Joe Cole remains an enigma to many of England’s football fans.
One of the country’s greatest talents, the talismanic midfielder appeared to have great things ahead of him after impressing for the Three Lions at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
After making his international debut in 2001, Cole appeared to come of age under Sven-Goran Eriksson at the tournament, solving the left midfield ‘problem’ that has so often blighted England.
But, things haven’t worked exactly to plan for the former West Ham starlet, who fell down the pecking order at Chelsea after two major injuries during the 06/07 season and 08/09 campaign. And, after a string of substitute appearances the following year, the Blues opted against renewing Cole’s big-money contract.
Several clubs were involved in the race to sign Cole, a free agent with the potential to make a major impact at any Premier League club. It was Liverpool who won the race, but his debut season at Anfield was nothing short of a disaster, leading to the Reds loaning out the 30-year-old this summer.
Of all the clubs to take an interest, it was French outfit Lille which appeared the most intriguing, with few English players willing to test their abilities away from home – an issue cited in the past as to why England struggle to compete internationally.
To Cole’s credit, he took up the Ligue 1 challenge ahead of other opportunities, with a chance to compete in the Champions League on the table at the Stade Lille-Metropole after Les Dogues won their domestic title last season.
It’s also given Cole the chance to develop in a different style of play on a week-to-week basis, and the 56-cap international believes playing the French way has helped him improve as a player in a number of ways.
"On a tactical level I have improved. I have opened my eyes. I like the freedom given to the players. At Lille, we play a very attacking game,” Cole told French publication L’Equipe.
"I was often confused when I played with English clubs against continental teams, because we could never win the ball. Now I can understand why. Ball possession is a key part in the players' education here.
"The role of the full-backs is vital in France, particularly at Lille. Mathieu Debuchy and Franck Beria help bring in extra numbers in attack. In England, the back four guys are just there to defend."
Cole’s free flowing; attacking style of play was often regarded as a more continental way of playing. And, a quick look at the list of English internationals that have plied their trade across the water, suggests that players like Cole have benefited outside of their homeland.
Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle enjoyed particular success in France, whilst Kevin Keegan was a major success in Germany during his time with Hamburg. Paul Gascoigne was a cult hero for his brief period of success with Lazio in Italy.
These four players are some of the most talented England has ever produced.
"I am lucky to be 'bi-culture'. I was born an English player but my football is continental," reflected Cole.
"Since my childhood I have had to evolve against the trend. If I had been French, I would have probably developed my football with more ease. I'm a little like Glenn Hoddle or Chris Waddle who had so much fun here.”
Of course, Waddle and Hoddle were both influential members of the national side for years, with the former helping Bobby Robson’s side to a 1990 semi-final before that famous penalty shoot-out defeat to West Germany.
Cole would love to do the same at this summer’s European Championships, and the move to Lille has done his chances no harm at all after that season of discontent on Merseyside.
The other thing that would swing a recall dramatically in Cole’s favour is the potential appointment of Harry Redknapp. The Spurs boss gave Cole the armband at Upton Park a decade ago, and was in the race to sign the player in the summer of 2010.
For Cole, Redknapp’s appointment is an absolute no-brainer, and he’s aware that the FA has already taken notice of his form in France. Now all he needs is a big end to the season.
"I know the English FA recently sent a scout to oversee my matches. That is a big boost," he said.
"It will all depend on my end to the season. It is my dream. Harry Redknapp knows me; he knows what I am capable of. With him we will achieve something there, we can even win that Euros.
“We would have had less of a chance with [Fabio] Capello, the players are ready to die for Harry and he knows how to get the best out of them."
With 24 appearances from the club’s 28 league matches this term, Cole certainly looks like he will get his chance to shine in the next couple of months under Rudi Garcia.
His partnership with Eden Hazard, European football’s most wanted player, has also captured the imagination of the French public, and Cole is a firm fans’ favourite for the club with five goals in all competitions thus far.
And, whilst his domestic future remains up for debate, there is no doubting that Cole’s period of time across the English Channel has been a massive success, with his flare suited to the French style of play.
Whether other players decide to follow his lead remains to be seen though.
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