There’s no place like home. Home, is where the heart is. Indeed, the prodigal son is now back where he belongs.
English football loves a good cliché and in the case of Joe Cole’s recent return back to West Ham United, you can take your pick from the aforementioned trio of cheese as to which one you’re now sick to death of hearing.
There’s always been something of a strange media obsession with the Joe Cole story, ever since he made his first team debut for the Hammers 13 years ago this month as a fresh faced 17-year-old in the FA Cup.
Indeed, while his profile is somewhat higher than your average 31-year-old making a move during the January transfer window, such has been the bleary-eyed nostalgia heaped upon Cole’s move to Sam Allardyce’s side, it feels as if the actual footballing merits of the transfer have been consigned to the sidelines.
Make no mistake about it, Big Sam’s not brought the former Chelsea midfielder back to West Ham to simply appease the old boys sat at Upton Park. While he may now be 31 and entering the final straight of his long and often polarizing career, Joe Cole has got the potential to make a real difference to West Ham’s season
And given Allardyce’s success in the past at squeezing the best out of the advancing years of some of his players, don’t be surprised for Cole’s transfer to be as sustained in its longetivity as much as its impact.
Of course, given the disappointing turn that Cole’s career has taken in recent years, it’s easy to see why some of the neutrals have found it a little bit more difficult to look past the fanfare. For all the subsequent debate that seems to so often rage over the overall impact the London-born star wielded during his seven seasons with Chelsea, his most recent showings in the Premier League leave little room for argument.
Upon joining Liverpool on a free transfer in 2010, the capture of the then 28-year-old Cole was widely touted as a great coup for Roy Hodgson’s men. After helping fire Chelsea to a Premier League title the season before, it was thought handing a £90,000-a-week four year deal to a player essentially entering his peak years as a footballer was good business.
Yet even if you take into account the niggling injuries and managerial upheaval during his sole full season up in Liverpool, for a player who possesses such an exquisite amount of talent, Cole served his new employers up a hugely disappointing season.
A season-long loan to Lille last season offered him temporary reprieve from his Anfield nightmare, but despite earning rave reviews during his first months with Les Dogues Cole’s performances towards the end of the Ligue One season faded badly. Like a hallmark for much of his career, the fitness levels continued to hamper and the stardust seemingly gradually evaporated as time went on.
But what we did learn at Lille is that if Cole’s backed by a manager and left to play his natural game in a team that are set-up to cooperate, he still has a lot to offer to any club. And in Sam Allardyce, the 31-year-old couldn’t have sought a better manager to try and salvage the last part of his career and prove the doubters wrong one last time.
From Youri Djorkaeff and Fernando Hierro to Jayjay Okocha and the late Gary Speed, Allardyce’s track record in not only salvaging the careers of older players, but ensuing they maintain a sustained level of performance, speaks for itself.
As much as the former Bolton Wanderers boss knows how to get the best of his men when on the pitch, it’s no fluke that Allardyce excels at getting them on the field of play in the first place, too. While some have been keen to ridicule his penchant for sports science and his love for all things ProZone, it’s this quantitative approach that helps Allardyce get the very maximum out of his players.
He may not have healing hands, but Allardyce’s philosophy will ensure that Cole will be managed sensibly, with real thought given to the amount of games he’s playing and how regularly he’s set to play them. One of Cole’s biggest issues throughout his career has been clocking up enough game time. He’s not going to be much use to anyone sat in the treatment room and Allardyce will be looking for quality, not quantity from Cole.
But if he can stay clear of injury, there’s no reason why Joe Cole can’t wield a real impact for West Ham – and not just for a token half-season run, either.
This isn’t someone who has played 38 league games a season, every season, for the past ten years. He may be 31, but despite his past fitness concerns, he’s got plenty of football left in him yet. He’s still got the ability to pick a great pass, retain possession and the little bit of stardust to change matches. Whether he’s still a matchwinner remains to be seen, but if he can rediscover even the form he hit upon his first few months at Lille, West Ham will posses an asset that few of the teams around them could match.
For all the past few weeks of fanfare, it feels like many have used Joe Cole’s move to West Ham as a precursor to his career’s obituary. Although he’s far from finished yet and if Big Sam can get the best out of him, then his second spell at West Ham could just prove to be one his most seminal chapters.