Despite being one of the most naturally gifted footballers this country has ever produced, Joe Cole spent most of his career playing out of position on the left-hand side of midfield, especially in an England shirt. Back then the number 10 role as it is now was deployed far less often, but these days the national team boss Gareth Southgate has a whole host of options in that position.
Cole came through the ranks at West Ham but even as a young teenager there was a huge hype around what a talent he could become – sound familiar England fans? In fact, at the age of just 17 he was invited by Kevin Keegan to train with the senior England squad after starring for West Ham in a 9-0 aggregate win against Coventry City in the final of the FA Youth Cup.
For the Hammers, Cole made his debut in January 1999 in an FA Cup third round tie against Swansea City, but come 2003 when the East London side were relegated, he crossed the capital to join Chelsea for a fee of £6.6m.
At Chelsea, the mercurial midfielder played his best football under Jose Mourinho during the Portuguese boss’ first stint with the Blues, and this coincided with one of his most famous moments in an England shirt.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, during a group stage clash with Sweden, the ball broke from the box and out to Cole. We all know what happened next, but it was so good we’ll describe it here anyway. Cole popped the ball up with his chest and struck a looping volley into the far top-corner of the net.
It was a moment where many England fans felt Cole had finally stepped up to the mark but, in truth, he was carrying so much expectation on his shoulders to be that creative midfielder that England desperately needed that it was always going to be an impossible task – particularly in an era that never really suited his style of play.
At the time, wingers were considered as the most important attacking players, and this perhaps explains why a talent such as Cole was deployed on the left for so long.
Now though, Southgate plays in a system that allows two of the midfielders to essentially be those number 10 style players with one other midfielder holding at all times. This means that there will be room for two of Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard, Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek – all of who made Southate’s latest squad – or new boys James Maddison, Phil Foden and Mason Mount.
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This will also mean that, unlike what was often the case with Cole, the creative burden will never be placed on just one player. This current crop will have grown up watching the midfielder, who also turned out for Liverpool and Aston Villa among others, and he can certainly be considered a role model for the technically superb players that the England setup is now producing.
Unfortunately for Cole, his career was halted by knee surgery in January 2009 and he was never really able to get his game back up to the same levels.
Now 36-years-old, Cole is still playing for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the United Soccer League, the tier of US football below the MLS, and although he may be beyond a call-up these days, there is no doubt that the West Ham academy graduate would have shone in this Southgate team. Some players were simply born in the wrong era and never quite receive the credit their talent deserves.