Remembering Joe Cole’s All-Too-Brief Spell At Lille

In 2018, the Premier League renewed their deals for television coverage with Sky and BT. And while the £4.46 billion they netted for domestic rights was a decrease on the £5.13 billion earned in the last agreement, they surpassed the figure when selling packages elsewhere.

English football’s worldwide popularity supersedes any other league or competition, and the Premier League’s global nature is reflected in the number of countries and continents represented on the pitch. With the financial clout now possessed by the top six clubs though, it is becoming more and more difficult for young, homegrown players to break through into first teams. Some are restricted to loan spells at lower league clubs, others simply sit on the bench.

There is also a third category: those willing to go abroad and play elsewhere. Increasingly, Premier League academy graduates are leaving British shores. A large contingent have joined Bundesliga clubs with Manchester City’s Jadon Sancho signing for Borussia Dortmund, Reece Oxford and Mandela Egbo playing for Borussia Monchengladbach and Mandela Egbo swapping Arsenal for Wolfsburg. That’s not to mention Ademola Lookman having the temerity to ignore Sam Allardyce and turn down the pleasures of the Championship in favour of RB Leipzig.

The trend is reminiscent of the 1980s/early 1990s, when the Spanish, Italian and French top flights were inhabited by England internationals. The late Ray Wilkins, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, David Platt, Des Walker, Laurie Cunningham, Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle all tried their hand on the continent. At the turn of the century, Steve McManamen, David Beckham, Michael Owen and Jonathan Woodgate had stints at Real Madrid, while more recently Ashley Cole had a chastising time at Roma and Joey Barton spent a year at Marseille.

One often overlooked tale of an Englishman abroad is that of an often-forgotten footballer — Joe Cole and his fleeting season at then Ligue 1 champions Lille.

From an early age, Cole was earmarked as a special talent and most scouts were aware of his exploits at age group level for West Ham. Such was the hype surrounding him, Alex Ferguson would persistently contact then-Irons manager Harry Redknapp to keep tabs on his progress. Cole obviously made the grade and would star for the first team. When West Ham were surprisingly relegated in 2003, Chelsea would purchase his services. At Stamford Bridge, he won three league titles in a six year period, but his inherent flair and creativity was suppressed by Jose Mourinho’s iron fist and he arguably never recovered.

When his contract expired in 2010, he joined Liverpool but that quickly turned sour as he was sent off on his debut and missed a penalty in his second game. As Roy Hodgson’s key signing, his time on Merseyside was destined to fail. He was on the periphery under Hodgson’s successor Kenny Dalglish, and when he was told he was surplus to requirements, Cole had a decision to make.
 Rather than joining another Premier League club though, he surprisingly went to France and Lille. Manager Rudi Garcia convinced Cole that he would be given a role as a playmaker in his fluent, attacking system and he made the move across the channel.

From early on, Cole embraced the lifestyle and was open about his desire to change the perception of British players abroad. “People think of the Englishman abroad and it’s typically about sinking 10 pints of lager and attacking the karaoke but, regardless of the football, this was a chance for me and my family to live in another country. I’m a lad from Camden Town who never dreamed he’d have the opportunity to live or play football in France. Notoriously, we don’t export our players often. But I’d like to hope I could help change that perception.”

Cole was almost immediately a hit with Lille fans. Given the attacking freedom he’d been denied post-West Ham, he formed a relationship with Gervinho and a prodigious Belgian kid named Eden Hazard. In fact, it was Cole who convinced Hazard to sign for his former club Chelsea, something which blues supporters are thankful for.

In all, his season in France was a success. Cole scored nine times as well as contributing double figures in assists and Lille fans affectionately christened him L’Anglais — the Englishman. Lille finished third, a credible defence of their title.

But that was sadly it. Cole went back to his parent club at the request of Brendan Rodgers. He largely sat on the bench and by January had left Liverpool permanently. It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened if he had stayed in France, but the end of his English top flight career was rather tame and uninspiring compared to how it started. Maybe things would have been different if he had followed his intuition.

Originally published at BetBright Blog.