Joe Cole: The Golden Generation's Lost Number Ten That Shone At Chelsea And Lille

The two sides meet in the Champions League tonight
10:00, 22 Feb 2022

As Chelsea host Lille in the Champions League, there will be one name on the lips of both sets of fans. A mercurial dribbler of the ball, mesmeric on his day and a man who lifted the Premier League trophy on multiple occasions. No, not Eden Hazard - but the Englishman that paved the way for a whole generation of creative midfielders.  

Joe Cole was a truly magnificent footballer. A number ten who played the game with flair and creativity, yet he was arguably a player way ahead of his time. In the early 2000s as Cole broke through at West Ham, there wasn’t a natural role in most manager’s systems for him. He was the archetypal number ten in an era before the number tens were truly accepted.

A move to Chelsea emerged and that’s where Cole truly began to flourish under the likes of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti. With a wrist wrapped in tape, he began to torment defenders in the Premier League and although Mourinho had made Chelsea almost impossible to beat, the likes of Cole, Damien Duff and Arjen Robben brought eye-catching flair to Stamford Bridge. 

For England, he could have been a key man, but he became another name lost among the Golden Generation. 2006 was his best chance at tournament success, and he certainly made an impact with that stunning goal against Sweden, but ultimately, England would fall short. 

That tournament, like most of his career, Cole was deployed on the left wing. He was an effective user of the ball from there but was the most dangerous when picking up the ball in-between the lines. With Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard already in the same team, Sven-Goran Eriksson was struggling to fit in all his midfield talent - while Cole would be substituted in the quarter-final defeat to Portugal. 

For his club, Cole continued to mesmerise and delight the Stamford Bridge faithful. His winning goal against Manchester United in a 3-0 win ultimately sealed the title for Chelsea in 2006 and is an absolutely iconic goal in the club’s history. He had moments of utter genius but unfortunately injuries and a lack of consistency saw him in and out of the team during his latter years. 

England’s failure to get to Euro 2008, and the fact Fabio Capello failed to give him any real playing time in 2010 brought an end to his international career. But Cole was keen to continue pushing the boundaries, as he forged a path for English players abroad, after a spell at Liverpool. 

When Lille came calling in 2011, Cole jumped at the chance to ply his trade abroad. This was a time before Jude Bellingham, Jadon Sancho and co. It was a time where English players simply didn’t go abroad - in fact, Cole became the first England international to play in Ligue 1 since Chris Waddle, yet he pushed the door ajar for those English talents to follow. 

The quality of English footballers has improved overall in the last decade and European clubs know they can turn a profit on them now, as Borussia Dortmund did with Sancho, but for too long it was a one-way system, as the Premier League poached Europe’s best stars. 

One of Cole’s parting gifts for Chelsea came after he departed. At Lille, a certain Eden Hazard had broken through, and the Premier League’s big guns were circling. Manchester United and City were prepared to break the bank to bring him to England, but Cole persuaded him that west London was the place for him to flourish. Such was his influence, Hazard joined, and would go on to become an iconic player for the Blues. 

Joe Cole was a player born a decade too soon. He was a mercurial talent on his day, yet in the modern game, he would absolutely run the show. For both Chelsea and Lille he will be remembered for his greatness on the pitch, while off the pitch his influence also led to one of Chelsea’s greatest ever transfers. 

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