A year to the day before World Trade Centre bombings on September 11th, 2001 and most of Britain was queuing at petrol stations as fuel duty protests from a few north Wales farmers spread across the nation. Yet I was engaging my own vigil along with 4,000 other Hammers as we trooped over to White Hart Lane for a night game with a view to showing our hated (and I do mean hated) north London rivals what supporting your football team is all about.
Never mind us being outnumbered ten to one or Sol Campbell scoring the only goal of the game with a thumping header from a corner, we had a new terrace chant – and it was very good indeed. To the tune of Spandau Ballet’s Gold we belted out, “Joey Cole, COLE! Always believe in your soul, You got the power to know, You’re indestructible, Always believe in…”
Go back a couple of years and it is my duty to make you aware as a middle-aged man with no children and a vasectomy I am extremely unlikely to have any grandchildren. In light of that probability I feel I must reveal to you, I was at Upton Park the day Joe Cole signed his first professional contract. Although Matchday Announcer Jeremy Nicholas has maintained a fine tradition of cringeworthy exclamations over his many years in the job this particular embarrassment prior to a drab goalless draw with Chelsea barely registers in a top ten.
It was the 7th of November, 1999, the day before Cole’s 18th birthday. I was also there when Cole made his first-team début as a substitute against Swansea in the FA Cup, for his Premier League début at Old Trafford, his first start – against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, first goal – at St Andrews in the League Cup and first league goal – in a 5-4 thriller against Bradford at The Boleyn.
I mention all this not to establish any über-fan credentials but to emphasise just what an exciting period it was being a West Ham supporter. The club had broken into Europe (albeit through the dubious pathway of the Intertoto Cup) and even if Frank Lampard was a leaden obstacle clogging up midfield he did score goals as Paolo Di Canio thrilled us up front, Trevor Sinclair added pace and skill to the right flank and Rio Ferdinand strolled about at the back.
Cole’s play was a metaphor for that of the club. Gifted with an exceptional touch and quick feet the boy from Camden could and did beat players with ease – before looking up and … nothing. After finishing fifth in season 98-99, the team slumped to 9th and 15th upon Cole’s arrival. The player seldom scored goals, having a Stuart Slater-like ability to scuff the ball and even more rarely made them – a bigger disappointment as manager Harry Redknapp’s 3-5-2 formation was designed to give him just that role. A final ball is often the last thing to develop in a player (Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs were both criticised early career for such a lack) but nonetheless, Cole didn’t seem to have a ruthless streak.
Of course, the lack of personality weakness should be never taken as a criticism (even if there was a half story involving Joe, a Page 3 girl, a black eye and half naked dash around south London during his Chelsea days) and the No26 was loved by those in claret and blue as much for his enthusiasm as skill, even if much of it seemed puppyish rather than proficient. Or to put it another way, Joe was such a lovely bloke it was very difficult to dislike him. A perceived lack of football nous – emphasised by a slack-jawed demeanour while in play – endeared rather than repelled. Joe’s cause was not helped by a manager in Redknapp who could see no role other than playmaker despite meagre returns but was also happy to criticise him for perceived lack of professionalism – a rant following a quarter-final FA Cup loss to Spurs seemed designed to belittle.
Harry departed the club a game or so later to usher in Glenn Roeder, an outsider in the race for the job and an opposite to his predecessor in almost every respect. Upstanding of character and blessed with a strong football brain from his days as a ball playing centre-back, the ex-Newcastle and QPR man was as uncomfortable in front of the press as “Good Old ‘Arry” welcomed the headlines. Out went the luxury player and for the first time Cole was asked to play the more disciplined wide position that would these days be considered his home.
The second season under Roeder was by far Joe’s best. Given the captaincy and a midfield water-carrier role he broke tackles and drove at opponents to great effect. Unfortunately the metaphor continued, a missed tackle on Jay-Jay Okocha proved costly as the Bolton man ran on to score for Sam Allardyce’s side and West Ham’s more pragmatic play resulted in relegation despite the 42 points gained. We all knew the player was off and he went to Chelsea with our best wishes.
Roman Abramovich’s revolution at Stamford Bridge didn’t help Cole, and especially not when Claudio Ranieri lost out to Jose Mourinho, a manager who despite amassing a ferocious pool of talent appears to have a near pathological fear of playing flair players. Avram Grant, Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink as well as injury niggles came and went until Roy Hodgson grabbed Cole on a free transfer to Liverpool after seven mostly wasted years at The Blues. Once again the curse struck as the now England coach was replaced by first Kenny Dalglish and then Brendan Rodgers. Cole’s career seems blighted by a series of managers who either indulged or ignored him.
My first reaction when I heard Cole might be returning to Upton Park was weary resignation – another washed-up player with his best years behind him and ruined by managerial incompetence. Maybe I’m not paying enough credit to Allardyce, a boss with a track record of finding something from apparently over-the-hill professionals. If there is a manager in the business capable of nurturing the best from Cole it’s Big Sam. And let’s be honest, no player deserves it more.