It is relatively rare in the modern era of football that you have a player who is prepared to drop down the divisions. Joe Cole is perhaps one of the few prepared to do so after the 33-year-old joined Coventry City on loan, and in truth we should applaud it as something refreshing. Too many players are content to rot in the reserves and pick up their pay packet than play football. While this is the case for some players at the beginning of their careers, it is more noticeable as they begin their decline towards inevitable retirement.
Goalkeepers are normally the worst culprits: Stuart Taylor, Richard Wright and Carlo Nash come to mind as those who have wasted the opportunity for games in favour of sitting on the bench.
Yet rather worryingly more and more players, particularly in the upper echelons of the game, are content to soak up and cling on to any semblance of what it means to be a ‘top flight’ footballer. Cole’s move to League One Coventry City will hopefully reverse this trend.When it comes to Cole himself, while praising the move as indicative of his desire to play games, it is also a reflection of how far his career has fallen following a long period of stagnation.
When he retires he will look back on a career that included a glut of silverware at Chelsea and a half-century of England caps, but it is hard not to feel that he has never fulfilled the potential that had scouts gushing with praise during his formative years at West Ham.
Part of this is not Cole’s fault. Anyone who has followed his career will shower him with compliments over his work ethic and application – there are not many others as hard-working as Cole. It also seemed, to me at least, that he always played the game as if he enjoyed playing it, rather than for some perverse motive.
We should also marvel at the fact that Cole was always willing to play out of position, but it should also serve as a point of frustration. So often deployed out wide rather than as an out and out number ten for club and country, he was still very effective as his goal return will illustrate. But how good could he have been had Jose Mourinho and Sven-Goran Eriksson used him in his natural position?
Cole, on the one hand, will be viewed as evidence that English football could once produce players of excellent quality. He came through at a time when Manchester United’s ‘Class of ’92’ were dominating the Premier League, and when the West Ham academy’s conveyor belt produced seemingly endless amounts of talented players. But despite all this you get the feeling Cole never fulfilled his potential, certainly not to the level he was predicted to reach. His career never really re-established itself after his departure from Stamford Bridge, and aside from a successful loan spell at Lille, his move to Liverpool was a failure.
Cole has never been able to recover from that – although injuries have not aided his cause. His move to Coventry City will give him the opportunity to play regular football. That in itself is a positive. Yet it also serves to illustrate how far he has fallen. A decade ago if you had said Cole would be playing in the third tier I would not have believed it. He now has the opportunity to impress his parent club and prove that he is worthy of a new contract beyond this season.
Yet how underutilised he has been at Villa Park seems to sum up the last five years of his career. His loan move is nothing to be ashamed of, as those who follow the Football League will testify, but it is the latest chapter in a career that has been good, but at times, decidedly underwhelming.