Joe Cole at the crossroads as Liverpool dream turns sour once more
Unwanted by club and country, the former teen prodigy faces a big decision on the eve of his 31st birthday
When Joe Cole was 19 he was one of the football prodigies featured in Alan Hansen's documentary Football's Dream Factory that correctly predicted a future in which boys would be signed up at ever younger ages by clubs hungry for the next big star.
Even at that young age, Cole had already established himself in the West Ham first team and had a wardrobe full of the shirts of famous opponents in his home in Romford that he proudly showed to Hansen. An England debut came that same year, 2001, and two years later, when West Ham were relegated, he moved to his boyhood club Chelsea.
In so many respects, Cole's career has been a great success. Three Premier League and three FA Cup winners' medals, 56 England caps and a place on the plane to four international tournaments. His wife, Carly, gave birth to their second child, a boy, last month, and he has played in a generation of English footballers for whom the rewards have been golden, if not the success for the national team.
As for Cole's current career, his part in Liverpool's Capital One Cup defeat to Swansea City on Wednesday was the latest evidence that his time at the club is going nowhere. And yet by the standards of the modern footballer this one-time child prodigy is not that old at all. He will turn 31 on Thursday.
Brendan Rodgers was outspoken in his criticism of Cole on Wednesday, especially in a scathing reference to his "astronomical" salary, estimated at anything between £90,000 to £130,000 a week and negotiated by the Christian Purslow regime to bring the player on a free transfer in the summer of 2010.
"Joe Cole had an opportunity, the club has invested an astronomical sum of money in a talented player and he has to seize his opportunities," Rodgers said. "It [Liverpool's approach] was too slow, it just was not what I would expect from a team I had set up to be dynamic so I think it was a difficult night for him."
Having returned this summer from a reasonably successful season at Lille, a bold loan move by English standards, Cole now finds himself caught in modern football's familiar bind. His contract at Liverpool until 2014 is lucrative but his career is going nowhere. If he strikes a deal with the club to walk away, he will lose out financially. In doing so he may also salvage something of the twilight of his career.
In the last two years, he has faded swiftly from the England team. The likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Gareth Barry, Scott Parker and Michael Carrick are all older than Joe Cole and, while they have had their highs and lows, all of them are in a stronger position at this moment.
Where did it go wrong for Cole? His suitability or otherwise to fit the template for English football, and Jose Mourinho's many criticisms of him, can be debated endlessly. What is not in doubt is that when he went to Roots Hall on 14 January 2009 for a FA Cup third-round replay against Southend United he was still a key member of Luiz Felipe Scolari's Chelsea team. He ruptured his cruciate ligament and did not play again until the following September.
By then Carlo Ancelotti was Scolari's successor at Chelsea and, while the Italian continued to pick Cole for many of the club's big games in their Double-winning season, he did not seem convinced. When Cole signed for Liverpool he was perceived as a Roy Hodgson buy, although Hodgson later suggested that was not the case. A red card early in his Liverpool career, the resultant suspension and injury meant that, under Hodgson, Cole never got going. When Kenny Dalglish took over, he immediately relegated Cole to the bench. Under Rodgers, who will have known Cole from Chelsea, he came back for a second chance and Liverpool turned down an offer from Spartak Moscow.
At Lille, where Cole made 38 appearances last season, he would have had the chance to play Champions League football, an opportunity that was not on offer at Liverpool. This season there have been more injuries. On Wednesday he was selected to operate as the No 10 behind Samed Yesil but it was not a success.
There will be much cynicism expressed about Cole and the contract he is on at Liverpool. Nevertheless, the club agreed it and, whatever their feeling now, there was great optimism about a player who arrived at Anfield announcing that he had immersed himself in Liverpool's history and was looking forward to a new start in a new city. Cole also said when he signed for Liverpool that he had turned down Arsenal.
As an England player, he won his last cap as a substitute in Bloemfontein in the defeat to Germany at the 2010 World Cup finals. Yet along the way he scored some crucial goals for his country. He will always be remembered for that spectacular long-distance goal against Sweden in the 2006 World Cup but there were others.
When Fabio Capello was under his greatest pressure in the first nine months of the job, Cole scored in the last minute against the Czech Republic to rescue a draw at Wembley. Then he got England's two goals in an awkward win over Andorra in the first 2010 World Cup qualifier and was part of the team that beat Croatia 4-1 in Zagreb, a result that gave Capello's regime lift-off.
If Capello was grateful to Cole, he certainly never showed it. To his credit, Cole was one of the most outspoken about the failings of the 2010 World Cup team and was never selected again, although given his Liverpool form the following season that is hardly surprising.
Staying at Liverpool, isolated and unwanted, would be a sad way to see Cole end his career. He will feel, with some justification, he is not obliged to walk away from his contract. He may believe that Rodgers crossed a line on Wednesday by mentioning his salary. If Cole regarded a loan move to Lille as a drastic solution to his save his ailing career last season, he may be in need of something even more radical this time around.
Cole in numbers
100 Minutes played for Liverpool this season – including just two starts.
45 Minutes Cole lasted on his Liverpool league debut, v Arsenal, before being sent off.
2010 Cole's last England cap came against Germany in the 2010 World Cup second-round defeat.
38 Games played by Cole on loan at Lille last season, scoring nine goals.
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