It didn't seem like over nine years ago since he last pulled on a training top at Chadwell Heath but as Joe Cole looked around his first footballing home yesterday, not that much had changed.
The old place has been smartened up somewhat and the kids who climbed the wall to catch a glimpse of young Cole and his team-mates have been replaced by others.
In essence, though, the intervening years at Chelsea, Liverpool and Lille, just melted away as West Ham’s prodigal son shook hands with old friends and looked forward to a new career in familiar surroundings. Cole, who today signed an 18-month contract at Upton Park, should make his second debut for the club in tomorrow’s FA Cup third-round tie at home against Manchester United — and he cannot wait.
“Coming back here brings back all the memories,” said Cole, 31. “This is where I learnt my trade and I’m happy to have another chance to be here.
“The timing was right for me to come back and I’m happy. I’m back in London and I’m delighted. Now I want to make an impact.
“The place may not have changed to look at much but I think Sam Allardyce has done a great job with the team. A few years ago, the club were in a bad way. All in all, though, it will always be West Ham. The history will always be here and everywhere I go, people know me for having started here.”
Cole, who joined West Ham as an 11-year-old, is a vastly different individual from the one who left to join Chelsea in August 2003 for £6.6million.
He played 282 times for the Stamford Bridge club under a number of managers, including Jose Mourinho, winning three Premier League titles and battling back from a serious knee injury.
Cole then moved to Liverpool in the summer of 2010, when he became Roy Hodgson’s first signing, but he made just nine Premier League starts for the Anfield club and 42 appearances during a season-long loan with Lille in France.
Cole said: “I have had 18 months at Liverpool where I haven’t played much football and Sam wants to play me. I’m going to need games to get back to my best but I want to play football and come here and help the team to make an impact.
“I could see from the outside what a great bunch of lads we have here at the club and I’m excited. The first season in the Premier League is always the toughest one and they have done brilliant to get 26 points on the board. We would like to match that in the second half of the season and crack on from there.”
Islington-born Cole is desperate to shine at the club who nurtured him. “I owe them a little bit because if it wasn’t for West Ham I wouldn’t be a footballer,” he said. “The great youth team coaches here taught me the trade.”
Cole’s French excursion with Lille has also widened his knowledge. “Lille played in the Champions League and finished third in their domestic League,” he said. “It was good technical football with a lot of great players. I enjoyed my time there and it was only during my spell at Liverpool that I didn’t play as much as I’d have liked.That happens but I’ve moved on.”
Cole is likely to go straight into Allardyce‘s team against United tomorrow and he said: “I’ve come here to play football. I love playing football and what better way to do it than against Manchester United at home?”
Cole won the first of his 56 England caps against Mexico in 2001 while still a West Ham player and he has not given up on resurrecting his international career. He said: “I still harbour ambitions to play for England but I need to make sure my form is good for West Ham. I need to play games because although I’ve got a couple of goals for Liverpool this season, it was all ‘bitty’.
“To get back to my best, I need games and to build up my fitness levels again.
“It will be a lovely thing to be back in the West Ham shirt. All the boys here are keen to get to that magical 40 points as quick as possible and then really enjoy the season.
“We have a great game against United tomorrow which nobody expects us to win. Both clubs have got a great history in the FA Cup.”
Cole could soon be joined at West Ham by Arsenal’s Moroccan striker Marouane Chamakh, according to The Evening Standard.
The Upton Park club have been in talks with their London rivals about a loan deal for Chamakh, who joined Arsenal from Bordeaux on a free transfer in 2010.