Joe Cole sits down with a mug in his hand and declares: “No chocolate. Green tea. Times have changed.” For the one-time prodigy of English football, his choice of brew is the least of it. Since last week his days as a Premier League footballer are officially over.
Yet there are no regrets for the 34-year-old. The former Chelsea and England midfielder is loving life in League One with Coventry City – even the task of cleaning his own boots is a pleasure after several frustratingly stop-start seasons with Liverpool, West Ham and Aston Villa.
“You do question the times when your body is letting you down and you ask if there is any point doing it but then you try to remember yourself as a kid when all you wanted was to play football and doing something like cleaning your own boots takes you back to that and makes you appreciate it more,” he says.
The real thrill for Cole, speaking at Coventry’s Sky Blue Lodge training ground, is knowing he has a significant part to play again. Since leaving Chelsea in 2010, he has reached double figures for league starts in a season only once – on loan at French club Lille in 2011-12 – but he is on course to alter that statistic at Coventry, where he arrived on loan in October before signing a permanent six-month deal last week.
Tony Mowbray, his manager, appreciates Cole’s humility, as well as the guile that complements the youthful promise of homegrown playmaker James Maddison and free-scoring Newcastle loanee Adam Armstrong. Coventry are three points behind League One leaders Burton Albion, who visit the Ricoh Arena tomorrow, and Cole says success with the Sky Blues would mean as much as any of his Chelsea honours. “There are no pictures of football up in my house. I’ve got shirts up in my games room of players I’ve played against but there’s nothing of me or anything I’ve done. I want to win the next game.
“I would love to take my kids on the pitch at the end of the season with a trophy. It would be a massive achievement and something I would be very proud of and up there with anything I’ve achieved.”
Still being a footballer is a triumph for Cole who, since his final season at Chelsea, has been stricken by muscular problems. Mowbray has helped him ease his way back and he has already started seven games for Coventry. “The last three or four years, my body has let me down and I’ve travelled all over the world listening to people, trying to keep myself fit, and I feel like I am going down this path now with this method of training and it seems to be working well.
“The club has given me the platform to build my match fitness and sharpness. I am not 100 per cent but I am getting there and I feel the responsibility to lead the club into the Championship.”
Cole is a friendly soul and grateful for the career he has had, with its 56 England caps and over 250 appearances for Chelsea, the club he supported as a boy and where he won three league titles and two FA Cups.
He is happy to tackle the suggestion that he failed to live up to the hype of his teenage years. “If you are comparing me with Messi I ain’t had a good career but if you are comparing me to 99 per cent of the other footballers I’ve had a great career,” he says. “Out of our generation there’s a handful of players in this country who will have had a better career than me out of all those kids that started at the same time.
“Unfulfilled? Not for me. Unlucky with injuries, I will give you that. I would say my best years were probably taken away from me, but there were a lot of highs, like winning player of the year at Chelsea when we were getting to the Champions League final. What I am most proud of is I have done it off the back of being hampered by not having a robust body.
“At 17 I was still growing and playing against men kicking lumps out of me,” he adds. “It happens to a lot of players – Michael Owen, Jermaine Jenas were in there from a young age in the top flight.”
Reflecting on his problems with burn-out, he is an advocate of the winter break, having felt the benefits during his year at Lille, yet sounds ambivalent about current sports science practices. “Personally I’ve got a feeling that sometimes [young] lads, on top of all the football, are getting asked to do too much,” he adds. “I find my body feels better now I’ve cut out all the sports science and everyone telling me to get this and that muscle stronger.
“I just play football, recover, have a few more days off, eat well, live well, and it seems to be working. I am not saying it is the answer – the proof will be in the pudding if I am still kicking a ball two or three years down the line.”
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