Former West Ham United and England striker Carlton Cole is set to don the boots again as Masters Football returns. The 38-year-old won’t be turning out in claret and blue though. Instead, Cole will be playing for Celtic, who he represented for five games towards the end of his career. It might seem like an odd fit, but when The Sportsman spoke to the centre forward, the decision to play for The Hoops once more began to make perfect sense.
“I only had a brief time at Celtic, but I got along with everybody up there. I love the city. I love the people and when I got asked to play, it was a no-brainer. I love playing football whenever I can, even with my one knee, and I try and put my boots back on at any given time.”
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A second chance in the famous green and white is an appealing prospect for a player who felt he never got a fair shake in Glasgow. Cole opened up about a litany of issues that limited his appearances at Parkhead. “I went to Celtic, I was unfit so I was getting fit again. About September I got there, so I was a late signing. I had to prove my fitness first and I got injured proving my fitness. I don't think I made my debut until late in that season.”
This inauspicious start caused problems with management that would become a running theme of Cole’s single season in Scotland. “The manager at the time was Ronny Deila. He wanted me to play a certain way. He wanted me to run the channels more. You know what, I can't play like that now, I'm a target man. All you need to get is Leigh Griffiths off of me. You won't see the best of me on the wings. You’ll only see the best of me in the 18-yard box. So we had a bit of a disagreement and that didn't bode well. He didn't want to play me as much.“
The ex-Chelsea striker became trapped in a vicious cycle, with his fitness being questioned while rarely being given a chance to prove his conditioning. “He was saying I wasn't fit enough. How am I supposed to get fit If I don't play matches? I played about five reserve games and he still thought I wasn't fit. Reserve games are not the same as first team games. It's a different level. I need to play more first team games, give me 25 minutes here and there. I'll get back up to speed but he just didn't want to do this. He's finding excuses. So I've got no bitterness towards him or his staff or anything like that. But at the time, it was a bit disorganised.”
It was a sad end to a move that Cole had always sought. Scottish football and Celtic in particular were things the player had long wanted to experience. While he doesn’t regret his time at Celtic Park, Cole does regret that it did not come sooner. “I always wanted to play for Celtic. I almost went to Celtic just before I went to West Ham, I was in talks. But obviously I wanted to play in the Premier League still and on top of that, I had aspirations to play for England, obviously, because I was already in the England under 21s. Back then if you didn't play in the Premier League, you were never ever going to play in England’s first team.”
The Hammers legend, who racked up 293 appearances for the East London club, now works as an academy coach at his former side. This has given Cole a unique perspective on the incredible season West Ham have just enjoyed. He singles the manager out for particular praise. “David Moyes has built a team in his likeness, he's built a team that has his ethics, his workrate, the way he thinks about the game. Everyone's bought into the way he wants to play and everything he represents as a manager. He's built a team in his identity.”
It’s not just first team affairs that Moyes has had an impact on either. Cole has seen Moyes work up close as part of his day-to-day role with the youngsters. “Everybody's raised the bar, to his expectations, and all the way down to the youth because I'm the coach of the under 16s at West Ham. He's come in and coached our lads. So it just shows you how much of an imprint he does have at the club. He's done such a great job.”
When looking ahead for next season, Cole is confident West Ham can continue their impressive rise. Fans can take encouragement from the fact that a coach who is privy to preparations for the new season is predicting big things. “We could have pipped Man United on the last day this season, when we should have beat Brighton. Man United lost to Palace, we would have gotten sixth. If we bolster the West Ham squad and add to it with quality, which we are on the verge of doing, I feel this time could probably get sixth or fifth. I'd say fifth or sixth would be quite an astonishing season again for us.”
Cole is similarly buoyant about The Bhoys, with the caveat that Celtic might have to choose between two major competitions to find their focus. “They've won the league last season. They want to do better in the European competition. They’ve seen Rangers and they've seen the success they've had in Europe. They're gonna want to get their own doing that. Whether they have to forfeit the league for one year and concentrate on European football. Maybe they have to do that, I don't know. It worked for Rangers. If they want to go for Europe, and get as far in that as possible, then they might have to settle for a second. But if not, they'll just go for first, and I think they're more than capable of winning the league again.”
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