took part this month in an event to promote West Ham United's partnership with the Down Syndrome Extra 21 charity. Held under the auspices of the Premier League's Creating Chances programme, West Ham handed over £20,000 to the charity to establish a proud partnership. Cole, Danny Gabbidon and Kieron Dyer took part in special activities with a group of youngsters on the Boleyn Ground pitch. Cole said: "This is about more than football, it is life," he said. "You have got to do these things and I feel privileged to be involved. It takes your mind off what you are doing and shows you there are things in life more important than football."
My Other Life
"I like reggae, Beres Hammond in particular, and 50 Cent. I actually know 50 through a mate of mine who works for him. I have visited his home in New Jersey. The last time he was in England he called me and said he had just watched West Ham on telly getting beaten by Stoke. He said he remembered it was Stoke because he had watched the same fixture last year. He said the cameras had caught me saying 'Fuck' after I missed a chance!"Reuse content