Can Joe Cole fulfil early promise and revive Liverpool?
Cole scores wonder goal for England (UK only)
By David Ornstein
He was touted as the boy wonder of English football and has constructed a CV that many footballers can only dream of.
Yet there is an impression that Joe Cole has never truly fulfilled his early promise - an impression that was only heightened by Chelsea's decision to let him leave Stamford Bridge for nothing in June.
After all, this is the player who scored seven goals for England in an 8-1 youth international against Spain, reportedly attracted a £10m bid from Manchester United as a 16-year-old, led West Ham to the most emphatic victory in FA Youth Cup final history and became Hammers captain at the age of 21.
But at 28 years old and following a World Cup in which he made just two brief substitute appearances for Fabio Capello's faltering England side, Cole has moved to Liverpool on a free transfer in an attempt to breathe new life into his career.
"The first time I came across Joe was in an England schoolboy game at Old Trafford," recalls Howard Wilkinson, Cole's former England under-21 coach, in an interview with BBC Sport. "I remember thinking to myself that 'this is the Joe Cole show' and he remains one of the best young players I've ever seen."
Potential is one thing. Fulfilling it is another.
Wilkinson concedes that, in the results-driven industry that is English football, Cole may been suffered from being viewed as something of a luxury - a gifted individual who might have been revered in Spain, Italy or France, where greater emphasis is placed on technical ability and the game is played at a less frenetic pace.
"There has been a constant war of minds between what Joe Cole's strengths are and what others perceived as his weaknesses," admits the former Leeds United boss.
Cole's résumé includes two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, two League Cups and a Champions League final appearance, not to mention 10 goals in 54 appearances for England.
But the statistics tell a different tale.
Cole made only 28 league starts in his final two seasons at Chelsea, was on the pitch for only 10,613 of the 23,940 Premier League minutes the Blues played in his seven years at Stamford Bridge and has started one England match since 2008.
"A player like Joe needs to feel his manager believes in him and that has perhaps not been the case at Chelsea and England," says Keith Blunt, who saw first hand just how talented the young Cole was.
Blunt was Cole's coach at the Football Association's now-defunct Centre of Excellence at Lilleshall between 1996 and 1998.
"By the very nature of his game - always looking to get the ball forward, taking a man on, trying a trick - he's going to make mistakes," adds Blunt.
"He needs to play under a coach who will encourage him to keep doing that, rather than wanting him only to concentrate on doing his bit for the team.
"Moving to Liverpool will serve him very well because the fact he is Roy Hodgson's first big signing indicates he is actually wanted there.
What held Joe back was that nobody really knew his best position
Steve Lomas - Cole's former team-mate
"That will give him the confidence and a platform to show what he can do. I'm sure Roy will get the best out of him."
Steve Lomas played alongside Cole at West Ham from 1998 to 2003 and says a move to Liverpool is the right one for his former team-mate, as long as Hodgson uses him in a way that gets the most out of him.
"He needs the freedom to get on the ball and go in either direction, come short, pick a pass, use his turn of pace, provide for others and nick a goal himself," said Lomas.
"If he plays off Fernando Torres, with Steven Gerrard arriving from midfield, that will be a lovely little three-pronged attack."
Cole's former team-mate Arjen Robben has even suggested that the combination of Torres, Gerrard and Cole is as good as Barcelona's attack.
"You look at those as a front three and you struggle to find a better front three in Europe - and I include Barcelona's in that," Bayern Munich winger Robben was quoted as telling the Liverpool Echo.
"With a front three of Gerrard, Torres and Cole I think Liverpool will be a real force in the Premier League,"
Lomas, a former Northern Ireland international, believes this is Cole's big chance to prove himself and feels the player, who has been handed the number 10 shirt by Liverpool, will finally get the "responsibility he has craved throughout his career".
His argument is that Cole was not given the opportunity to shine as brightly as he might have in the past because of the roles he was given by West Ham, Chelsea and England.
When he broke into the West Ham first team, which already featured Paolo di Canio, he was positioned wide in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 formation.
Then when Cole moved to Chelsea in 2003 he found himself mainly deployed on the wing or out wide in a three-man front line.
"What held Joe back was that nobody really knew his best position," added Lomas, "For me, that would be just off the front man."
Cole's capture is regarded as a coup for Liverpool but some have questioned the player's motives for moving to Anfield.
After all, he rejected Champions League football at Arsenal and Tottenham in favour of a lucrative four-year deal with the Reds, who begin their season with a Europa League third qualifying round first leg against Macedonian side Rabotnicki Komental on Thursday.
"Joe is now at the age where he just wants to play," stated Wilkinson, the FA's technical director when Cole was at Lilleshall.
"They loved him at West Ham, they loved him at Chelsea, but what you get when you go to Liverpool is a huge slice of the history of British football in the 21st century."
Cole (c) was part of a celebrated West Ham side including Michael Carrick (l) and Frank Lampard (r)
Lomas concurs with Wilkinson and rubbishes the suggestion that Cole has moved for the money, preferring instead to believe that his former team-mate has gone to Liverpool to help revive the club's fortunes.
And Lomas says Cole needs to shine at Anfield. "He will be one of the main men and with that comes responsibility. He's got to deliver," he said.
Whether Cole delivers remains to be seen but he has done it before - his winning goal for Chelsea at Old Trafford in April was probably the tipping point in the title race - and does not lack the confidence or talent to do it again.
"Joe has a huge amount of belief in his own ability," said Lomas. "Harry Redknapp asked him to train with the West Ham first team at the age of 14 and he had no fear whatsoever.
"We used to do one-against-ones in training and Harry would pair Joe with Neil Ruddock to give 'Razor' a fitness session. Joe would run the legs off all of us. He has still got the ability but now he has also learned the game."
Blunt offers numerous anecdotes to illustrate why he holds Cole in such high regard but his favourite is from an England victory over Norway in the final of the under-17 Nordic Tournament in Finland.
"The Norwegians were in control of the game but we managed to equalise to force extra-time. Then, under huge pressure, Joe scored the most unbelievable winner," recalled Blunt.
"Joe was facing away from goal on the edge of the box and a bad clearance dropped to him. In one touch, he controlled it and turned away from a defender before hitting the most incredible strike with his left foot into the top corner.
"I can remember asking Joe how he did it and he couldn't explain it. It was just pure class and he still has it in him."
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