Cole the late showman is champing at the bit-part

He could have been playing a full game in the Nationwide League for West Ham United on Wednesday night, at home to Nottingham Forest. Instead, he came on four minutes from the end of Chelsea's thrilling Champions' League win over Lazio and seemed to consider that a fair swap. Perhaps Joe Cole, being a patriotic sort, is with Kipling on this one:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

There have been fewer unforgiving minutes than the young midfielder would have liked this season, for either Chelsea or England, in which to bring about his transition from boy wonder to man. Those who first heard awesome tales six or seven years ago emanating from West Ham's Chadwell Heath training ground, about the tricks young Joe could do with a football and how he would inherit the earth, might reasonably have expected that on the eve of his 22nd birthday - five full years after a senior debut at Old Trafford - he might now be the player teams were built around.

That was certainly the feeling on his return from the 2002 World Cup, where Sven Goran Eriksson handed Cole the No 19 shirt his idol, Paul Gascoigne, had worn in 1990 without permitting him anything like the exposure: quarter of an hour as a substitute in the opening game and that was it.

What started as a difficult season for West Ham then became a calamitous one, and the thought that a relegation campaign was costing him caps must have been a factor when Chelsea suddenly came into money last summer. For £6.6m, the lucky beneficiary, Claudio Ranieri, claimed to have found his new Gianfranco Zola at Upton Park: "Without Gianfranco I needed some player who is inventive and Joe is that player, the key to open the door." But so far the key has mostly been left dangling on a hook.

Cole went into yesterday's game against Manchester City having started one Premiership match this season for his club and none at all for his country, Eriksson having selected him for four squads and a total of 50 minutes as a substitute. After the first of those appearances, against Croatia at Ipswich, the Swede even offered a public criticism - something almost unheard of during his time as England manager - to the effect that Cole needed to learn how to keep the ball in the latter stages of a game.

As those tend to be the only stages he is on the pitch these days, it was a lesson worth heeding, which Cole claimed after Wednesday's match to have done. "When you come on as a late substitute you have to be professional," he said. "A few years ago I would have run on and tried to score. Now I just try to do my best each time, and then it's up to the manager."

If there are frustrations involved in being a bit-part player rather than the star of the show, as at West Ham, he will keep them to himself: "If people are waiting for me to throw a strop they are going to be waiting for a long time, because I'm a professional footballer. My spirits will never be affected, it's only football. And even if they were I wouldn't let anybody see. I understood the situation when I came to Chelsea. I'm confident in my ability that I will be in the team soon."

Juan Sebastian Veron's lack of consistency, illustrated within a single game on Wednesday, and Emmanuel Petit's current injury can only help his prospects. After all, as midfield rivals, that merely leaves his old West Ham mucker Frank Lampard and Claude Makelele and Géremi and Damien Duff and Jesper Gronkjaer and...

"Playing with the players here will make me better," he insists. "I have come on bundles since I've been here and that can only be good for England as well. I'm confident that by the time the European Championship finals come around I will have played enough games to be available for selection. Everybody here knows that when they are in the team they could easily come out if they don't play well. It's good for the club. I think we're the most exciting club to be with at the moment. These are exciting times, because we could go anywhere. We train really hard and the manager looks at you in training as well as in games. But when I've come on this season I've always made an impact and done well, and if I keep on doing that I'm sure I'll get in the team."

His faith in Ranieri is touching: "He's helping me a lot as a player and I've got complete belief in the man. I trust him. One of the main reasons I came here was that I had a chat with him and felt he was an honest man, and I don't think you can ask for more than that from a manager. I believe he can bring me on as a player. Everyone loves him."

Including, it must be hoped, Roman Abramovich, who suddenly strolls past with his entourage, luxuriating in the victory that took his new fun factory to the head of their Champions' League section four days after being knocked off the top of the Premiership table at Arsenal. "Mr Moneybags," whispers Cole with an urchin's grin reminiscent of the old Camden Town housing estate where he learnt to love football and Gazza.

Just as long as the new owner knows that we Brits are supposed to treat Triumph and Disaster just the same.

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