St. Petersburg, Florida is not the type of place where you would typically expect to find a three-time English Premier League winner plying his trade for the local football team. But head down to the city’s Al Lang Stadium this season and you can watch one in action. Underneath the floodlights, with a clear view of St. Petersburg's harbour over left field, there'll be a familiar face amid the 22 United Soccer League (USL) players. The former Chelsea, West Ham, and Liverpool star and owner of 56 England caps, Joe Cole, has headed to the Tampa Bay Rowdies to see out the dying embers of an eventful career in the heat and humidity of America's Sunshine State.
Florida has long been established as a mecca for America's retirees. According to the Pew Research Center, 19% of the state’s residents are aged 65 and over. It's perhaps fitting, then, that the 35-year-old Cole has seen fit, for the the twilight of his storied career, to check into a destination known for its long, lazy days and nights. The temptation might be to think that Cole has come to Tampa to do little more than unwind on the beautiful stretches of sand that exist not half an hour’s drive from the city’s downtown area. But this would be false, for Cole has contributed to the Rowdies’ exploits on the field since his arrival in May 2016.
In his debut season for the Floridians, he played in 24 matches - his highest number of appearances in a single season since 2012 - and delivered nine goals, while also chalking up seven assists. Cole, then competing for the Rowdies in the North American Soccer League (NASL), was voted into the team of the season last year. Not bad for a veteran who had been playing League One football for Coventry City only a few weeks prior to his move, and who had forgone his summer break in order to hit the ground running for his new club 4,000 miles away from home.
One or two in the football world might sneer at Cole’s final destination. After all, the USL is not a league that receives a lot of attention outside the U.S, and is below the oft-criticized Major League Soccer in the pecking order. Cole himself pulls no punches regarding the playing quality, telling Sky Sports, “the standard’s okay, but then you’ve got some players who wouldn’t get into a League Two, Conference-style side. It’s a mishmash. But there’s some players, you think, “he’s got a chance here””.
So, why did the mercurial talent make the trip across the Atlantic for his career epilogue? Chiefly, one imagines, though Cole claimed that he received offers from all around the world, it’s doubtful whether any could have bettered Tampa as a location and a place to raise three young children. And on a professional level, it’s hard to imagine the Londoner received too many offers from a better standard of football club given how low his stock has plummeted over the past several years.
The low-key nature of Cole’s final years as a professional is in stark contrast to its beginning. Football supporters in the late nineties knew of the name Joe Cole before the player had even made his debut for West Ham United. Through a multitude of communication channels, everybody had heard about the special talent that the Hammers had waiting in the wings of their fabled academy. Those lucky enough to watch him live couldn’t stop talking about him. He was the special one, the very best of the lot, the new Paul Gascoigne. West Ham’s then-manager, Harry Redknapp shared a story that every conversation he had with Sir Alex Ferguson ended with the Scot somehow managing to steer the conversation towards Cole. “How’s the boy Cole doing?”, Ferguson would question, before renewing attempts to persuade the East Londoners to part with their precious gem. Redknapp was having none of it. By the time the 17-year-old Cole made his long-awaited debut in January 1999, the hype had reached fever pitch.
The intense speculation about Cole’s God-given abilities threatened to be well justified once the veil had finally been lifted. Cole was indeed a precocious attacking talent, one who played as if he had come directly from the schoolyard straight onto Premier League football pitches. Cole was a throwback to the footballing mavericks and mercurial talents of the seventies and eighties. Whether it was a nutmeg, a dribble, a drag-back, or a Cruyff turn, Cole had it all in his creative arsenal. But it wasn’t just about the flair: there was something about the way the youngster played the game that appealed to the purists. The pint-sized talent played with such joy and footballing innocence. From the moment he made his debut, and despite his love for the Hammers, it was obvious that he was destined for greater things. With a 19-year-old Michael Owen leading the line for England, most assumed that the Cole-Owen axis would be the English attack for at least the next 10 years.
Cole was to stay in the claret and blue for four more years, but West Ham were a team that went from a fifth-place finish in 1999 to relegation only four years later. By the time they fell through the Premier League’s trapdoor, Cole, by now the Hammers captain, had sacrificed a lot of his attacking instincts in order to provide more defensively for the strugglers. Teenage kicks had, to some degree, progressed into hard running and tackling, but despite the yards, it wasn’t enough to save the Upton Park side from the drop. On the last day of the season, Cole trudged off the pitch at Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s stadium in tears, aware that he had to leave his boyhood club in order to fulfill his potential.
Despite Claudio Ranieri signing him, Cole’s time at his next club, Chelsea, is best remembered for the impact, both positive and negative, that Jose Mourinho had on his career. Though Cole’s medal cabinet was soon filling up, it came at the expense of his footballing nature. The ex-Porto manager turned Cole from a creative attacker into a resolute, tactically-aware cog in a well-oiled machine. The footballing purity that was so beautifully displayed in Cole’s early West Ham’s appearances was sacrificed for a more pragmatic approach.
Mourinho values the system as his star, and his results provide justification for his methods, but he is not as well regarded as some of his peers when it comes to developing attacking talent. The man who coined the phrase “parking the bus” regularly preferred having rapid, chalk-on-the-boots wingers out wide in his strict 4-5-1 set-up. While that suited Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, that wasn’t Cole’s game, though he often found himself deployed in such a way. To his credit, Cole’s efforts made him a firm crowd favourite over his five years at Stamford Bridge, but to the wider footballing world, whilst acknowledging a great footballer, there was more of a sense of unfulfilled potential. Cole was still remembered as the boy who was supposed to become a world great, not merely a Chelsea great.
In fairness, it wasn’t just a Chelsea failing, for his forays into international football did little to negate suggestions that Cole had fallen shy of his huge potential. There were some mitigating circumstances for Cole’s performances with England because, as at club level, he found himself “doing a job” out of position on the left wing, rather than the number 10 position he craved. As a member of the most talented English side for generations, he should have been its talisman, but instead found himself repeatedly the odd one out whenever a change needed to be made.
After an injury-plagued final two years in West London, Cole was told that his contract was not being renewed. The now 28-year old Cole was to surprise everybody by pitching up at Liverpool. Moving to Anfield, at that time ravaged by the dysfunctional ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, was an unmitigated disaster for the Londoner. Those who questioned his choice of new surroundings pointed accusingly towards the mouthwatering four-year deal and rumoured £100k-a-week deal that Liverpool offered, but arguably it was the guarantee that Cole would finally get his long-awaited chance as a number 10 that may have swung it in the Merseyside club’s favour. Cole had waited his whole career for an opportunity in what many felt was his natural position, and he was promised that he would receive it at Anfield. Liverpool even broke up the fruitful Gerrard-Torres combination to accommodate him.
While it was accepted that the player arriving in L4 might have already seen better days, few had prepared themselves for the drop-off ahead. Cole’s injuries had robbed him of that special something. Rarely do you see a great footballer’s abilities suddenly fall off a cliff quite like Cole’s did, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Cole was sent off on his Liverpool debut for a horrible late lunge on Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, and then missed a penalty in his next appearance for the club. But something else was amiss: Cole himself. The player wasn’t just below par; he was physically light years away from his best days, and, with everybody aware of his cushy contract, the player who was once universally admired suddenly had supporters on his back demanding to know why he wasn’t performing.
By the time the next season rolled around, Cole found himself bombed out on loan - heading to Ligue 1’s Lille. While not an unmitigated disaster, Cole’s time in France was not as well received on the French side of the Channel as the more positive reports in England suggested. The player himself later remarked, “I wanted to stay in France but it never materialized. It was very successful for me out there - we had a great time on and off the pitch.” However, in the context of the heights Cole had previously scaled, his time in Lille still invoked more of a shrug of the shoulders rather than solid evidence that he was capable of getting back to his best.
After an unsuccessful attempt to find his way back at Liverpool, Cole was afforded the opportunity to return to where it all started: West Ham United. As romantic as the story might have been, it was a sobering reality that Liverpool were only too willing to tear up Cole’s contract and allow him to move freely back to London. His big return to Upton Park started well enough with two assists against Manchester United in the FA Cup, but Cole’s form tailed off and never threatened to hit the heights of his first stint. It was the right club, but at the wrong time. The Hammers were managed by Sam Allardyce, a coach whose philosophy couldn’t have been more at odds with Cole’s profile as a player. Instead of what could have been a fitting curtain call to one of East London’s favourite sons, Cole found himself playing second fiddle to younger, more physically able talents, with only fleeting glimpses of his former trademark flair ever displayed.
After a blink-and-you-missed-it dozen games at Aston Villa, Cole created more headlines than he had made in years by dropping down two divisions to play in League One for Coventry City. Despite the now universal acceptance that the boy who once had magic in his boots was a shadow of his former self, Cole was still a name, and Coventry’s way of announcing it through Twitter reflected a lot of the head-scratching surrounding his surprise move: “Welcome to #CCFC Joe Cole, yes actual Joe Cole. Seriously, Joe Cole. The real Joe Cole”. Cole didn’t pull up any trees while in the West Midlands, but his willingness to put ego aside and drop down the divisions to still play the game he loves has to be applauded. There was no financial incentive to keep playing on; he was already a wealthy individual. “I just want to play football,” he told the Guardian, post-move in 2015, “regardless of the level, proper football, competitive football. I want to play for the right team and the right manager who plays the right way. I’m just excited to play the game,” he said.
In lots of ways, Cole’s later-career decisions to drop down the English football pyramid, and then to make his way to an unheralded North American footballing outpost, is in keeping with a footballer who, from his debut, could be looked upon as a throwback to those mavericks of yesteryear who took on nomadic journeys down through the divisions once their powers began to wane. Despite playing the majority of his career at the top level, Cole was arguably unfortunate to play in an era where unpredictable talents like his found themselves on a tighter leash - a knock-on effect perhaps of most managers now only ever being a few bad results away from the sack. Back in the days of moustaches and short-shorts, Cole would have been allowed the number 10 platform, allowed to become the fulcrum of the team, and forgiven the odd day where it just didn’t happen. And so it’s a pity for Cole that a thoroughbred became part of a system, rather than the system being created for the thoroughbred. English football rarely produces players with the gifts Cole once possessed.
What then of the future? Though the man himself is by far the most decorated player in the USL, Cole is delighted with how his move to Tampa has worked out. Longer-term, the ambitious club has designs on joining the MLS. It’s unlikely Cole will be around long enough to see that come to fruition, but he’s happy enough just to feel wanted again. You’ll find him walking along the bay on his way to the Rowdies stadium, happy and relaxed with where his journey has taken him. He’ll run out in front of a few thousand spectators at the Al Lang Stadium content to just be enjoying regular football again. His manager Stuart Campbell’s instructions to him are said to be simple enough: express yourself. And after all, that’s all Joe Cole ever wanted to do.