With a wonderful zest for life and a happy-go-lucky personality, Carlton Cole certainly doesn’t strike you as being the type of guy to reflect back upon his own career with any regret.
Original article published 29 August 2022
However, as an outsider, you do wonder whether his undoubted natural talents could have elevated him to an even greater standing in the game.
Racking up just shy of 400 senior appearances, notching 86 career goals and representing England on seven occasions are numbers certainly not to be sniffed at.
But for somebody who Claudio Ranieri had described as being the best young player that he had ever coached, you’d be forgiven for questioning whether all of his early promise had been fulfilled.
Cole was well into his 20s, and with West Ham United, by the time he had managed to develop the maturity needed to live up to his teenage Chelsea hype.
He reached double-figures across four successive campaigns with the Hammers between 2008 and 2012, having failed to surpass a paltry tally of six in his seven campaigns previous.
Something had finally clicked for the powerful and athletic frontman at the Boleyn Ground…
“I had to get rid of my schoolboy mentality - that was it!” he revealed in an open and honest conversation with bet365.
“If the fans think you are shying away from hard work, think your head isn’t quite in it then they would let you know, and they certainly did that. When I first joined the club I was scared of the crowd, they booed me and it wasn’t easy for me.
“I had to show and prove to them that I was willing to grind, willing to take on the mantle of being the main man; the consistent and dependable number nine.
“I have so many memories from my time with West Ham as a player, and looking back at it all now, it was a match made in heaven for me.”
He added: “I made that place my home, but it certainly wasn’t at all plane sailing for me.”
Had things panned out differently with Chelsea a few years earlier, then it would likely have been Stamford Bridge that Cole had gone on to make his home.
Having progressed through the esteemed Cobham academy and established himself as a prolific striker at youth level for both club and country, he seemed destined to one day provide the focal point to the Blues attack.
That was until Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich concluded a multi-million pound takeover of the club.
“For me, during that time I was looking over my shoulder quite a bit – it was a really nervous time for everyone to be honest,” he said.
“Roman came in and wanted instant success so there wasn’t really time to nurture and develop the youth, which was obviously disappointing as a young player trying to force a breakthrough.
“When you have a big multi-billionaire coming in to buy the club you are at, then the table shifts and you start to look at things differently.
“Maybe the future that you thought you were going have isn’t as set in stone as you may have thought. I had been on loan with Charlton Athletic and Aston Villa, but I wanted to be at Chelsea.
“I was kind of reluctant to leave at the time, but I had to do what I had to do. I had previously been told that my future was at Chelsea, but then there was a big shift with the takeover.
“That was something that I had to deal with, mentally, at a young age.”
Options were aplenty for the highly-regarded youngster at that moment in time, with clubs both at home and abroad eager to capture his services.
It appeared as though Tottenham Hotspur were closing the net when they had seemingly struck an agreement with the frontman in the summer of 2006, only for a combination of a medical issue and a disgruntled Abramovich to thwart the deal at the eleventh hour.
“I had played a few games at Chelsea, and was part of the league-winning side in 2006, so there was an option to sign a new contract, but I would have had to have joined a side in Russia on loan, which I didn’t want to do.
“The other option was to move to Spurs, who had shown a real interest in taking me. So I undertook a medical there and they found an issue with my knee and then tried to use that to cut the fee they were willing to pay to Chelsea.
“Roman caught wind of that news, pulled me in and said ‘listen, we don’t do business with Spurs’ – there was an issue between the two clubs at the time, so we had a meeting to sort my options out.
“I was simply told to choose another club or go out on loan to Russia, so I told them that I wanted to go to West Ham, who had come to the table with an offer after the Spurs move fell through.”
Prior to completing his switch to the Hammers, Cole made a total of 31 appearances for Chelsea, scoring eight goals – as well as having his eyes opened to life under the ‘forward-thinking’ Portuguese great, Jose Mourinho.
“I remember his first day at the club vividly, he walked in on the opening day of pre-season, shook all of our hands and introduced his staff to us – as you could imagine we were absolutely buzzing,” he recalls.
“The first thing you do when you report back for pre-season training is to cast an eye over to the pitches and look at what has been set-up, and usually there are no footballs to be seen… at least for a week or so.
“But myself and the other lads had already taken a look at the pitches and see that there were balls out, together with the cones, so we were wondering what was going on.
“He got us in our group and the first thing he said was, ‘listen, we are not going to do the normal running today’.
“Instead the training session was pure football, and that was totally unheard of at that time – he just did things differently, he was ahead of his time and started a new wave of how managers approached pre-season to be honest.”
After 16 years as a professional, Cole brought the curtain down on his playing career at the relatively youthful age of 34, following brief spells in the United States with Sacramento Republic and in Indonesia with Persib Bandung.
His heart remains well and truly in football though, with the former England international currently serving West Ham as an Academy Support Coach – playing a key role in nurturing the club’s future generation of first-team stars.
“When you grow up learning around superstars like Gianfranco Zola, Jimmy Floyd Haaselbaink, Eidur Gudjohnsen and various other top quality attackers, then that will impact you one way or another,” he admitted.
“At times it can be daunting and you sometimes think that you are not good enough to even be there or you are not worthy of being there with them, but you start to understand that you are good enough.
“For me, the big things I took from that period was seeing the way that they conducted themselves both on and off the pitch, looking at how hard they work – when you see those top players doing that, it does leave quite a bit on you.
“That is part of the reason why I feel I am in a great position to be doing what I am in my coaching role now, because I have been in their position, and was privy to a lot of the key traits and principals that you need to become a top player.”
He added: “I want to pass that knowledge on to benefit the young lads trying to make a career in the game.”