Heart over head, Joe Cole's return to West Ham could be a masterstroke

Despite the argument that his best years are now behind the 31-year-old, signing the former Upton Park captain from Liverpool is a calculated risk by Sam Allardyce
By Mark Segal

In football, they say, you should never go back. And most of the time “they” are right.

The history of the game is littered with players being tempted back to where it all began only for them to ruin their legacy with a second stint which rarely rates above average and which sometimes is downright embarrassing.

All of which should make West Ham fans fearful about the return of Joe Cole to Upton Park. Only they are not. Most, including myself, are deliriously happy.

Liverpool supporters have been quick to snigger at our delight pointing out we are getting an injury-prone 31-year-old who appears to have his best days behind him. And they may be right, but they are totally missing the point.

The return of Joe Cole is not just about West Ham signing a decent attacking midfielder to help them retain their Premier League status. It is equally about who Joe Cole is and what he represents.
West Ham
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Lille - loan
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Having been promoted through the play-offs last season West Ham are making a decent fist of their return to the Premier League and following the New Year’s Day win over Norwich sit comfortably mid-table. Sam Allardyce has put together an effective squad and the doubts which previously existed about his style of football have, for now, been put to bed. But you would be hard-pressed to find a Hammers fan who gets excited about watching Allardyce’s team.

Obviously there are special matches, such as the recent 3-1 victory over Chelsea, when everything clicks into place. But the big wins have been far outnumbered by sterile midfield battles which most fans cannot remember by Monday morning. Under Allardyce it is head over heart football.

Equally obviously things were not so great when Cole left the club nearly 10 years ago. Despite a ludicrously talented squad which included the likes of Cole, Paolo Di Canio, Freddie Kanoute and Michael Carrick, the Hammers had just been relegated and were staring at life in the Championship under Glenn Roeder.

Even a football romantic like myself would admit that it is better to be playing solid football in the middle of the Premier League rather than fantasy football which ends in relegation. But again it is missing the point.

What Cole represents to West Ham fans is a time when they could churn out top-class players as often as Mario Balotelli is now pictured on the back pages of the tabloids. Cole was part of a conveyor belt which included Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Glen Johnson, Michael Carrick and Jermain Defoe and to many represented the brightest of all the young starlets who had graduated from Tony Carr’s famous Academy.

And alongside them were players of immense skill, if not immense heart, who could produce spell-binding football and moments of sheer brilliance. Mismanaged by Roeder they eventually went down but I have far more memories from these games than I do of other more recent matches. With Cole, Di Canio and others in the team it was definitely heart over head football.
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Cole’s final season at Upton Park may have ended in relegation and seen the club in utter turmoil but in personal terms it was his finest. At just 21 and with players with vastly more experience around him Cole was asked to take on the role of captain of the team and excelled.

While the lazy clichés about Cole at the time was that he was a luxury player and a show pony, those who went to see him every week were watching a young kid giving everything for his team. Sure there were still the tricks but much more importantly there was the tackling, the tracking back and the harrying of both team-mates and opponents. It was inevitable that he would leave once relegation was confirmed but he left with his head held high.

Like many break-ups the first few years after separation were hard on both sides. When Cole, now of Chelsea, made his first appearance against the Hammers following their promotion in 2005 he was booed by a section of the crowd and responded, according to some, by kissing the Blues’ badge.

But by the time he returned to Upton Park with Liverpool just a few weeks ago he was welcomed home like a long-lost son and responded by not celebrating when scoring a goal.

Maybe that was when he realised he should come home for good? Maybe that was when he knew that he was a member of the West Ham family.

Certainly Allardyce is taking a gamble by offering Cole an Anfield escape route but it is a calculated risk. He will be given far more leeway by fans than most new signings and the manager will not be blamed if it does not work out.

Equally there is a good chance Cole could add the spark and creativity needed in the top-flight to break down stubborn defences and push West Ham towards a top-10 finish.

Either way it is just nice to have him back.

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