West ham fans could be forgiven for thinking that there is no player more enigmatic than Carlton Cole. Having impressed intermittently since his move from Chelsea in 2006, he adopted the No9 shirt ahead of this season and vowed to be more aggressive and determined. A tame penalty which was saved by Jussi Jaaskelainen in their 3-1 home defeat to Bolton seemed to shatter his fragile confidence. His poor form has coincided with West Ham’s worst ever start to a league campaign which has precipitated the return of familiar critiques of Cole. Inconsistency, negative body language, brittle self-belief and a heavy touch are all traits associated with the striker. But are these comments misplaced when considering his transformation under Gianfranco Zola which took him to the cusp of the national team?
Liverpool were allegedly interested in the 26-year old this summer and some fans would have happily seen him leave. This minor clamour to oust Cole would have been unstoppable just a few years earlier. Having moved across London to reignite his fledgling career, he found first team opportunities similarly circumscribed at the Boleyn Ground. His impact increased marginally the following season in the habitual absence of the gifted Dean Ashton. Cole had been tipped for greatness by former manager Claudio Ranieri but was regressing. Misdemeanours off the field reinforced the image of a talented, able and imposing forward who was lacking application. The subsequent retirement of Dean Ashton and departures of Bobby Zamora and Craig Bellamy saw him eventually come to the fore.
The burly hitman seemed to enjoy the new responsibility that was bestowed upon him but a marked improvement corresponded with Zola’s arrival in east London. The amiable Italian was a team-mate of Cole’s at Stamford Bridge and devoted extra attention to the forward, imparting his expertise. The overwhelming feeling was that the player required more goals and needed to improve his finishing, particularly when clear through on goal. He was rewarded with a new contract in November 2008 and imbued with the confidence of the club and the manager, he scored in five consecutive league appearances between Boxing Day and the end of January. Splendid goals were registered too, including a delightful curled winner at home to Stoke and a superbly worked team effort at Wigan. He finished the season with 12 goals in all competitions and was the club’s top goal-scorer.
The supporters were gradually being won over but his performance against Spurs early the following season encapsulated his frustrating style. He opened the scoring with a barnstorming left-footed volley all of his own making but proceeded to make an unintelligible back pass that was easily intercepted and converted by Jermaine Defoe. A knee injury sustained against Burnley disrupted his season but he did manage to score a well taken goal against Hull and a short range header to seal a victory at home to Birmingham. His contribution was conspicuously absent in the relegation run in as the Hammers relied on Ilan for goals. Even the 5ft 11in, Guillermo Franco asserted himself more fervently in the air. Having not returned to his peak, Cole narrowly missed out on going to his first major international tournament this summer.
His transformation from club misfit is arguably incomplete and as such the aforementioned criticisms have been aired once more. Considering his stature, strength and speed he only occasionally causes problems for opposition defences. Without him West Ham struggle to hold up the ball but he fails to show the sharpness of thought and movement to build the attack. But more charitable fans would concede that he is often marooned up front, lacking support with a creative chasm in midfield.
Despite his large frame and valuable skills, Cole has never excelled when playing as a lone striker. He has the ability to thrive when playing alongside a skilful, intelligent forward. In his defence, he has had a multitude of attacking partners such as Ashton, Bellamy, Franco, Ilan, di Michele, and Piquionne. He has looked more comfortable alongside a player of di Michele or Bellamy’s ilk, with contrasting styles combining to mesmerise defences. The striker who has now become the focal point of the club’s attack must not become the only one to share the burden. He worked well with Victor Obinna on Saturday and may benefit from a lasting partnership with the Nigerian. A blossoming relationship between the two is crucial as the candor of the crowd is unlikely to ignite Cole.