For all his uncommon gifts, West Ham's returning hero has been unable to find a club where they believed in him enough
The first time I came across Joe Cole was back in those days when everybody had heard of him but very few had actually seen him play. Cole was part of a youth team at West Ham that had brought in journalists to advise on media training and, though it's going back a few years, a couple of things still stand out. One was that, out of everyone, he seemed the most eager to understand the mechanics of the newspaper industry. One player, no older than 16 or 17, got himself into a hole during the mocked-up interviews, questioning whether Ian Wright, 34 at the time, was past it – "he can't have long, can he?" – and cheerfully debating the possibility of taking his place until another boy let him know, with an expertly administered dead leg, that he had better stop talking. Cole was far more savvy. He had, he explained, already been taking advice, anticipating all the attention coming his way.
The second thing was the way all the other players looked up to him. Michael Carrick was in the same group but Cole was the star. By that stage he had scored seven times in an England youth international against Spain and West Ham had knocked back at least one approach from Manchester United. Rio Ferdinand, nurtured at the same West Ham academy, tells the story of going to see Cole, then 13, in a schoolboys' game in Southend. "He flicked the ball over his head, then over another player, ran round the other side and collected it. The only time I'd seen anyone do that was Ossie Ardíles in Escape to Victory." Except Ardíles, one imagines, didn't do it in one take.
Perhaps we were all a little bit guilty of expecting too much. Maybe we were too seduced by the hype. At 15, Cole was invited to train with West Ham's first team. "He was the best player out there," Ferdinand confirms. John Moncur nicknamed him "the Conjuror". Cole signed his first professional contract on the pitch, on his 17th birthday, and the public announcer told the crowd they would be able to tell their grandchildren about it. By the time he had turned 21, Cole had played for England eight times and was about to be named captain of his club. Frank Lampard, to put it into context, was still waiting for his first cap at that age. Carrick had two.
It's funny how it works out sometimes. By now, you might have seen the archived footage that has found its way on to the internet, from 1996, of a question-and-answer session with West Ham supporters when Harry Redknapp was manager. It's glorious stuff, with one gentleman trying to pin down Redknapp about how on earth he could justify selling a young lad by the name of Scott Canham – "for peanuts" – when Lampard was in the team and "not good enough".
Canham's story after West Ham is an undistinguished journey via Brentford, Leyton Orient, Chesham, Woking, Farnborough and a few others. But nobody in the audience spoke up for the young Lampard when Redknapp was being accused of picking him for no other reason than being his uncle. The camera cuts to where Lampard is sitting and it's all a bit awkward, to say the least. He's smiling, but it's a default smile, the kind of smile when someone has just had bad news and is trying to tell everyone it's OK.
As it turned out, Lampard didn't do too badly, still with an outstanding chance of playing in the next World Cup even though he will turn 36 during the tournament. Carrick, another player who could polarise opinion among the West Ham crowd, has similar aspirations, playing with the control and authority for Manchester United that makes it difficult to understand why Roy Hodgson did not try harder to involve him in Euro 2012. Cole, meanwhile, has found himself in decline for longer than he probably wants to remember.
His second coming as a West Ham player has begun encouragingly, delivering the crosses for both their goals against Manchester United and playing with the sureness of touch, football intelligence and penetration that wasn't seen enough at Liverpool, bar his time on loan at Lille.
West Ham certainly feels like a snug fit. It would be nice, too, to think Sam Allardyce's restorative powers can help and, though too much can be read into one game, it is a promising start now we have reached the point in Cole's career when we probably just have to accept he may never be the player English football wanted him to be.
That's not a particularly easy thing to say when Cole has won 56 England caps as well as three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and two League Cups and is now embarking on what could be a renaissance at his first club. Yet Cole's career has been a strange mix. For England, he has played the full 90 minutes only 11 times. At Chelsea, where José Mourinho often gave the impression he would willingly drop a flowerpot on his head, a third of his appearances came as a substitute. Cole has always craved a role as an attacking central midfielder but struggled to find a manager who trusted him enough. The last time he played there regularly was in his first stint at West Ham 10 years ago.
Back where it all began, where they have always thought of him as one of their own, he should benefit from knowing he has the club's trust and affection. This time, however, the expectations have to be considerably lower. Moving back to London may have therapeutic effects but, for all the nostalgic qualities about returning to his first club, the bottom line is Cole would not be back in claret and blue if his career had turned out as everybody thought.
As harsh as it sounds, it boils down to this: the Premier League's 11th-placed club gazumping the bottom one, QPR, while the serious clubs kept out of it. Not only that, it needed Liverpool to write off a small fortune in the process. You know things haven't going well when a club would rather give you a £3m payoff than wait any longer on the off-chance it might work out.
Cole started nine league games for Liverpool, was sent off in the first and played the full 90 minutes in only three. The last time he started and finished a Premier League match was two years to the day since his latest debut as a West Ham player. The other two occasions go back to September 2010.
He has suffered, undoubtedly, from rupturing his knee ligaments at Chelsea, the injury that footballers fear more than any other. But it was sad to watch at Liverpool. Steven Gerrard had tipped him to win the footballer of the year award and – no kidding – said his former England colleague could be better than Lionel Messi. Cole, earning £92,000 a week, didn't get so much as player of the month. Or even a single man of the match. They paid him off in the end because the alternative was stumping up another £7m in wages over the remainder of his contract. However it is dressed up, it represents an astoundingly bad piece of business.
Cole, though, is smiling again. That alone is a start because we haven't seen too much of that smile over the past couple of years and, if there is one thing we know about him, it is that Cole tends to deliver his best football when he is happy.
Perhaps we will always be left wondering why he never fully realised all that rare potential. Maybe he will never properly bridge the gap between a player who can dictate football matches rather than one who merely decorates them. Yet he is plainly taking the business of reinventing himself seriously and it is enough for now to see him reminding us all why so many people care in the first place. More than anything, it would feel like a terrible waste if, at 31, we have to talk about his gifts in the past tense..
Demba Ba's move from Newcastle to Chelsea, operating the £7m release clause he had inserted into his contract, reminds me of the story Frank Clark used to tell about Lars Bohinen and the difficulties a football club can have when it comes to negotiating deals with demanding players. Bohinen didn't just want one clause when it came to renewing his contract at Nottingham Forest. There were 50, if Clark remembers correctly, though possibly more. They included six return flights to Norway every year.
Bohinen wanted the club to find his wife a job and pay her medical insurance. A new car was on the list. Oh, and a new floor, too. He definitely needed a new floor because he didn't like the carpet in the house the club had already bought him. The fluff was getting up his nose. "He was starting to have a similar effect on me," Clark remembers.
Bohinen, according to Clark, also wanted a say in tactics, a guarantee he was used as an attacking midfielder, permission not to play for the reserves and, oddest of all, a clause promising the club would waive all Uefa and Fifa regulations in the event of an official dispute. In the end, Blackburn Rovers activated the £750,000 release clause in Bohinen's initial contract. A reporter from the Nottingham Evening Post later asked Clark what had gone wrong and his response was brisk and to the point. Clark dug his hand into his trouser pocket, brought out a fistful of coins and threw them across his desk.
Ba has been depicted in much the same way but the mistake here is surely Newcastle's and it seems a bit rich of Alan Pardew to talk about "loyalty" bearing in mind his own history. Just ask Reading, say, about Pardew's sense of loyalty.
Perhaps in future other clubs will look at the Ba situation and shy away from making the same mistake. Newcastle will actually receive only £4.5m when the player's true valuation is probably four or five times that amount. The other £2.5m goes to Ba, as agreed in his contract. All things considered, of course he was hoping a buyer might come along.
Sir Bobby Charlton is looking for a new gardener. We know that because the last one, Matthew Stott, turns out to be that scruffy little chap who ran on the pitch during the Manchester derby and decided in all his wisdom – he'd had eight pints apparently, as you do for a 1.30pm kick-off - to make a beeline for Rio Ferdinand.
The idea, incidentally, that a short-ish fellow wearing a silly blue hat might inflict any damage on a 6ft 4in professional sportsman from a tough estate in Peckham is fairly difficult to believe. But anyway, Stott was in court on Friday when it turned out that the man who used to do Charlton's lawns had not gone quietly when he was nicked and shouted various insults referencing the Munich air disaster - "fuck off you Munich bastards" and the like - at the arresting officers.
The 21-year-old gardener was given a suspended eight-week prison sentence, a three-year banning order and 120 hours of community service. Unsurprisingly, it turns out he has lost his job, too. "He was a very nice lad," Charlton says.