Cole’s known-about reputation as a schoolboy footballer meant he was prematurely and unfairly burdened with some unenviable tags and prophecies he has never been fully able to achieve or shake off. Aside from a period during the Mourinho years – when he fixed himself as a key regular from club and country – there has always been variable sway on the effectiveness of a player who has struggled fully to carve himself a definitive niche, neither here nor there, not one thing or the other. So, faced with ponderous challenges of rebuilding an ageing squad with an eye on balancing the books, Chelsea appear reticent to waiver to Cole’s wage and contractual demands to extend his stay past this summer. At present Cole finds himself jettisoned to the bench for club and adrift of the reckoning for country. Given who – and what – he is, it is an unwelcome place for Cole to find himself at this point of his career.
It raises pertinent questions about just what Joe Cole is worth, and not in terms of pounds and pence. Assessing Cole’s abilities, there is plenty on offer. The lesser-spotted gifted English midfielder playing for his boyhood club is itself a rarity and partially explains the willingness of most fans to see little Joey do good. He is the type of player everyone wants – excellent technique, good movement, can beat a man, pick a ball, has got quick feet, can go both ways, has a change of pace, a ticking footballing brain, a healthy work-rate, an eye for goal and is crucially armed with flashes of creative brilliance that can change any game. The problem is, he has only sporadically shown this and instances of his class are shrouded by long periods of indifference and a constant striving to find what is there. When you look through the theory and into the facts, Cole’s picture is not as rosy.
In seven league seasons at Stamford Bridge, Cole has scored 39 goals in all competitions – three less than Cristiano Ronaldo scored in the whole of 2007/08. Cole has only twice gone past 10 goals in a season and his goals ratio runs at a conservative one in eight. Never has Cole been shortlisted for the PFA or Football Writers’ Player of the Year award, has only once been named in the PFA Team of the Year and has just one league Player of the Month of the award – needless to say the reciprocal recognitions from UEFA competitions are also missing. This may be giving too much credence to what are essentially throwaway awards for the modern footballer, yet it does illustrate that Cole, despite all of the promise, has rarely produced consistent, tangible results to back his perceived status as an invaluable asset. This has also been reflected in his usage from a string of managers, who have all opted against fully utilising the former West Ham man. Can all of Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Phil Scolari and Carlo Ancelotti be wrong? Add to that list Fabio Capello, and are so many well travelled and versed managers all missing something so obvious – or is there actually little substance beyond a stream of ifs, buts and maybes.
As discussions between club and player reach an impasse, the ball is now in Cole’s court – and as has been the case since the skinny teen arrived on the scene with his brand of street skills, there is plenty of scrutiny to see what he will deliver. The rhetoric from Camp Cole is that the 28-year-old wishes to remain with the Blues, but only on parity of wages with others within the club’s huge pay structure. Cole may seek wage parity along with other more well-lubricated members of his squad, but paying over the odds sums to players who do not necessarily deserve it is a problem Chelsea are looking to cure rather than add to. As the Londoners plot to renovate following another failure in the Champions League, the reality is Cole now needs to actually prove himself to be worthy of a place in this remodelling – a far cry from being touted as one of the best players in the country, with an almost obsessive fan base championing the illusion of this great player.
At a genuine crossroads, Joe Cole must now show what he is all about. In the immediate term he has a fight to regain his places at domestic and international level. In the longer term, he must try to haul himself past the levels he has already set – which in themselves have been considered underachievements. As the protractions of his contract lurch on, Cole must be asking himself why he is feeling unwanted. Only he can answer some of those questions, and it is about time he did so.