Why Former Prodigy Joe Cole Will Be A Revelation Back At The Hammers

I'll never forget the first time I saw Joe Cole play.

It was on a sunny afternoon at Wembley back in June 1997, and Cole, then 16, was lining up for England Schoolboys against the might of their German counterparts - age group World Champions, no less - in what would be his last match before leaving school and turning professional.

I was a ballboy stationed near the halfway line at Wembley that day, and I remember much of the game like it was yesterday – the beaming sunshine; the imposing twin towers casting dark shadows across the lush turf; the Walkers Crisps kit; the gleaming Adidas Predator boots; the constant choruses of Baddiel and Skinner's Three Lions. But most of all I remember the breathtaking performance of Joe Cole. 

Britpop was in its pomp in the summer of 1997 and Cole, a scrawny 5ft prodigy from Camden, was an Oasis disciple to the core, with the Liam Gallagher haircut to prove it. But it was the playmaker’s on-pitch swagger – and not his indie barnet – that caught the attention against Germany.

“Joe was exemplary that day,” England Under-16 team manager John Owens would recall to me years later. “He was as close as I’d seen to Paul Gascoigne – a magician with the ball.”

Inspired by Cole's genius, England's schoolboys beat Germany's 2-1 that day. And, 12 months after Gazza had starred for the senior Three Lions side on the very same pitch at Euro '96, the comparison between the two mavericks was an obvious one to make.  

What struck me most was that he was able to marry his kid-in-a-playground mentality - his genuine love for football - with a level of maturity that belied his years. The teenage Cole was equally happy partaking in the side's calm and patient build-up play, but could change the game in an instant, unleashing his bamboozling technical skill, boundless energy and inter-changing movement in the final third. At 16, he was the finished article, ready to get his GCSEs out of the way and walk into a Premier League team without fuss or fear of reprisal.

Unbeknown to me at that stage, Cole had scored seven of England’s eight goals in a thrashing of Spain at Under-14 level a couple of years earlier, and was already football’s worst kept secret in scouting circles. One headline in the following day’s national broadsheets read: ‘Cole Inspires England to Senior Style’, and although he didn’t score himself, his wizardry was a cut above any other player on the pitch.

Despite interest from many of Europe’s superpowers, and intense approaches from his local team, Arsenal, Cole chose to sign for West Ham, soon winning the FA Youth Cup and making light work of his Premier League initiation alongside an exciting cast of fellow young Hammers such as Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand. Cole was confident and highly skilled, not frightened to take risks, to showboat or swan around scruffily with his shirt bagged out and his hair in any number of irreverent styles or shades.  

More than anything, though, the wider footballing public were starting to take note of his prodigious talent. It wasn't long before he would become one of the youngest ever Englishmen to gain full international honours, making his England debut against Mexico in one of Sven Goran Eriksson's first games, before trotting out against Sweden in Saitama, Japan, in the World Cup in June 2002, exactly five years to the day since his Schoolboys swansong at Wembley.

That was a decade ago now. Cole has since won three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups. He’s also earned over 50 full international caps and has been on the plane to three World Cups. He was England's best player at the 2006 tournament, marked by his stunning strike in the group stages against Sweden.

Yet, as he returns to his first club West Ham today after an ill-fated spell a Liverpool, there is still an overwhelming sense of underachievement about the career of one of this country's most gifted footballers.

Squad rotation played its part over the course of his latter time at Chelsea, and terrible luck seemed to follow him like a bad smell at Anfield. But at 31 years of age, with his shirt tucked in, his sleeves rolled up and his hair short and receding, there is still life in the old dog yet.

Let's not forget he was imperious last season for French side Lille. Had they been able to afford his wages he'd have stayed there permanently. And his intermittent appearances for Liverpool of late have been encouraging.

Cream always rises to the top. If he can stay fit, and if Sam Allardyce grants him a run in the side - something he's not had in England for five years or more - then Cole's genius will shine through at Upton Park.

So, to all the detractors that have written him off, you just hold your horses. Joe Cole may no longer be a scrawny 5ft prodigy from Camden, but he has a wealth of experience, a genuine love of the game and a technical ability that has never left him. 

Click here to read more from Unibet editor, Ben Cove.