COS columnist Tom Victor wonders what has happened an Upton Park striker who has experienced a Hammer slump.
West Ham Tickets Available from Tixdaq.com
When Fabio Capello announced his England squad this week, the biggest surprise was – without question – the inclusion of Bolton striker Kevin Davies.
The inevitable questions followed, most of which (perhaps unfairly) centred around the stock phrase ‘Is that the best we’ve got,’ as many fans remained mystified as to why Andy Carroll didn’t get the nod instead.
At no point in these discussions was there even as much as a mention of West Ham’s Carlton Cole, a player who not that long ago was named in Capello’s 30-man preliminary World Cup squad. So what has happened to force the frontman so far down the international pecking order that the England boss would rather coax Emile Heskey out of retirement than bring Cole back into his squad?
Twelve months ago the Chelsea youth product was in the form of his life, leading the line for West Ham and scoring one of the goals of last season against Tottenham. Six more strikes followed before the end of November, when he picked up a knee ligament injury in the Irons’ 5-3 victory over Burnley, and another three after his return in the new year.
But this year Cole has looked a shadow of his former self, regressing to the hopeless frontman who became accustomed to boos from the Upton Park faithful in his early years at the club.
He is being shaken off by defenders he used to outmuscle with ease, the high balls he used to hold up elegantly are now bouncing off him, and his confidence in front of goal has been completely shattered. While Cole was never the most prolific of strikers, he never lacked a hunger to test opposing goalkeepers, but this season he has seemed more content to drop deeper and do most of his work away from the opponents’ penalty area.
Cole has never been one to let pressure from fans really get to him, and this is something which works both ways: While on his way to the peak of his career (in the form of international recognition), years of abuse from his own fans bounced off the striker like a lofted Mark Noble pass, yet at the same time no amount of encouragement from fans or the media will help him out of his current slump – he needs to find inspiration from elsewhere.
Throughout Cole’s career he has been forced to deal with a series of managers whose presence hardly screamed inspiration. Dave Jones, Alan Curbishley and David O’Leary all plied their trade as defenders or midfielders, making their names as unsung heroes on the field. It seemed at times as though Cole found it difficult to perform for men who he never revered as players.
Of course things changed when Gianfranco Zola took the reins at West Ham in 2008. Cole had looked up to the Sardinian while coming through the ranks at Chelsea, and Zola’s farewell season in 2002/03 was also the campaign during which Cole made a name for himself at Stamford Bridge.
Suddenly, after leading by example and acting as a father-figure to Cole on the pitch, Zola was instrumental in the renaissance of a career which looked to be on a downward spiral. It was almost as if the previous five years had never happened.
As well as Zola knowing what made his former team-mate tick, Cole himself seemed to be playing with a newfound hunger, a hunger borne out of an admiration for his manager. Unlike in the past, there was now a target: to impress Zola and show him what he had become.
Then, almost as if to prove this point, as Zola’s star fell, so did Cole’s. The writing was on the wall for the West Ham boss almost as soon as David Gold and David Sullivan took charge, and Cole knew this as well as anyone else at the club. The sense of resignation filtered through the team as they were only spared relegation by the paucity of their rivals, while Cole’s goals against Birmingham, Hull and Fulham only temporarily masked a personal slide which has continued into the new season.
On the basis of Cole’s dealings with uninspiring managers in the past, Avram Grant seems unlikely to instigate an upturn in form any time soon. However, at the age of 26, he should have got past the stage where he is reliant on others to draw the best out of him.
After a number of false dawns throughout his career, now is the time for Cole to prove he is the real deal. Maybe a spell on the sidelines will alert him to the fact that he needs to focus his mind and get back to the heights he hit under Zola.
Seeing a 33-year-old leapfrog him on the international scene may be just the trigger he needs.
To read more from Tom Victor visit his excellent blog Pele Confidential by CLICKING HERE