Joe Cole: circle complete
Never go back they say. Sound advice for some, but not for everyone. Others have proved that a second swing round the old block can prove more than a mere exercise is puffy, watery-eyed nostalgia.
After 78 minutes at Upton Park on Saturday night there were plenty with slightly dewey sight as they stood applauding when Joe Cole, merry of soul, trotted from the pitch, a little blooded but having played a major hand in his team being 12 minutes away from knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup.
It mattered not that United scored in injury time to force a replay. It matters not that West Ham’s best chance of making the fourth round of a competition they have not won for 33 has probably gone.
Only one thing really matters: Joe Cole is back. The circle is complete.
Of all the academy graduates who left West Ham around the turn of the 21st century as the club’s fortunes faded, Cole’s was arguably felt the hardest. Harder than Frank Lampard, who was never universally accepted; harder than Rio Ferdinand, whose outrageous fee anesthetized some of the pain; harder than Michael Carrick; harder than Glen Johnson; and certainly harder than Jermaine Defoe.
Cole’s loss resonated as deeply as it did back in 2003 because of the way he played. Fans loved the callowness of his shimmies, his flicks, his skills and most of all they loved his promise. He was one for the romantics, who always valued flair over the formulaic, but when he left for Chelsea it seemed the ambition of seeing Cole fulfill his talent in claret and blue had gone.
Until now, perhaps.
To be honest, West Ham are fortunate to get him back. They are fortunate that, for whatever reason, a succession of managers at Chelsea and Liverpool have not tolerated Cole. They are lucky too that Harry Redknapp could not buff Queen’s Park Rangers’ current situation into something more palatable. They are fortunate that, at 31, Cole should still have plenty left in the legs and, just as pertinently, thanks to the eight honours he garnered at Stamford Bridge, he has his medals; Cole can now play for fun.
That certainly seemed to be the case last Saturday as Cole’s influence in the game grew steadily. His two crosses that provided goals for another returnee, James Collins, instantly showed his fundamental quality remains undimmed and disproved the nonsense that his presence in a Sam Allardyce team is a unworkable juxtaposition. He is as much a Sam Allardyce player as Jay Jay Okocha was and Kevin Nolan currently is.
Cole says it will take him “five or six” games to feel fully comfortable with the ball at his feet again. When he is, West Ham fans can pick up where they left off a decade ago. They’ll hope too that Cole’s return will not only bring a more reliable creative element to midfield (he outshone Ricardo Vaz Te and gave Matt Jarvis something to think about against United) but finally get the best out of Andy Carroll when he regains fitness. How he craves crosses like the ones Collins got.
Joe Cole left West Ham a boy. Now he has returned a man. Tantalizingly the next 18 months at Upton Park could prove not only the most consistent of his career but his best by some distance with the Hammers.