Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Strange Case of the Ghosting Footballer

Following Arsenal's 2-1 defeat away to Blackburn last week, the football press sought once more to revel in the wounded howls of Arsene Wenger, who mourned the lack of protection offered by officials to his goalkeeper, Lukasz Fabianski. The sport yawned as Wenger claimed Sam Allardyce's players "don't even watch the ball" when challenging goalkeepers, and that referee Martin Atkinson's refusal to penalise the tactic in the game was "unfair".

In our cherished variant of the sport, which vaunts the adroit technique of Stoke's Rory Delap - that astonishingly lateral ability to throw the ball a very long way (Morten Gamst Pedersen showed himself as a keen disciple of this approach at Ewood Park) - and accommodates, below a sparse half dozen or so outfits capable of continental competition, several 'professional' tiers of breakneck, overtly corporeal menace, Wenger, is a figure of fun. Repeatedly buffeted and bullied by those more physical exponents of the Premier League's atypical brand beneath the maxim of "there's nothing in the rules that says you can't do it" (a giant, snarling Kevin Davies patrols land north of Totteridge on the map in Wenger's nightmares), he's generally seen as a stroppy old tart with no stomach for a fight. And in this country, that's what we like. A fight.

Few in English football have had quite the same battle of late as another of the domestic game's true artisans, Joe Cole, and his naming this afternoon amongst the provisional 30-man England squad for the World Cup in South Africa implies he may yet win out. An outrageously skilled practitioner who is surely now quite familiar with the mockery of repeated calls for him to prove his worth, his latest such struggle has entailed, at the age of 28, the persuading of his continued existence to his club manager, national coach, and seemingly everyone else on the planet too. For Joe Cole has threatened to disappear completely, and the suggestion of his prevailing throws a lifeline to the prospects of genuine English invention this summer.

Now admittedly, not even Cole's keenest followers can claim that he's in the most sparkling form at present. Having returned to action after a nine month hiatus wrought by the tearing of a cruciate knee ligament, it initially looked like he might seamlessly regain peak playing condition straight away. Various injury setbacks and a rematerialisation as the squarest of pegs in Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti's rotation system have since curtailed his progress however. But whilst celebrated imports like Deco and Ballack have had to comply with similar employment within the side's midfield line-up this season, Cole's predicament is as unique as the playing ability which somehow so many appear to overlook.

Football is, of course, a team game, a fact that Cole would have no doubt attempted to console himself with as he was shunted out towards the white line (and not too far over it one would assume) in the 92nd minute of Chelsea's 2-0 triumph at Anfield last week. Yet to what degree Cole is deemed an individual, that is to say, possessor of the kind of exclusive skills that the vast majority of players only dream of, is fast becoming a secondary issue to the specific denigration that he alone has had to endure for both Chelsea and England.

The football manager's hackneyed lexicon offers two particularly pertinent cliches to which Cole would most easily relate. The first - that some players respond to the hairdryer, whilst others need an arm around them - is not an adage that Cole's club or country coaches have properly observed since he left West Ham. There, Harry Redknapp called him "the best 11 year-old footballer I've ever seen in my life" and went on to make him a first team regular with international caps soon following. Glenn Roeder then awarded him the club captaincy, before the marked shortcomings of that Hammers vintage alas saw them ebb out of the top flight. For the modern-day England international the despair of relegation is especially uncommon, but Cole's gloom had not lingered long when Claudio Ranieri plundered him for Stamford Bridge, where, after a stuttering debut season, the balance of the managerial abuse/praise proverb was swiftly reversed.

Which brings us to the second most relevant car coat platitude, and one which, having clearly defined Cole as a player who thrives on the encouragement of his coach, seems most peculiar to defy. That a manager should never publicly criticize his players is something of an unwritten rule and not strict dressing room law - and therefore provides a neat loophole in sporting decency - is a fact clearly not lost on Jose Mourinho. Such sensitivity relies on the relative scruples of the boss at the given time, and as Mourinho generally places his own media image before those of his players, the prospect of Cole's brilliance ever outshining that of "the special one" were always rather less than slim. Frequently compared to Clough he may be, and indeed Mourinho may share a commensurate ego with ol' big head and has inspired each of his teams to practically lay down their lives for him in a fashion redolent of turn of the '80s Forest too. His man-management of Cole however was not remotely as straightforward.

The idea that Mourinho shaped Joe Cole, nurturing and augmenting his talent into the impish diviner that graced the 2006 World Cup, is a frankly muddy claim. He did indeed blossom under the Portuguese, becoming a vital factor in Chelsea's back-to-back title-winning seasons of 2004/05 and 2005/06. But whether it was Mourinho's singular strategic nous or the simple regular inclusion of Cole's name on the teamsheet that was responsible for this upturn in fortunes is not exactly clear. His early evaluation on Cole has tellingly incited a popular brickbat with which to smack the hapless midfielder ever since: having flicked an audacious winner at home to Liverpool in October 2004, Mourinho famously labelled Cole "two-faced". This oblique, elaborately severe reference to defensive shortcomings (Cole was deemed praiseworthy for despatching the goal, but also utterly irresponsible for threatening its protection thereafter) we'll return to shortly.

It should be noted here that oddly enough - and history may eventually ignore this truth - it wasn't actually Mourinho who laid down the baton of inappropriate aspersion, but Sven-Goran Eriksson, a noted admirer and considerably more docile proposition as overseer of the national side. As England prepared for competition at the 2004 European Championships, Eriksson made clear his issue with Cole, in an albeit characteristically less vocal manner.

In a press conference following the warm-up game against Iceland, one hack prompted the Swede with a consensus of opinion that singled out Cole's failure to adhere to direction, to which he "rolled his eyes in assent". As a second-half substitute, his neat combinations with then-club colleague Wayne Bridge down the left culminated in a trademark scissors pass out to the full-back, nimbly performed to the audible delight of the crowd in a move which resulted in Bridge's goal. If the instance of Wayne Bridge finding the net for his country wasn't unbelievable enough, Cole's performance was also paradoxically lambasted in the press: he'd managed to miss a sitter, and according to many was therefore enduring an "England nightmare". Eriksson of course was more muted, though the intended recipient of his apparently implicit command to all ten outfield substitutes on the night was barely disguised: the advice that "you don't have to show me you can beat five men in the wrong part of the pitch" was, in effect, anything but a blanket instruction. The art of dribbling - indeed the most basic self-expression - was evidently not why he ended up surprisingly selecting Cole for the tournament. We'd been led to believe that the strategy here was to shape a squad around two complete teams, with Cole a straight deputy for Paul Scholes, by this time toiling under Eriksson (indeed terminally so at international level - he announced his retirement immediately after the Championships) as the left point of a nonsensical diamond midfield formation. As it turned out, Scholes was replaced in each of England's four games, by Owen Hargreaves twice, then Ledley King and Phil Neville. Cole never got a kick.

So, perhaps in spite of rather than because of both Eriksson and Mourinho's methods, Cole rallied to thrilling effect in ensuing domestic and international campaigns. By the time of the last World Cup in Germany, he'd become a fixture in an England team which seemed for so long to be lacking that balance centre left. Even after Scholes' blunted departure, Eriksson took some considerable cajoling to promote the appointed understudy, with Cole's preferred position a continuing debate. The obvious emergent carp pointed to his keenness to cut inside on his right foot, that he wasn't a natural winger; of course, the asymmetry had nothing to do with the fixated posturing on the opposite flank, whose utterly bulletproof occupant was as much of a winger as he was a modest inconspicuity. Any imbalance here was immovably skewed towards the obsessive definition of stylish football as something which wore a bleached quiff and an affected pouting glare towards the press pack.

Cole's art won out in the end. What should have proved his only significant career obstacle - that of the existence of Rooney, an unimpeachable inhabitant of Cole's more appropriate calling in the withdrawn striker's role - was ably circumvented with a series of impetuously deft displays from the wing. But not only did he prove a standout performer in an admittedly fairly woeful England side (never more conclusively than against the Swedes, where an unyieldingly perfect 35-yard lobbed volley and pinpoint assist would have sealed a comfortable victory were it not for our slumbering rearguard), he also showed himself to be the only Englishman truly cognizant with world football's somewhat less assailing aspects.

It may be as bewildering a truth for the weary England supporter that the game is practically non-contact beyond these lairy isles as it is unthinkable to accept our increased inability to show up to the exposition. International engagement is a truly foreign proposition to a studs-up Rooney, a wrestler Terry or any number of domestic dummies who queue to snap the fibulas of Wenger's wide-eyed young pucks in the name of the tackle. At the 2006 World Cup, the sheer bemusement on the faces of Eriksson's anxious combatants as the wider footballing planet broke its' back in demonstrating the sufficiency of a mere hand on the shoulder (and not all-out onslaught) was sad to behold. And whilst the world game effectively confirmed its' abandonment of the pretense to fair play for the embracing of Maradona's "pickpocketing the English" approach, with each participating nation brazenly indulging the darker arts associated with the ball-playing favela diabolists who would claim the Argentine as their God, only one pride-bursting three lions-emblazoned ambassador acknowledged the trend. Frequently falling foal-like to the turf, Joe Cole was not once cautioned, despite being one of the biggest divers and perceived con-artists in the tournament. He was however also one of the most fouled.

This perhaps unpalatable yet advantageous awareness should have established at last a correct recognition of Cole's playing identity. Global sportswear manufacturers and soft drinks firms generally get it when they recruit for those all-star ad campaigns just prior to the major competitions, the kind that feature Messi or Ronaldinho enacting the most stupendous high-speed Rubik's chicanery with the ball. In the main however, the combination of a search for the highest profile and a true paucity of Anglo tricksters means teams of crack programmers have to grind through the night, fashioning CGI sequences of Steven Gerrard simply trapping a pass, or JT smiling without slipping over. The over-arching aim here however is entertainment, and the effort to find the requisite Brazilian performer is a considerably less arduous task. A somewhat ill-exposed contribution to a Nike campaign in 2006 came when Cole's stock was at its highest, though Jose Mourinho - as, ironically, with all those continental administrators of Cole's variable career thus far - is no particular subscriber to the Joga Bonito philosophy.

An April 2005 Champions League quarter-final second leg thriller in Munich probably stands as Mourinho's favoured memory of Cole, though you'd guess it was not so much for the brace of goals he unerringly laid on that wrapped the tie, but for the feral, ball-winning, slide-tackling labourer that perversely appeared in his image too. This weird apparition, one that fulfilled the manager's express wish that Cole cede to defensive duties, is not one that this most obvious of street footballers has willingly returned to. For Cole, the kind of player equally comfortable juggling a tangerine over a jagged fell as with a thermally bonded size 5 on the most lovingly tended lawns, the instinct is to leave defending to the (at least) half dozen or so lumps behind him more specifically detailed to the task. In a footballing culture blessed with the type of man-for-man capability that might permit a regular interchanging of roles, it would be easier to understand why Cole's repertoire of skills may need upgrading. Yet in England, where tactical rigidity and a still relatively brusque playing style is commonplace, he's not so much cherished like a precious gemstone as maligned, a sideshow anomaly. All individual freedom or assertion discouraged, the principle is not so much total football as totalitarian.

The exasperating policy that attempts to curb such innate rarefied talent is one which Cole has quite mysteriously been dogged by, and it is yet to be seen whether the incumbent England coach will uphold the trend by leaving him at home this summer. Perhaps Fabio Capello might remember how he brilliantly weaved the opening goal of his tenure against the Swiss in February 2008, the face-saving injury time equaliser nudged home in a turgid friendly at home to the Czechs six months later, or indeed the two similarly redemptive finishes that followed swiftly in Andorra, heaving an eventually stress-free qualifying campaign into life. That said, it might pay here to recall how the Italian chose to relay his gratitude to Cole in the latter fixture. Having netted from the bench to the relief of his distinctly anaemic teammates, Capello adhered to tradition by violently castigating the player, this time for dropping too deep in avoidance of the ever-impotent Emile Heskey up front.

Ever toyed with, and routinely admonished just when his ability threatens to bloom, it's no surprise that Cole's race to regain form and fitness ahead of the World Cup in South Africa has been framed with expressions of doubting conviction from those twinned Italianate impediments to playing time. Ancelotti has not felt compelled to hand Cole a sustained run in Chelsea's first team, whilst Capello described him as "not the player I remember" having deigned not to offer the call-up for the Egypt friendly back in March, now possibly to be seen as merely a spur to achievement. An at times accordingly careworn, fading player has attempted to devour those scant opportunities handed out, where he is most often appraised as having tried too hard to impress. How foolish that he should aspire to catching the eye. If he still fails to nail down a place in the 23-man list - to be named by June 1st - the tournament will be England's first without Cole since Euro 2000, where, according to Kevin Keegan, only a broken leg prevented his shock invitation. He has not played himself into the team, but an England squad minus his name and attendant expertise is surely a miserable prospect. Will we once more be resigned to hooking our faith solely upon the rank predictability of tactics and painful inertia in support play that are more recognizable as staples of the national side than unequivocal individual skill, or that feeble delusion of indomitable spirit?

Capello has doubtless realised that he can't cling steadfastly to his professed decree, allowing only those in-form onto the plane; England's strength-in-depth, or lack of, simply hasn't allowed it. Gerrard and Michael Carrick are widely acknowledged to have endured poor club seasons, but both are expected to make the final squad. Those who once haunted Cole with their cries for a genuinely left-footed midfielder to conform to the orthodox wing game, thus replacing the former, have meanwhile fallen strangely silent. We'll therefore rest our hopes on the Liverpool skipper somehow sparing any retractable roofing that the sundry new stadia might have to offer by reigning in his compulsion to thrash the ball high and wide out of every game he plays in. The alternative rests on a chance for the as yet untried Adam Johnson, a potentially vacuous gamble with Walcott's unwittingly lazy vacation of four years ago in mind.

It may be too late for Cole to excavate proof of a hitherto unsubstantiated South American heritage, but a dramatic exit (to an albeit not quite as remote destination) is however on the cards. The newly crowned Premier League champions have given precedent to a burdensome wage bill, which, contrary to popular opinion, is surely more gratuitously immodest than the salary demands attributed to Cole in recent months. A testimony of character suggests that it is a request for relative parity with his colleagues - and not flat greed - which is proving the obstacle to Chelsea's meeting terms, and clearing the way for an anticipated free transfer in the close season. Not that the Stamford Bridge faithful see it that way.

Whatever criticism may be meted out from the man picking the team, Cole has always fallen back on some staunch backing from the stands. Yet the archetypal crowd pleaser is now perceived as avaricious, and, in view of his meagre return last year, downright selfish. His further isolation from once devoted fans only brings us to another riddle, this time of a more intrinsically personal nature.

Some footballers appear to thrive on controversy, on squalid nightclub brawls, boozy philandering or the general qualities of boneheaded insouciant belligerence that have fashioned the modern player's stereotype. You could almost infer a link between the bravado of consequent tabloid attention and the influence of a name on a teamsheet: certainly, Cole's largely exemplary, almost annoyingly professional attitude doesn't look like it's done him too many favours. A practically childlike exuberance and honesty once again mark him out as anything but the everyday Premier League egotist, with a recent acceptance of the pointlessness of trying to "talk yourself into the England squad" suggesting humility is a not wholly obsolescent virtue.

But still Cole, perhaps until today, has had to fend the untrustworthy tag to such a routine that at times you'd have to wonder where the rationale for his comparative rejection stems from. Of course, the luxuriant creative midfielder has forever had to fight - as any tortured artist might - for the truest recognition, especially in England. But if 'Glenda' Hoddle thought he had it hard convincing Greenwood and Robson of his merits in the '80s, he should spare a thought here. If Cole had been Hoddle, he'd have been dropped for the square jaw. And as the one-time boy wonder begins to show the same tell-tale signs of aging as his idol, you'd assume Zinedine Zidane's reputation (or indeed confidence) was not once marred by premature hair loss. The recession of Cole's early crowning as the most gifted player of his generation may yet however be prevented.

Yet Cole is not one to moan. He'll be stoic and conscientious, get his head down and practically bait the ignominy. Maybe the distraction of having to take so much criticism on that chin would be best evaded by adopting Wenger's whine: Arsenal's evangelical boss shouldn't take life so seriously after all, having been taken to the bosom of English football as an ingenious though somewhat amusing curio. Perhaps Cole might not remain on the periphery for much longer.

Surely impossible to like, yet frequently unwanted. Most have no idea what to do with him, some don't even really know precisely who he is. A punchdrunk full-back might be forgiven for letting him out of his sight: but if Joe Cole vanishes completely, who might shoulder the blame?

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