Young lion ready to make leap from raw power to maturity

Growing up in public has given Carlton Cole some painful experiences but, he tells Phil Shaw, he is now gaining the confidence on loan to fulfil his potential
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Long before Carlton Cole had to battle for his place in Aston Villa's attack, or fight against allegations of sexual aggression, he was waging a struggle within himself. Confidence, conviction, belief: call it what you will, but the swagger that oozes from Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry as readily as sweat has seldom come easily to the 20-year-old Londoner.

Long before Carlton Cole had to battle for his place in Aston Villa's attack, or fight against allegations of sexual aggression, he was waging a struggle within himself. Confidence, conviction, belief: call it what you will, but the swagger that oozes from Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry as readily as sweat has seldom come easily to the 20-year-old Londoner.

According to press reports and radio phone-ins at the time of the so-called "roasting" of a girl at London's Grosvenor House hotel, the striker currently on a season-long loan to Villa from Chelsea was the Typical Modern Footballer. Rich, arrogant, ruthless and uncaring. Taking what he wanted, when he wanted. Cole did not simply dislike the portrayal. He did not recognise it.

Our conversation is marked by his refreshing disinclination to duck awkward questions - the claim of rape was dismissed by the Crown Prosecution Service and Cole feels he has nothing to hide - but more so by his frequent references to a lack of self-confidence.

Surprisingly, given that he was recently named as an England contender by Sven Goran Eriksson, it has been an issue ever since Chelsea recruited him from schools' football in Ealing at the age of 13.

Instead of just accepting that he possesses qualities many managers would kill for, like pace, power, skill and a scoring touch, Cole has often pinched himself, metaphorically, that he was keeping such exalted company.

Take his first appearance at Highbury, where Villa will today attempt to end Arsenal's unbeaten record at 48 Premiership games. It came with Charlton Athletic in February, during another year's loan from the club where he still says his heart lies. During the first half, Cole kept thinking that he was finally treading the same turf as one of his boyhood heroes, Ian Wright.

"I was like: 'Wow, I'm playing at Arsenal'," he admits, performing a passable impersonation of a star-struck schoolboy. "I was looking around at the stadium and the crowd, and concentrating more on them than on playing the game.

"In the second half I was much better. I was up against Sol Campbell, and I must have done OK because Arsène Wenger went up to Alan Curbishley afterwards and praised me. Thierry Henry also gave me his shirt, which was a big compliment."

More understandably, he confesses to having been overawed when, barely out of his mid-teens, he began training with Chelsea's "big boys".

Cole, who now stands 6ft 4in, 15st and is "still growing", puts the diminutive Gianfranco Zola into that category and is grateful to the Sardinian for his help.

"Franco was really good to me," he says. "I never had a lot of confidence when I got on the ball, and he taught me to break out of that. He told me: 'You need to express yourself'. He said I looked shelled up, tight. He'd seen me with my own age group, where I did what I wanted to do, but noticed that when I trained with the big boys, I didn't seem like I wanted to play."

In fact, he has wanted nothing else since he was 11. The son of a Sierra Leonean mother to whom he remains "very close" and a Nigerian father who never really featured in his life, he used to train with the park team that his uncle and mentor, Duncan King, played for. "CB United from Hounslow, west London," he recalls. "What I learned there, I took into school. It just grew and grew."

Chelsea fast-tracked him to the senior ranks, trying him in midfield and even central defence before settling on a front-running role. He scored on his full debut, against Middlesbrough in 2002, and managed three goals the next season, despite starting only twice. Claudio Ranieri, then the manager, called him his "Young Lion" and sent him on loan to Wolverhampton Wanderers to gain experience.

It was during a similar arrangement at Charlton last season that he was named on the internet, along with Newcastle's Titus Bramble, as allegedly having joined in a "roasting". Cole was never charged. "Everyone asks me about it, and I get a bit fed up of that," he says without insisting, as many other players would, that the subject was off the agenda.

"It wasn't ideal, being so young and having allegations like that against me. My family were very disappointed. It wasn't nice for my mum or my grandma to see things like that in the newspapers. But you learn from your experiences. If I don't learn from this, I've got no chance. I'll keep making the mistakes.

"The main thing is not to get into that kind of situation [being in a room with a girl and other men]. There are certain things you can admit to, and others that are taken way out of proportion. Some of the things being said were nasty. I didn't recognise myself as the kind of person they were saying. I don't think any player out there is a monster like that.

"But footballers get paid a lot of money. I had to wake up, smell the coffee and think: 'You're in the public eye. You must take responsibility. If you're being paid that much, you have to make sacrifices and try to be an idol for the kids'.

"Now I want to move on and shut those things out of my life. I don't like going back to them. It's quieter up here [in the Midlands where he lives with his girlfriend] and there aren't as many distractions. I'm concentrating on football and it's going well."

Part of the attraction of Villa was the chance to work under David O'Leary. When the former Arsenal defender was manager of Leeds United, he helped transform Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate from raw teenagers into England players, as well as developing Rio Ferdinand's more obvious talent.

O'Leary has made him more aware of the physical side of his role, putting him on weights. Cole feels sharper, stronger and better able to hold the ball up. In the last game he partnered Juan Pablo Angel ahead of England's Darius Vassell.

"Playing regularly for Villa has helped my confidence," he asserts, reprising a familiar theme. "I grew up at Stamford Bridge and I'm always going back," he says in a diplomatic response to reports that Chelsea want to recall him during the January transfer window. "I'm still involved with the boys there and I talk to the manager [Jose Mourinho], who has told me he rates me highly. But I need to play in the Premiership as often as possible - and I'm not going to get that with Chelsea right now."

So far this season, he has two goals for Villa, plus four for England's Under-21s, leading his international manager, Peter Taylor, to nominate him for a full cap. Taylor was astonished and delighted when the formerly self-contained striker found his voice in the dressing-room at half-time away to Ukraine.

"I wasn't happy with what was going on out on the pitch," Cole explains. "I admitted I wasn't putting myself about enough, and nor were the others. I didn't have a go, but I was trying to say we had to pull together. Me and [Arsenal's] Jermaine Pennant were the most experienced players there, so I felt it was my duty to come out of my shell. The boys reacted positively. We played better and won."

So his self-assurance is growing, unaffected by the ankle knock that led to his being substituted against Wales Under-21s eight days ago, though he is scarcely gung-ho about the prospect of being picked by Eriksson.

"I feel the full England set-up is a long-term project. I'm still very young - though maybe not as young as Wayne Rooney! - and see myself learning the game first. Jermain Defoe was ready for it, but other people need longer to do that.

"I don't want to push myself too fast, get up there, sink and drown. I want to stay afloat, not go in and come out again. You can put pressure on yourself to get there too fast. Maybe a few years down the line, after the World Cup..."

Common sense or over-caution? Both, probably, reflecting a desire to handle maturely "that mental leap", as he terms it, from having undoubted potential to realising it as a principal striker.

"There's a lot of players like me," Cole says. "They've got all the attributes but not the confidence.

"Rooney can just go out and express himself. That doesn't come naturally to some people and they have to build it up over a period of time. I think I'm at the stage where I'm just getting that confidence."

Arsenal, whose self-belief could be bottled, have been warned.