Joe Cole was once the most talked-about young footballer in England. As a precocious teenager, he rose through the ranks at West Ham and was cast as the man to lead English football out of the dark ages.
Cole was the antidote to his nation's technical deficiencies. He was quick of mind, confident with both feet and completely in tune with his talent. What we had was potentially a player as gifted and instinctive as Paul Gascoigne, but without the flaws.
Cole, for a brief moment, was Sir Lancelot. Upton Park was Camelot again—with Frank Lampard, Michael Carrick and Rio Ferdinand part of a second golden generation—and the future was an expressive vision, with Cole showing the way to more enlightened days ahead.
The world was at Cole's quick-stepping feet. In 2002, he went to the World Cup with England and was dubbed a "special talent" by then-manager Sven-Goran Eriksson. The Sun wondered if we were watching the next Gascoigne, or even the next Pele.
The Telegraph's Paul Hayward wrote of Cole's "undeniable talent" and childlike enthusiasm. With the 20-year-old handed England's No. 19 shirt—the same worn by Gascoigne at Italia '90—Hayward outlined Cole's burning ambition to emulate his heroes and leave behind a romantic legacy of his own.
Cole represents an idea as surely as the players he most reveres. There is not one fibre of arrogance in his wish to identify with some of the game's most artistic figures
A decade on, we might be talking of Cole as the man who brought football home and elevated to a fame equal to David Beckham. We might be talking about a player who realised his potential, made himself a nation institution and for whom a statue outside Wembley Stadium, alongside the great Bobby Moore, beckons.
But talent alone doesn't get you there. And as the 31-year-old Cole prepares to return home to West Ham, found surplus to requirements at Liverpool, we can only conclude that the idea of Joe Cole turned out to be better than the footballer—or at least the footballer we've seen before us.
Cole was still on track when he joined Chelsea for £6.6 million in 2003—paid for by Roman Abramovich in his first big shopping spree. Then manager Claudio Ranieri saw him as a potential successor to Gianfranco Zola as the Blues' match-winning maverick.
Said Ranieri in August of 2003, as per BBC Sport:
He's (Cole) fantastic one-on-one. He's very clever and passes the ball very well. I like him when a match is close. He can dribble, pass and score a goal. He's strong and an Englishman.
Cole had success at Chelsea. He won three titles, three FA Cups and three League Cups and was named the club's player of the year in 2008. But during the reign of Jose Mourinho, he often struggled to hold down a starting spot and faced a running battle for his manager's approval.
"I think he has two faces—one beautiful and one I don't like," Mourinho told reporters in 2004. "He must keep one and change the other one."
Mourinho's message was simple. There was no place for attacking frivolity in his team if it came at the expense of defensive graft. And with that he set about remoulding Cole into a more reliable—and arguably less expressive—footballer.
The Daily Mail's Adrian Durham is not alone in arguing that Mourinho's handling of Cole did his progress a disservice. Instead of freeing his talent, he shackled it. The result was a player struggling to find his identity and suffering a crisis of confidence.
How different things might have been if Cole had joined Manchester United, and not Chelsea, with his star on the rise. History tells us Sir Alex Ferguson would have embraced his gift and set it free at Old Trafford.
Chelsea eventually parted with Cole in 2010, deciding not to renew his contract, and it was new Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson who inherited the task of getting the best out of his enigmatic talents. Hodgson later said the Cole deal was not really his doing.
Whoever made the decision, it was greeted warmly by Liverpool fans. But Cole's time at Anfield will not be remembered happily.
He was sent off in his first league match and struggled to make an impression as Liverpool's season began to resemble a disaster zone. Hodgson was replaced by Kenny Dalglish at the midway point, and Dalglish didn't see Cole as part of his plans.
Cole's 2011-12 season was spent on loan at Lille, where he enjoyed an upturn of fortunes and did enough to convince Liverpool he was worth another shot. Brendan Rodgers recalled him to Anfield, but once again Cole was found wanting.
Said Rodgers in November, after Liverpool were beaten 3-1 by Swansea in the Capital One Cup (Independent):
Joe Cole had an opportunity, the club has invested an astronomical sum of money on a talented player and he has to seize his opportunities.
It was too slow, it just was not what I would expect from a team I had set up to be dynamic so I think it was a difficult night for him.
There was no coming back from there for Cole. His January exit was assured, and it very much appears the next stop on the 31-year-old's meandering path will be club where it all began, West Ham United (BBC).
Cole will return to a hero's welcome in East London. But he will return with his vast promise unfulfilled and with his decade away having posed more questions than it answered.
West Ham fans will be overjoyed. The rest of us are left to wonder what could have been for Joe Cole.
Eriksson was right—he could have been something really special.