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13th Nov 2018

Saying goodbye to Joe Cole, a player too good to be English

Kyle Picknell

The England playmaker has had an unusual career, but what a glorious throwback he was

Former West Ham, Chelsea and England attacking midfielder Joe Cole has announced his retirement at the age of 37.

In his post announcing the news Cole wrote: “After 20 years as a professional, the time has come for me to hang up my boots. 716 professional games, 104 goals, for seven great clubs.”

West Ham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Lille, Aston Villa, Coventry City and Tampa Bay Rowdies.

You’d be forgiven for feeling a sharp jolt at seeing the Tampa Bay Rowdies categorised as a ‘great’ club.

If you’re feeling particularly unapologetic, it’s the same for League One Coventry City. But the career path is telling.

Cole peaked early, at 24, when those white Nike Tiempos flash-danced through top-flight defences during Jose Mourinho’s second campaign with Chelsea, resulting in a second straight Premier League title.

His goal in the 3-0 drubbing of Manchester United to win the league – a giddy waltz around Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, vanishing in a puff of smoke before a curling finish into the top corner – is the sort of strike English players just didn’t score.

They still don’t.

Even now, a decade later, it’s the sort of moment you’d associate with the little foreign magicians, the David and Bernardo Silvas, the Iscos of this world, players who can make the ball disappear under your very nose before carrying it off within their magic cloak.

He was never a winger, although he often played there and did so, inevitably, for England, in the ‘shunted wide’ Paul Scholes role. Why?

Because there was no-one else? Because he had the most technical ability? Both of those things were probably true, but similarly to Scholes, it limited just how good both Cole and England could be, despite 56 caps and 10 goals and the famous volley that dropped from the heavens against Sweden.

It was all about balance and timing with Cole, as it often is with great players. Unfortunately, this was typically something that the supremely talented England sides of the noughties lacked.

He wasn’t particularly quick or strong, although he was quick and strong enough, and he didn’t score particularly many goals.

And yet, there was a childlike joy and enthusiasm to his game that never left him, not even after the injuries began to take their toll. Not even after he joined Aston Villa.

This, combined with a certain cockney, Victorian Britishness in his otherwise continental game, made him the endearing player he was.

There was the hard-working chimney sweep edge as well as the sweet shop luxury. There was a willingness to track back and a bravery not to shy away from the physical side of the game to go with the flicks and step-overs that belonged on different shores.

Whether it was his name – always Joe, never Joseph – or his baby face and boyish grin, Joe Cole played football the way it was meant to be played; like he did when he was a boy. Like it was fun.

Joe Cole played football like he loved it.

And for that, football will always love players like him, as rare as they might be.