Sam Wallace: For all his honours and England caps, Joe Cole has become the forgotten man of the Premier League. Is this the end of his career?
Even at his best he was the man who managers struggled to understand
It was four years ago that Joe Cole was making a late run for the 2010 World Cup squad, based largely on his substitute performances for Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea side in which he later admitted, he would still be chasing around, trying to make things happen, while his team-mates were content to close out a lead.
That story, told by Cole during one of the long days up at England's isolated camp in Rustenburg at the 2010 finals, was just one more example of his dislocation from the players around him, a feature of Cole's career. The man busting a gut to make an impression to the England manager in the stands while the rest of his team cruised to another victory.
Four years on, he is only 32 but no-one is thinking about Joe Cole for the England squad now. They are scarcely thinking about him for the West Ham squad these days. He was not even on the bench for the 2-0 win over Tottenham on Saturday; he has started six games this season, 14 in two years under Sam Allardyce. His contract runs out next month. "If I could stay and play then that would be ideal," Cole said. "But it doesn't look like I'm the manager's first choice."
Cole has already tentatively embarked on a pundit's career with ITV, and he certainly has the medals to justify a seat in a television studio. He is now the owner of a restaurant in Chelmsford, the walls of which features at least one picture of the Kray twins, judging by a recent location-based interview on Sky Sports. He is doing his Uefa "B" licence coaching badge. It would feel like the end of a career, were he not still so young.
At 32, he is younger than Steven Gerrard, who will captain England in Brazil this summer, as well as Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, both contenders to be there. After the last two years Cole would be forgiven for wondering if there is a club out there for him, although it would be a great pity for him to walk away at such a relatively young age.
It has been a precipitous falling away. Even at his best he was, famously, the man who managers struggled to understand. Nowadays you wonder if there is a manager who can figure out a place for him.
The cruciate ligament rupture Cole sustained aged 27 in an FA Cup third-round tie at Southend United in January 2009 is the fissure that runs through his career. On one side two Premier League titles with Chelsea, one FA Cup; two League Cups and 53 of his 56 England caps. On the other side, the 2009 FA Cup that he watched from the stands, the 2010 Double with Ancelotti in which he played a bit-part role, and a lot of heartache.
Every player in his 30s is forced to adapt, and adjust from the way he played as a younger man, but there is usually a viable alternative. Cole has all but disappeared. In fact the only guarantee of a glimpse of that silky touch these days is if you visit the Boleyn Ground in person and hang around at half-time to watch him kick the ball about with the other substitutes.
He had his best years at Chelsea, pre-injury, when Jose Mourinho played him wide, often on the left. It was there that he established himself in the England midfield and from that flank that he scored the most memorable goal of his career, against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup finals, that dipping volley with his right foot.
Mourinho was often judged to be excessively harsh on Cole, and there were times when he seemed to rain on his parade just for the hell of it. But it was his idea to play Cole, naturally right-footed on the left, the inside-out winger theme that he continued throughout his management career. Cole was at his best when he had his role clearly defined by his manager and that was always the case under Mourinho.
Cole has always believed that his best position is in a central position and that his time on the wing was simply an interruption to the real business of where he should be playing. In that recent interview he said he regarded a switch back to the centre as the key to playing on in the twilight of his career.
When Cole went to Liverpool in 2010, the first of his bad moves post-Chelsea, Roy Hodgson tried to deploy him as a playmaker in the No 10 role. It never worked. It was Brendan Rodgers who was most scathing about Cole, describing his wages as "astronomical" after a lacklustre performance in a Capital One Cup defeat last season.
After Liverpool, via a year on loan at Lille, where he was well regarded, the move to West Ham was even worse. There was the romance of the connection between the boy from Camden and the club he grew up at and captained as a 21-year-old, but that was all. In the Allardyce era, Cole has acquitted himself well when called upon but at times has felt as out of place as he would have done had he signed for Wigan Warriors.
As for his England career, it was Cole who gave the most outspoken view on the dismal England performances at the 2010 World Cup finals, having made just three substitute appearances. The feeling in the squad was that he should have been in the team. They were his last England caps.
Two years earlier, Cole had scored the last-minute equaliser for England against the Czech Republic in August 2008 when Fabio Capello's new regime was at its lowest ebb. The following month he scored both goals in an awkward away win against Andorra in Barcelona. Over the years, he got important breakthrough goals in qualifying games. He disappeared from the England scene so quickly that his value to the team has been forgotten over the years.
This is, after all, a man who has won three Premier League titles and three FA Cups and played at three World Cup finals, one of only 11 English footballers in history who can currently claim that. One presumes it is for that reason, along with his marginally defective eyesight, that he has been signed by a contact lenses brand to promote them during the summer.
The PR release arrived last week, a slightly depressing missive that belongs in the desperate marketing category. Cole, it turns out, has worn contact lenses since the age of 20, although his vision always seemed to be the least of his problems. He has made some bad decisions about the clubs he has joined since Chelsea. And that injury has taken its toll. But there must be a manager somewhere with the imagination to find a place for him.
Don't expect misfit Magath to stick around next season
Felix Magath, for all his achievements in Germany, always looked like a strange candidate to rescue Fulham from relegation. On the night that he was appointed as Rene Meulensteen's replacement, the club said the "opportunity to bring in a manager with the experience of Felix Magath would typically be unlikely at this point in the season". Not really, he had been out of a job since October 2012. The notion of him managing in the Championship, where player recruitment is key, seems even more fanciful.
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