What springs to mind when you think of Joe Cole? The tricky winger that tied defenders in knots, or a classic case of potential unfulfilled? Once upon a time, he was the attacking heartbeat of a promising West Ham United team and a title winner with a fearsome Chelsea side. The second half of his career was a bitter disappointment, however, with injuries plaguing his career.
Whenever the name Joe Cole is mentioned, the phrase “unfulfilled potential” is usually next out of the mouths of football fans, but is this fair? He suffered a rapid decline in performance and consistency, but he kept fighting. He managed to play Premier League football for years after his so-called decline. Few players can keep playing at the top level throughout a long career, and for a man seen as being an unfulfilled potential, he certainly has a great many winner medals.
Joe was a rising star at West Ham, a bright spark for England and an integral cog in the Chelsea line up for several years. It was the 2008/09 season that marked the start of the decline for the diminutive winger. He picked up several niggling injuries at the beginning of the campaign; a torn muscle here, a concussion there. Never enough to have him miss too long a period, though it saw him miss enough game time that he was struggling to gain any sort of consistency.
He spent the season walking a tightrope with his injuries, suffering frequently, and in a cup game away to Southend, his luck ran out. He ruptured his cruciate knee ligament, ruling him out for the season. By the time he returned to the fold, he had fallen down the pecking order and had seen a new manager take the reins at Stamford Bridge.
Cole enjoyed a decent final season at Chelsea, earning 26 appearances and scoring a goal in a 2-1 win against Manchester United in a game which contributed to them winning the league.
In seven years, Joe Cole notched up 182 appearances for Chelsea, scoring 28 competitive goals and amassing three Premier League titles, three FA Cups, two League Cups, two Community Shields and a Champions League runner up medal. Not bad for a player who is perceived to be a “waste of talent.”
The summer of 2010 saw Joe swap London for Liverpool. While Cole hoped that a move to Liverpool would provide a spark to his performances, it ended up being the beginning to a slow decline from star winger to unfit mediocrity. He was signed to provide a creative spark, but he signed at a time where Fernando Torres had left and Luis Suarez was yet to be signed. The result was that Cole was supposed to be assisting Milan Jovanović and David N’Gog. Unfit or not, gifting those forwards goals would be a task.
Cole struggled to nail down a regular starting spot at Liverpool, not helped by a knee injury in early 2011. After a stagnant year at Liverpool, Cole made the bold move of leaving England for France. Joe Cole had a solid season at Lille, notching nine goals, and playing over 30 games for the first time since the 2007/08 season. With his resurgence at Lille, many thought that Cole would return to Anfield and take the league by storm, but alas, he amassed a lowly six appearances, predominantly off the bench. A managerial change at Liverpool, coupled with a series of hamstring problems, spelt the end of his torrid time in the north-west.
In January 2013, Cole went back to where it all began, West Ham United. He was a great deal richer, more experienced and trophy-laden than when he left in 2003, yet despite all this, he returned a shadow of the player he once was. Cole stayed relatively injury-free in his spell at the Boleyn Ground, but that tight hamstring must have plagued his thoughts. Even when he was fit, he could never truly play with the freedom of his younger days, knowing that one misstep or one exerting run too many could see another lengthy spell on the sideline, a prospect that could condemn a player in his 30s to an early retirement.
Joe Cole will always be remembered fondly at West Ham. He was a joy to behold in his first spell with the Hammers, his tricky footwork and pinpoint crosses exciting fans, and the fact that he was a graduate of their famous youth academy factored into the fans’ adoration of him. Despite this, fans would struggle to deny that he was decidedly mediocre in his second spell. With the expiry of his contract, Cole departed- swapping one claret and blue team for another by joining Aston Villa.
If Liverpool was the beginning of the end for Joe Cole, his stint at Villa must have been rock bottom. He made a measly 12 league appearances for Villa, mainly as a substitute and managing just the one goal. Once again, he was hampered by his hamstring, an injury which had been a recurring problem for over three seasons. His highlight at Villa would be making it to the FA Cup final, however, he could only watch from the bench as Arsenal put four past a toothless Villa side.
When Joe Cole was sent out to Coventry in League One as an emergency loan in the autumn of 2015 it was seen as a major step down for a man who was five years removed from lifting the Premier League. For Cole, however, this was a chance to revitalise his career. His chance of challenging for trophies was gone, but a successful period at Coventry had the potential to earn him one more Premier League stint with someone. He played well at Coventry, despite their languishing towards the lower echelons of the league table, but that final Premier League stint was not to be. In January he made the move to Coventry permanent, signing on a free transfer.
Evidently growing tired of the English lower leagues, Joe Cole once again moved abroad in order to find first team football. While his first foray into foreign football was with Lille, his second was to a significantly lower standard. He traded the glamour and glitz of Coventry for the sunny beaches of Florida. Rather than the newly formed MLS franchise Orlando City, he has ended up plying his trade for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL.
This may have been a significant step down for Cole, but for the first time in almost a decade, he appeared to be thriving. In his first season he has played 24 games- the last time he passed that total was at Lille. Cole could undoubtedly have played at a higher level, but few could blame a guy at wanting to finish his career feeling like the big fish in a small pond. Years of fighting against his critics and against his own body had taken its toll on the winger and for the first time in a long time, he was playing with a smile on his face again.
Joe Cole has been tarnished with the reputation of unfulfilled potential, which is quite frankly unfair. The man was handed the captaincy of his boyhood team West Ham at just 21 years of age. Just a couple years later he joined an on-the-rise Chelsea team and went on to win ten trophies with them, playing under some of the world’s greatest managers and some truly iconic teammates, as well as reaching the Champions League final. He gained 56 appearances for England between 2001 and 2010, scoring ten goals and going to three World Cups and a European Championship. He will be remembered long after his retirement for a stunning volley against Sweden in World Cup 2006, a stunning goal which will no doubt make it into World Cup montages for years to come.
It is true that injuries blighted his career, and it would have been fantastic to see him excel at a higher level for longer than he did, but while his time at the top was short, he certainly made the most of it. He was never going to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for a Ballon D’Or, it would have taken more than a fit Joe Cole to win England a World Cup and some of the world’s greatest players don’t have a Champions League medal to their name. Look at his CV and the words “wasted potential” seems ridiculous. Joe Cole does not have wasted or unfulfilled potential; he just has incredibly bad luck with injuries. Cole’s career isn’t “wasted potential”, simply condensed excellence.