There is, according to Carlton Cole, a "good vibe" at West Ham United. And it's not just to do with the football. Cole, like Marlon Harewood, Danny Gabbidon and Anton Ferdinand, is fiercely into his music. Being a DJ could, as with the first two, have been a serious option, while Ferdinand is known to be a more than average singer.
They all used to bump into each other at a CD shop in central London. It was there that Cole, who has his own decks and performed at a club party this summer, built up his collection. R&B, hip-hop and "funky house". Artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg, 50 Cent, Dizzee Rascal. "And then there's SAS, Kno..." Cole says. He pauses. "But I think I'm going a bit deep," he offers. "I'm losing you now, aren't I?"
He is. There's laughter in the air. Cole chuckles away while, to his right, Harewood stands by his car wearing the biggest set of headphones imaginable. There is, indeed, a good vibe.
Confidence is coursing through West Ham. A first season back in the Premiership ended with an impressive ninth place and one of the most thrilling FA Cup finals in recent history. European football, the Uefa Cup, now beckons, while the manager, Alan Pardew, dec-lares that, Chelsea aside, there is not much between his vibrant young squad and the Premiership big guns of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. And he means it.
But Chelsea. Cole knows all about Chelsea. Still just 22, he has, after 10 years, finally said his goodbyes to the club he has supported, joined as an apprentice and appeared to be forging a career at as the next big thing. Claudio Ranieri called him his "young lion", while Jose Mourinho also predicted success. England, not just Premiership domination, surely beckoned.
"It did look like that," Cole says. "And he [Mourinho] did say to me that I was going to get opportunities. But it didn't work out that way and, for whatever reason, I didn't play as much football as I should have."
Cole recalls his first start of last season. It was as late as January and the third round of the FA Cup, against Huddersfield. He scored. "I thought I did well and hoped I would start the next game," he says. "But I didn't. [Hernan] Crespo got back fit and came in. What could I do? It was very frustrating for a young player like myself."
Crespo at £16.8m, Didier Drogba at £24m and, this summer, Andriy Shevchenko at £30m-plus. And Cole for nothing. "When you buy those players and pay the fees that Chelsea paid, it's kind of expected that they'll play," Cole says. "But it's still hard. I was really patient. I didn't say anything. But he [Mourinho] knew that sometimes I did deserve to play. I was training really well. I didn't understand why I didn't come in."
There's confidence there, clearly. "Maybe my career has stalled a bit," Cole adds. "But I know what I can do. I know my ability. I've shown at England Under-21 level that I can play in big games and have shone. I wanted to carry that momentum forward. I would go away with England but then have to wait another month for another Under-21 game. It felt like the only real football I got apart from the odd cameo appearance. It was stop-start."
He understands that Chelsea changed "massively" in the decade he was there, especially since the arrival of Roman Abram-ovich. Even now, he shakes his head in disbelief at quite what has happened. "Unbelievable changes," he says. "And I wanted to be involved in those changes. So it was hard to leave from that point of view, but really I had to draw a line under it and think what was best for me. It was obvious to go. I wasn't playing."
Cole feels it's a problem that English football needs to be careful does not spread. "We have to make sure that another Wayne Rooney or Theo Walcott gets the chance in the first team at a young age," he says. "The only way that can happen is by playing those young players at club level so they gain experience." Pardew is a great believer in giving that talent its chance. It's one reason why Cole chose West Ham.
In fairness, Chelsea tried to give him that experience with loan spells - first to Wolves, then Charlton and Aston Villa. The latter two didn't work, and Cole acknowledges that his "heart wasn't with the idea of going on loan". He didn't like the uncertainty of it. "I found it hard and don't mind admitting it," he says. "And at that stage of my life I didn't feel quite ready for it."
Nevertheless it gave him the experience of being able to deal with different environments, different players and managers. But Cole wanted more. "I've had managers speaking quite highly of me but then, afterwards, it's always been, 'What if you'd done that or that?' so I don't want any ifs any more. I want to further my career and do what's expected of me."
There is a declaration of intent. "I know exactly where I am," Cole says of West Ham. "This is my new home and I will do well for this club. The fans are expecting big things from me and I feel I've done well in pre-season. This feels like a real chance now. I'm here. I'm settled. And I know exactly what I've got to do."
The competition, following his transfer for an undisclosed fee, is fierce. There is Harewood, Dean Ashton, Bobby Zamora and, of course, Teddy Sheringham. Cole isn't fazed. Instead he embraces it. "That's the competition I need. Competition feels nothing new to me," he says.
But somehow it feels more manageable. He recalls an incident from that morning's training. "Today [the assistant manager] Peter Grant was coaching me. There was a certain thing I wasn't doing and he showed me," Cole says. "You know, I've never actually had that kind of one-on-one coaching before. I told him that and he was shocked. I think I've just missed out on it a bit. I'm not blaming anyone. It's probably because I've moved around and haven't had enough time to learn these things or I've been expected to know them."
Pardew will rotate his strikers. He expects them to work hard in a high-tempo, attacking team. "He sat the whole squad down and said that he wanted to score even more goals this season. I know they scored quite a few last season, but he wants more."
Cole, like the rest of the players, believes they will. "If you don't aim high you won't even get close," he says, and he is clearly revelling in being part of Pardew's strong core of young English tiros. And not just because of the music - although he admits it was very different at Chelsea, with the wide mix of cultures. "There were not a lot of players into the same things," he grins. At West Ham, the vibe is universal.
THE COLE FILE
BORN: 12 November 1983, Croydon.
DEBUT: Chelsea v Everton, April '02.
EARLY DOORS: Lack of first-team opportunities at Stamford Bridge saw him loaned to Wolves (1 goal in 7 games), then Charlton (4 in 21) and Aston Villa (3 in 27).
INTERNATIONAL HONOURS: England Under-21 regular (3 in 27).
MOVING ON: arrivals of Andriy Shevchenko and Salomon Kalou were cue to join West Ham. Will compete for place with Marlon Harewood, Dean Ashton, Bobby Zamora and Teddy Sheringham.
Cole Ignites: West Ham manager Alan Pardew on the strengths and weaknesses of his potential England striker
His weakness is clear. He needs to stay focused, and that's been a big issue in his game ever since he became a professional. I had a player similar to that in Marlon Harewood and we've managed to shift his focus purely on to performance and got so much out of him. If we can do the same with Carlton as we did with Marlon we'll be very fortunate, as Carlton has some special skills as well. He comes into a group where he has a chance of featuring, whereas last year he felt he didn't and lost his way a bit. We're hoping that with a new start, new club, new environment, it will happen.
What Carlton brings is more power and pace for us. He is 6ft 3in tall and he's very strong and fast and has great physical presence. I want him to be a threat in the air as well.
He has fantastic technique, especially for a player of his size. It's rare to have an English player with his technique. But he hasn't done it yet and he's got a good group of strikers at West Ham ahead of him so he has a bit to do.
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