Cameo kid ready for his biggest break

Persuasion game again as Cole's twinkling feet tread main stage
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They have big cars, posh houses, the latest gadgets and designer gear; but mercifully, there are still some Premiership footballers for whom the game's the thing, and Chelsea's Joe Cole is one of them. Hoping to play in his first major cup final this afternoon, he is like a little lad waiting for Christmas.

They have big cars, posh houses, the latest gadgets and designer gear; but mercifully, there are still some Premiership footballers for whom the game's the thing, and Chelsea's Joe Cole is one of them. Hoping to play in his first major cup final this afternoon, he is like a little lad waiting for Christmas.

In a cavernous dome at the club's new training centre, sitting by the side of a full-sized artificial pitch, you can almost see his feet twitching at the sight of a football and the empty goal-nets. But Jose Mourinho has won the daily battle to drag him off the practice ground, and the next best thing is talking about it; first to his mates in the changing room, then almost as enthusiastically to the assembled media representatives.

"When we talk about it [today's Carling Cup final against Liverpool] someone says, 'Imagine what it would be like to be running round Cardiff and lifting the trophy, and what it's like afterwards and who's going where in the line if we win it'. I can still picture lifting the FA Youth Cup and bouncing round Upton Park with it with all the boys, and I'd love to do that again."

It was six long years ago that West Ham set a record by beating Coventry City 9-0 on aggregate to win that prestigious trophy, with Cole and Michael Carrick the stars of a glittering team. They are the only members of it still in the Premiership, thanks to moving clubs after West Ham's relegation in 2003, and neither has won a medal since. At 23, Cole should be moving assertively towards his peak, but successive managers at club and international level have been unsure how to harness those twinkling feet to best effect in a team game.

Harry Redknapp, who watched the young king Cole dominate games as an 11-year-old and claimed to have seen a future England international, is the only one to have fully trusted him. Sven Goran Eriksson, urged to build the national team round him after the last World Cup, appears to have given up altogether; left on the bench throughout Euro 2004, Cole has this season been permitted two derisory appearances as a substitute - one in the 85th minute, the other in the 86th.

At Chelsea, Claudio Ranieri acclaimed "the new Franco Zola", then started him in fewer than half the team's Premiership games. Mourinho too has remained ambivalent, as illustrated by his reaction to two performances last autumn. After coming on to score the only goal at Stamford Bridge against today's opponents, and picking up Sky Sports' man-of-the-match award, Cole might have expected some warm words. His manager offered these thoughts: "Joe Cole scores a goal. And after that he was not good enough for me. After that I needed 11 players for my defensive organisation and I had just 10. He has a lot to learn."

Four weeks later, at West Bromwich Albion, Cole was pulled off at half-time, even though Chelsea led 1-0. Significantly, his replacement was Arjen Robben, who inspired a 4-1 victory and proved he could play in the same team as Damien Duff, on the opposite flank. Mourinho had found an ideal formation - by accident, some claim - and only when the Dutchman suffered his broken foot at Blackburn four months later was Cole able to fit into it again, albeit in the unfamiliar role vacated by Robben.

That seems likely to be his position again this afternoon, when tactical discipline will be a prime requirement. Looking back at the Liverpool incident, he says: "I don't think it did me any harm. I took everything on board and I've learnt a lot off the boss this year. I think I've come on as a player, but I've gone past the point where I'm worried about what anybody thinks of me. I just want to turn up, play my stuff and get on with it."

Get on with it in a team context, however, which has not always been the case - unsurprisingly, given the younger Cole's choice of heroes: fellow mavericks Paul Gascoigne and Paolo Di Canio. Seeing the bigger picture and becoming an effective part of it should be that much easier in a side of Chelsea's quality, one which has developed an unyielding mentality that many London sides - West Ham being a prime example - have traditionally lacked. "John Terry has really shorn it up for us and given us a bit of grit. I think Chelsea are now seen as having a solid base, whereas three or four years ago they were seen as a soft touch. We've improved a lot as a club in that respect. Look at the games this year where we've had to go to Blackburn, Everton and Liverpool [all 1-0 wins] and you can see how much it means.

"We've been accused of many things, but one thing you can't say is that we don't dig in and fight for each other. Even last year I don't think there was as strong a mentality for winning as there is now."

The mentality has had the aspect of a siege to it these past few days, following successive defeats at Newcastle and Barcelona, and Mourinho is under pressure for the first time, in part because of his own misjudgments. He clearly made basic errors with his bravado triple-change at St James', and the failure in the Nou Camp to take off Didier Drogba, who was a red card waiting to happen. Aware that Wednesday's game was not supposed to be on the agenda, Cole was the one player prepared even to mention it: "It's only half-time and it's not such a terrible result, considering we were down to 10 men for a long time. It was all working perfectly, then there was a bad decision by the referee that changed the game. Now we just want to put it to bed."

There it will stay for a week or so, sound asleep, unless a third defeat in a third different competition follows this afternoon, when alarm bells will start clanging. Cole acknowledges that, in the circumstances, Chelsea could wish for more docile opposition than an invigorated Liverpool as they search for the increased self-belief that a trophy would bring. Yet he insists a sense of under-achievement will motivate the group, individually and collectively: "There's a lot of us not won much, as the manager reminded us at one of our first meetings pre-season, and we're coming to an age when you'd expect to be winning trophies. I feel that's what's going to drive us on."

He is almost rubbing his hands, continuing to pepper the conversation with words like "excitement" and "enjoyment". However edgy Mourinho may have looked in public last week, the players have observed their manager's essential love of the game, one shared by Cole to the extent that he has decided it would be unbearable ever to forsake it. "I started thinking about it the other day and realised I couldn't get up and not go into a football club in the morning. So I'll have to be around football all my life."

And with that he was off in his top-of-the-range car to his luxury home. Probably for a kick-about in the garden.