Joe Cole won the Premier League three times, the FA Cup twice and appeared in a Champions League final. He was named in the 2005-06 PFA Team of the Year, earned 56 England caps (scoring 10 goals) and made the World Cup squad in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
But when you look a little bit deeper into these achievements, the plot thickens. Of those 56 international caps, he either started as a substitute or was substituted off on 45 occasions. About 30% of his appearances for Chelsea – where every single one of his major club honours were won* – were as a sub, and for much of his career he simply wasn’t trusted.
Writing in 2010, Barney Ronay pointed out that, “the last time he played regularly as a central midfielder, his preferred position, was seven years ago at West Ham as a 21-year-old.”
And so, the story of Joe Cole is the story of what might have been. Despite playing his part in numerous triumphs, the feeling is that Cole was always somehow on the periphery, a precocious adolescent in teams full of bigger, more hard-bitten men.
When Cole first emerged, he was electric, a player England had been longing for since Gazza was at his peak. Even around the turn of the millennium, after a decade or so of a massively increased foreign presence in the Premier League, English clubs weren’t producing a huge number of players like Cole.
Quickly, the pressure was applied by media and supporters. “The frenzied media circus around Cole was already in full swing before he had even made his professional debut in 1999,” wrote Tom Mason for the Guardian Sport Network in 2015.
Cole became symbolic of the direction English football was taking, a new way more similar to how things were done on ‘The Continent’. And yet, in some ways, it was a ‘Continental’ that did for Cole.
After pitching up at Chelsea in 2005, José Mourinho stifled Cole, thrusting him out to the wing where he became a regular in the Special One’s first season at Stamford Bridge. When it came to Cole, Mourinho gave with one hand – titles, medals, honours – and took with the other.
Under José, says Ronay again, the Englishman had “his fripperies thrashed out of him with a panel-beater’s mallet.”
It would be easy to blame Mourinho for Cole’s failure to develop into the world-class attacking force many thought he would become. After all, the Portuguese has a pretty impressive track record of marginalising creative-but-supposedly-flaky playmakers. But that is perhaps a little too facile.
More than anything, Cole was a victim of his era. His peak coincided with the Age of the Big Four, a period during the 2000s when the Premier League reverted to physical, defensive, counter-attacking football.
Mourinho filled his Chelsea team with colossuses, but so did all the other major PL sides of the time. Looking back at some of the games played between ‘big four’ teams from that epoch, it’s striking how often the focus was firmly on using giant men to spoil whatever the opposition wanted to do.
Cole, a slight, silken dribbler, never really stood a chance. Chelsea let him run down his contract, and he failed subsequently to make an impact at Liverpool, whom he joined on a free. He was shipped off to Lille on loan and played well, before returning to where he’d started, West Ham.
Sadly, it just wasn’t meant to be for him. The die was cast, his prime years donated to the unforgiving cause of ‘toughening up’.
Had he been born in the 1990s rather than the 1980s and grown up as a footballer in the era of St George’s Park, Gareth Southgate and a Premier League that embraces technical players, Joe Cole might have been so much more.
Or maybe not, of course.
Maybe he just wasn’t that good in the first place. But it’s hard not to feel he’d have had more chance to play the way he clearly wanted to.
*We said ‘major’, West Ham fans. The Inter-Toto doesn’t count.