Watching football fans watching the football
As Fabio Capello and the Football Association weigh up whether to launch an almost-inevitably futile appeal against Wayne Rooney’s three-match Euro 2012 ban, Joe Cole is trying to prove they need not bother.
Two months, three goals and four assists into his surprise loan spell with French champions Lille, England’s forgotten man is showing signs of getting back to his brilliant best.
Brought to the north of France to help fill the creative void left by the Arsenal-bound Gervinho, Cole’s dazzling combinations with striker Moussa Sow and superstar winger Eden Hazard have helped Rudi Garcia’s side overcome a lacklustre start to the season and get themselves back into the Ligue 1 title hunt.
Moreover, without him, Lille can occasionally look devoid of imagination in attack, even with the classy Hazard. It is perhaps no coincidence that Sunday’s lacklustre goalless draw with Valencienne was achieved with Cole only afforded a 13 minute cameo from the bench.
“So Joe Cole is playing well again,” I hear you say. “Why does that make you think he can fill Wayne Rooney’s considerable boots at Euro 2012?”
With the last three seasons of his career having been ravaged by injury, it is easy to forget just how brilliant Cole’s best was. But it is also worth remembering.
West Ham captain at the tender age of 21, the young playmaker’s prodigious talent secured him a place among the first wave of signings of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea revolution in 2003.
At Stamford Bridge the boy wonder became a consistently top class performer, playing a starring role in the second of two Premier League titles won under Jose Mourinho.
England also reaped the benefits, as Cole filled the ‘problem position’ on the left flank with assurance and flair. He shone at the World Cup in 2006, scoring one of the goals of the tournament with a sensational 30 yard volley against Sweden.
After that, serious knee problems began to take their toll, and many were quick to write off Cole’s ability to continue at the highest level.
Chelsea lost patience with him last year, and an attempt to quietly rediscover his form at Liverpool was waylaid by overblown hype at his arrival – skipper Steven Gerrard infamously labeled his new teammate ‘better than Messi’ – as well as the turmoil generated by the bitter death throes of the Hicks and Gillett regime.
Included in England’s 23-man squad for the World Cup in South Africa on the basis of reputation rather than form, Cole made only two anonymous substitute appearances as the Three Lions limped shamefully out of the tournament.
But now, across the Channel and out of the spotlight, Cole finally appears to be finding his feet again.
The jinking runs, impudent flicks, pinpoint passes and eye for goal which once marked him out as the most flamboyantly gifted Englishman of his generation are all returning, along with much needed confidence and fitness.
Of course, Cole’s current purple patch may ultimately prove nothing more than the Indian summer of a career which has been on a downward trajectory for some time now.
Or alternatively, it could herald the beginning of a genuine revival. With Cole still only 29, there remains ample time for this to be the case.
Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: if Cole is still delivering the goods come next May, Capello simply must take him to Poland and Ukraine.
Under a host of different managers over the past decade, England have repeatedly been derided as pedestrian, plodding and, above all, predictable.
While this country has produced a wealth of technically accomplished midfielders in recent times, the much-vaunted ‘golden generation’ has yielded little in the way of flair.
It is for this reason that Wayne Rooney remains, for better or for worse, the outstanding English footballer of his era. He combines exquisite technical skills with the ability to find space when it is in short supply and, most crucially, to create something from nothing.
In his absence, Fabio Capello will need someone else to shoulder the creative burden in the final third. In Cole, the most skillful midfielder England has produced since Paul Gascoigne, he has the perfect man for the job.
His unique brand of anarchic genius could be exactly what the Three Lions need to finally shake off their ‘boring’ tag, as well as being crucial in finding a way through the massed ranks of the organized defences they are likely to face in the group stages of Euro 2012.
First, of course, Cole must ensure he gets Fabio Capello’s attention by continuing to light up Ligue 1. But the man himself has not given up hope of an international recall.
"I miss playing for my country,” he told the Guardian earlier this month. “I was a regular in the squad for 10 years and perhaps took it for granted I would always be there.
"Not having been picked for a year, turning 30 next month and with the young players having come in and done well, you start to wonder, 'Are they still looking at me?'.
"I hope I will be noticed. A lot of people in England questioned why I came over to France and maybe wrote me off. Perhaps they're now thinking I'm not finished after all.”
From the looks of things Cole is far from finished, and it is Lille’s fitness coaches rather than UEFA’s disciplinary panel towards whom Capello should be directing his prayers.
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