No more Mr Spice Guy. Carlton Cole of West Ham and England – how he relishes the sound of that – insists he is now a retired party animal and womaniser, aware at last of some professional responsibility and prepared to knuckle down and make the most of his talent.
There are still those who have not adjusted to the change and regard him as a waster, in terms of his life off the pitch and inside the penalty area. Indeed, a statistic of less than one goal every four games suggests there is work to do on the most important area of his game, which he is quick to acknowledge.
Yet as tough a judge as Fabio Capello – the Simon Cowell of football – is impressed, having regularly named the lanky striker in his squad for the past six months and been rewarded with an outstanding half an hour as a substitute in Holland two weeks ago alongside Jermain Defoe; this afternoon the two contrasting forwards are in opposition at Upton Park for the first of the day's two London derbies.
The thought occurs that encountering a Capello figure earlier in his career might have kept it straighter and narrower. Instead, the star of the Chelsea youth team, "scoring goals left, right and centre and not getting the opportunities", tended to veer off the rails. Lurid headlines followed every lurch into the gutter, and as recently as last September he was arrested at half past four in the morning for alleged drink-driving.
From Christmas onwards, however, Cole produced the best scoring run of his career, and there was a first summons of a more rewarding kind, from Capello, together with a determination to turn his life around. "My career 18 months ago wasn't really bright but now it's kicking on," he said at West Ham's training ground on Friday. "I always knew I had a talent and I wasn't utilising it in the right way. When things aren't going well in your personal life it can create stress in your work life, so you've got to have the balance. I've been given a great opportunity in my life and I wouldn't want that taken away from me by anything off the field that would hamper my progress and that's what was happening before."
Back in 2003, Cole signed a six-year contract at Chelsea but, long before it was up, he had accepted that it would be necessary to move away from Stamford Bridge. From Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and a certain Gianfranco Zola to Didier Drogba and Hernan Crespo, there were always more fancied (and more expensive) strikers ahead of him in the queue and loan spells at Wolves, Charlton and Aston Villa, none of them exactly full of goals, did nothing to settle him.
Only since moving to West Ham in the summer of 2006 has he experienced a sense of belonging, and even that took time: "When Franco and Steve Clarke came on board, they knew me from Chelsea and they said: 'What the hell's happening?' I had a good season before that with Alan Curbishley so I just had to kick on from there."
Lessons learnt? "I've realised that there's a lot of things other than going out and enjoying yourself and a load of women. Everyone likes that but you've got to have the professional side to your life and take it seriously. I'm over that hill with the partying and all that. I wouldn't be in the England squad now if I hadn't realised that, I'd just be another average player trying to make a living. I've had the opportunity to have a second chance and it's paid dividends for me."
At 25, he suddenly finds himself the only fit senior striker at the club, who were yesterday turned down by Bordeaux's Marouane Chamakh after agreeing a fee. Cole is even taking on the unexpected role of elder statesman: "I've got a lot of advice now for younger players coming through. I actually went through the bad part of my life, so I can help them now. The glamour life is not what it's cracked up to be, and there's a lot of pressure with it as well."
Professional advice is all part of the service too; one beneficiary has been Frank Nouble, who took Cole's advice to follow his example in leaving Chelsea for West Ham to maximise his chances of playing. Last Saturday, Nouble made his first-team debut at 17 in the 2-0 win against Wolverhampton Wanderers – as a substitute for Carlton Cole.
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