“The further off from England, the nearer is to France. Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance”
It’s difficult to call Joe Cole’s career thus far a failure.
His medal cabinet proudly boasts three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups, and they sit alongside 56 England caps, a very respectable haul for a man yet to reach 30.
And Cole has provided us with the occasional champagne moment. There was the dipping volley against Sweden in 2006 (when he was arguably England’s best player of the tournament) and the powerful solo goal which showcased all of his close control ability against Manchester United just a few months earlier.
But whilst the highlight reel and the YouTube compilations will provide Lille fans with evidence that their new man is a player of genuine talent, the overriding impression of Cole is his is a career that has been unfulfilled.
Those tipped for the top before they’re even out of school rarely hit the high notes (Freddy Adu being a case in point) and whilst Cole may have chimed one or two resonate chords, there’s always been the lingering impression that his talent has been somewhat wasted.
Part of that is down to injuries and part of it is motivated by tactics. Can anyone really pinpoint Joe Cole’s best position?
Has he been marooned on the left-wing through suitability or convenience? His skill-set should have leant itself to that of a playmaker, the irrepressible number 10 and the fulcrum from which teams were built around. But any hopes of him assuming that role when he was most in-form were dashed under José Mourinho at Chelsea. Accommodating Cole in such a berth would be a luxury that the Portuguese manager rarely affords within his line-up.
Cole’s career was one which instantly sprung to the mind of Pat Nevin when he was interviewed for the Guardian’s excellent series ‘Small Talk’ recently.
“If you ask his coaches when he was younger, they would have argued that he was the most skilful player they’d worked with but at Chelsea he was out on the wing because José Mourinho played a 4-3-3. Instead of producing these players, it would be, ‘Oh he’s not doing it every week, stick him out on the wing’.”
Nevin also reflected on his own career, stating:
“Having played the game myself, it would have been a position I would have seen myself in when I came into the game, but I was quite quickly stuck out on the wing.”
That could be just as applicable to Cole.
The notion which Nevin sort of alluded to was that playmakers are less valued in England, that the type of ‘boom or bust’ philosophy which they live by is simply not risked. It accounts for a derth in creative minds on these shores.
How different Joe Cole’s career could have been had he gone abroad. Unbeknown to Nevin at the time that’s exactly what he’s done since by joining French champions Lille. And what a refreshing move it is.
When the news came through on deadline day that Aston Villa had an interest in Joe Cole, there was a sense that he’d opt to stay in England and play at a lesser level. Too few English players test their abilities abroad and it’s disheartening to see. Villa boss Alex McLeish is an astute manager but his record with creative types is less than stellar as Jean Beausejour and Alexander Hleb will attest to.
Yet Cole made the move to France and it’s a move which could finally see him realise his potential as the wand-waving genius he was meant to be. He’ll slot into Lille’s 4-3-3, possibly out-wide or possible in a central position but he should be freed from the tactical restraints which shackled him in England.
“This offer excited me,” he told the BBC.
“It looks a great club. They did the double last season and I wanted this experience to test myself in the French league.
“Ever since I was a young lad, I wanted the opportunity to play abroad.
Good luck, Joe. Here’s hoping you blaze a trail for some other potential English young playmakers too.
You can follow me on Twitter @liamblackburn.
“Many of us believe that wrongs aren’t wrong if they are done by nice people like ourselves”
Every now and again, Sir Alex Ferguson will come out with a piece of pure hypocrisy which surprises me. Usually it will involve the F.A. or referees. This time, it involves transfer fees, wages and the new lofty heights they continue to reach:
“The enormous amounts of money that are paid, not just the transfer fees, but for salaries; I don’t think it rests easy with supporters.”
This truthful titbit comes from the Manchester United boss who has smashed the British transfer fee for Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. Add in Wayne Rooney, the world’s most expensive teenager at the time and Dimitar Berbatov, who would be Britain’s most expensive player were it not for Robinho. Last January, Ferguson agreed to pay Fulham £10 million for Chris Smalling who had only made three Premier League appearances at the time of the transfer. Moreover, the biggest winners of inflated prices were the club who profited from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s most expensive player. That club and the beneficiaries of £80 million were Manchester United.
Ferguson isn’t in a position to complain about escalating fees. More than any other manager in the Premier League era, he has raised the bar for transfer fees and wages. But now with Manchester City, Chelsea and Real Madrid all able to freely spend, Ferguson claims he has been “hamstrung” by the competitive market. What the Scot is experiencing now is a taste of his own brutal medicine. The rest of the Premier League have been continually frustrated when United have ramped up the prices. Roles haven’t entirely reversed but Ferguson certainly feels belittled by City in particular.
Even in a World Cup year, there is a good value to be found in this transfer market. Joe Cole, held in high regard by Ferguson as a teenager, was available on a free. Germany’s young World Cup stars Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira were available on the cheap as both had only one year left on their deals. Khedira may well have rebuffed any approaches from England as soon as Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid threw their hat into the ring. But Özil’s name continues to be linked with a plethora of European giants and the playmaker, who tormented England at the World Cup, is reportedly available at somewhere between £10-£15 million. United need a goal-scoring, creative midfielder along with a dominant holding player and all three of these players would fill voids in Ferguson’s team without breaking the bank. Wesley Sneijder has been linked with a move to Old Trafford but he was superb value 12 months ago and Ferguson missed out. There is a real danger that in a year’s time, Özil could be the next one that got away.
If you can’t keep up with the market, you have to be happy with what you’ve got. This is where Ferguson, an expert at handling the media, comes into his own. He claims he is very happy with his young charges. It would be wrong to question Ferguson’s faith in youth. Nobody has dared attempt to do so since Alan Hansen scoffed humble pie back in 1996. If nothing else, we know these players will have a winning mentality drummed into them. But will this next batch of youngsters reach the same heights as the class of 1992? There have been flashes of brilliance from Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Obertan, Fabio et al, but replacing club legends like Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville is a tall order.
Perhaps Ferguson has been stung by his last acquisition to carry a large price tag. I remain a big fan of Dimitar Berbatov but he was grossly over-priced at £30 million particularly considering his age. Perhaps, as most fans believe, Ferguson’s hands are tied by the heavy debts that the Glazer family have burdened the club with. Perhaps Ferguson hides behind the ‘no value in the market’ line to protect his employers. It is a theory which Ferguson frequently rejects much to the fans’ dismay.
Whatever the case, Ferguson’s criticism of inflated transfer fees is hypocritical. He is right to insist that fans are dismayed at transfer fees and wages but this phoney empathy has never stopped him breaking the bank beforehand.