Cole goes from busted wunderkind to happy wanderer with Lille move
Unjustly maligned midfielder should be applauded for seeking a change of fortune in France
It can seem at times that everyone is so desperate to tell Joe Cole the kind of footballer he should have been, they fail to notice the career he has had.
For a player who has at times been held up as English football's free spirit there has been an inexplicable degree of schadenfreude towards Cole, 29, since he agreed on a season-long loan move to Lille, the French champions, as a way out of Anfield. The general tone of it seems to be: Ha ha, that's taught you, Joe Cole, no one wants you here. As with all prodigies who were hyped remorselessly when they were just children, the backlash against Cole seems to be even nastier and even more vindictive.
Let's get one thing straight: Joe Cole is a richly talented footballer. Yes, he has made mistakes. His pursuit of a big payday took him to Liverpool and the doomed regime of Roy Hodgson at a point in the club's history when they were in a damaging period of flux. But that is not to say that he has not been exceptional in the past and whether he can be again will be one of the season's most interesting stories.
I spoke to Frédéric Paquet yesterday, the Lille general manager who has built a relatively small French club into the champions while successfully fending off interest in his academy players from acquisitive Premier League clubs. I first spoke to him two years ago when he told me about a young talent, Eden Hazard. At the time Paquet said there was no way he would let the Belgian playmaker be picked off and he has already held on to him long enough for Lille to win their first league title in 57 years.
Paquet was evangelical about Cole. "We first made contact on Monday, he came to see us and he was really involved in the project. He wants to come again in his career and we like that in him. We want that type of spirit in the player. We know that French football is not watched much in England, but we took time to explain what we were about and he made his decision quickly."
Cole, Paquet said, will be in Lille this weekend looking for a home. Paquet confirmed that his wages will be subsidised by Liverpool – "we don't have the resources to pay them" – and there will probably be much cynicism about that, too. But that assumes that players should simply tear up their contracts if they are out-of-favour and costing their clubs too much – which of course none of them ever does.
The slide in Cole's career has a clear starting point: it was his cruciate ligament injury in an FA Cup third-round replay at Southend in January 2009. It was a freezing, horrible night at Roots Hall – I know because I covered the game. Up until then, Cole had been a regular under Luiz Felipe Scolari, as he had been under Scolari's two predecessors, Avram Grant and Jose Mourinho, but by the time he was fit again, Carlo Ancelotti was in charge and he never showed much interest in picking Cole.
At times Cole has done himself no favours. When he announced that he had barely ever been played in his ideal position he left himself open to the valid criticism that perhaps it was him – not the rest of the world – who was wrong. But the lazy notion that he is a player who does not have a best position is nonsense. He was most effective for England, and Chelsea, as a left-sided midfielder and by the time of the World Cup last summer, Cole himself had long since accepted that and said he has given up on the notion he was best deployed "in the hole".
Cole was a key player in the Mourinho years, despite Mourinho's attempts to bully him. He played in that rip-roaring Chelsea team that beat Barcelona over two legs in February and March 2005. In the same title-winning season he scored the winning goals against Liverpool, home and away, and he scored at Old Trafford. The following season he scored the winner for England in a World Cup qualifier in Cardiff and started every game at the 2006 World Cup finals.
At that World Cup he also scored one of the goals of the tournament against Sweden, but – just his luck – was substituted for Peter Crouch against Portugal when Wayne Rooney was sent off. In the aftermath of last summer's World Cup he was the most outspoken in his criticism of Fabio Capello's methods – and that was not saying much – and has not been picked for a squad since then.
But make no mistake about it, Cole has saved Capello's neck more than once. First of all when he scored the last-minute equaliser at Wembley in August 2008 against the Czech Republic when, eight months into the job, the Capello project looked a shambles and the team were booed off. In a similarly poor performance in Barcelona the following month, Cole came on as half-time substitute and scored two goals to beat Andorra 2-0 in the first World Cup qualifier. Four days later, England beat Croatia in Zagreb and Capello never looked back.
Before that Croatia game, Cole reflected on attitudes towards him. "Sometimes I think if I had a manager who said to me: 'Go out and do your stuff, you can have two or three indifferent games', as players do, then maybe I could be an even better player than I am. I have not had that in my career. I would take playing for England anywhere, sit on the bench, play in goal. But it's nice to have someone right behind me. That [playing consistently] is the Holy Grail for any footballer. You would love to have that kind of belief from your manager. I hope it is my time."
Perhaps Rudi Garcia at Lille will provide that. Cole passed the 10-year anniversary of his England debut in May, which is a long time for any international player. The 56 caps seem a paltry return given the expectations that some had of him. But Cole is not some luxury, feckless player. He has three Premier League and three FA Cup winners' medals. He was a regular for Chelsea and England. He got injured. He made the wrong decision to go to Liverpool when he did. His move to Lille is the sign of a footballer who just wants to play football and he does not deserve scorn for it.
Channel hopping: Five others who made the move to France
Eric Black, Metz 1986-91 Striker Black left Aberdeen for Metz in 1986, where he played for five years, and won the French Cup in 1988. He retired in 1991.
Glenn Hoddle, Monaco 1987-90 Hoddle was signed for Monaco from Tottenham by Arsène Wenger in 1987. He inspired Monaco to the Ligue 1 title in 1987-88, and was voted the Best Foreign Player in French football.
Mark Hateley, Monaco 1987-90 Signed at the same time as Hoddle, before leaving for Rangers.
Chris Waddle, Marseilles 1989-92 Waddle left Spurs for £4.5m in 1989 and Marseilles won three consecutive titles while he was in France. Has since been voted Marseilles' second-best ever player behind the legendary Jean-Pierre Papin.
Trevor Steven, Marseilles 1991-92 Marseilles spent £5.5m buying Steven from Rangers, but he lasted only one (title-winning) year before returning to Ibrox for just £2.2m.
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