Former England footballer Joe Cole reflects on his illustrious career
- Credit: EMPICS Sport
Before presenting at The Pride of Essex Sports Awards this year for the first time, former West Ham, Chelsea and England footballer Joe Cole talks about retirement, reflection and the rewards of recognition | Words: Nick Dines
'You can tell your grandchildren you were here when Joe Cole signed.'
Those were the famous words I heard over the Upton Park Tannoy on November 8, 1998. It was the day the then prodigious 17-year old signed professional terms with West Ham United on the pitch during half-time of the Hammers' clash with Chelsea.
As I enviously sat there observing from the Bobby Moore Stand, here was a fellow teen, just a few years my senior, beginning his journey to live the dream. We all wanted to be Joe Cole.
Raising this anecdote with the now retired 37-year-old, over two decades on, the irony is not lost on Joe that the teams involved that day would play a major part in his fruitful career.
A Chigwell resident, Joe called time on his playing career in November. The decision prompted kind messages from the football family, making it a humbling yet bittersweet day.
'Having been a professional footballer for many years, it's tough to retire because you want to play football forever,' Joe explains.
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'The messages for young players today remains the same as I was told as a young player. It's a great career, so enjoy every moment, as it really does go past in the blink of an eye.'
Retirement has at least allowed Joe more time to lend his services to worthwhile projects close to his heart, such as The Pride of Essex Sports Awards, the first event of its kind in the county.
The awards were held at Chigwell Hall on Thursday, May 2, a glamorous evening full of prestigious guests that celebrated the outstanding contribution and achievements of sporting heroes, legends, clubs and organisations in Essex.
'I know John Eagleton (co-founder of The Pride of Essex Sports Awards) very well,' Joe explains. 'My boy trains over at Colebrook Royals FC, a really great facility over in Chigwell, so I've seen first-hand the fantastic work John's doing as chairman there with the young coaches.
'He was kind enough to ask me if I'd like to present an award on the night.
'It was about time an event such as this took place. Essex has always been a hotbed for sports talent, especially football. It's a massive catchment area and a number of great players have emerged from here.
'It's also for a great cause, with funds raised from the awards helping The Pride of Essex Sports Foundation to support youngsters. We need to give young people opportunities and a focus in life, especially if they love sport and want to work with this passion.'
With the Unsung Sporting Hero among a number of hotly-contested award categories on the night, Joe doesn't hesitate when highlighting those essential in his own development.
'My parents, Susan and George, were brilliant in supporting me. Their only mandate was that I enjoyed it. Working now with elite youngsters, some parents can be so intense. However, if there's a footballer in a kid, it will come out. They don't need to be pushed.'
Joe was a product of West Ham's conveyor belt of talent that included Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard, Jermain Defoe and Michael Carrick. Throw in the genius of Paolo Di Canio and Hammers fans were royally entertained.
The fearless boy wonder was a showman in his oversized number 26 shirt. Cole conjured sorcery with skills developed on the streets, all Cruyff turns, step-overs and jinking runs.
Silverware inevitably followed, but over in West London. Joe's 2003 move to Stamford Bridge culminated in three Premier League titles, two FA Cups and a League Cup during seven years as Chelsea's number 10.
Despite the move to Chelsea, Joe remains a fans' favourite in claret and blue, a home-grown figure who captained the club at the age of 21.
'West Ham and Chelsea were massive parts of my life and they are the first results I look out for,' Joe admits. 'I'd love to see West Ham get it right as the fans have been starved of success for so long. For the supporters to share in that moment of the club winning a trophy, that's what West Ham is crying out for.'
Fresh from witnessing the ovation Hammers icon Billy Bonds received on the day the club named a stand in his honour, Joe feels the connection to the club's history will help West Ham finally settle at the London Stadium and kick on.
'Change is always difficult, but it's now up to the club, the players and fans to create memories in the new house. It (the stadium) gives West Ham the capability to break into the top four and if the club were to end up playing Barcelona in the Champions League, it will feel like home. It's more than possible.'
Today, Joe is busy laying the foundations for his future, taking on a fulfilling coaching role with Chelsea's youth academy where he plans to complete his coaching badges.
'It's a period in my life for re-education and I want to gain a broad spectrum of experiences, so I'm open to travel all around the country and the world, learning from different people.
'When the time is right, I'll make my move into the management game,' he reveals. 'However, I'm in no rush and I'll take my time. It's also a period where family life takes precedent.'
Aside from London, football has taken Joe to Merseyside, Lille in France and the US with Tampa Bay Rowdies in the winter of his career. However, it's clear that Essex is where he is happiest.
'Essex will always be home,' he enthuses. 'Having been around the world, it's still the best place. I just love having the greenery around me and getting out there in the forest with the kids for walks.
'It's a great place to live. Originally a Camden boy, I also love the fact that we are so close to London. My Mum, brother and sister all live in Essex, likewise many friends and my wife's family all live on the Essex/East London border. I can't see when Essex won't be home any time soon.'
As I leave Joe, it's apparent that he still gains immense pride when locals regularly approach him to reminisce about key moments from his career.
'As a footballer, if you are lucky enough to be remembered, this is usually for two or three key moments in your career.
'I'm passionate about the game, so I love talking to supporters to hear their stories. Whatever fans think of players, we are still football fans ourselves at heart.'