Classics: Joe Cole on a changing game

Joe Cole, who has today announced this retirement from playing at the age of 37 having closed out his career in the United States, skilfully graced the Stamford Bridge pitch for seven seasons between 2003 and 2010.

To mark today’s news, we revisit an interview Cole gave to this website in the last of those years as a Blue. In it he discusses what he thought of the defenders of the day, how football at the top had progressed, and we will leave you to decide whether he is proving to be accurate in a prediction he made back then for the years ahead…

They are there confronting him every time he takes to a football pitch. They are there to make his life as difficult as possible. They are there as a target for the skills he has spent his life perfecting. But does he admire their ability and their contribution to the game?

Ten years ago Joe Cole was midway through his first full season in English top-flight football and during the time since has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the most creative, ball-playing, attack-minded players his nation currently possesses. He sat down with the Official Chelsea Website this week to consider the evolution of the game during his decade in the midst of it all and the conversation led to the question. Does Joe Cole appreciate defenders and the art of defending?

A keen watcher as well as a practitioner of football, Joe has spoken previously about the players with attacking flair that he has enjoyed watching over the years, but fresh from a Cobham training pitch where, in this international week, he has been up against Alex and the reserve team's defenders, he considers his answer.

'The differences between attacking and defending players these days are very marginal,' Joe begins to explain. 'You look at a lot of full-backs in teams at the moment and they play like wingers. Just look at Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic in our team. They are as good at attacking as most wingers, and I admire a good footballer.

'I think Ivanovic for us is fantastic,' he continues. 'If I am going to give someone a mention I am going to give it to Iva.
'He is going to be a great player for Chelsea. He is a great player for Chelsea,' Joe corrects himself. 'I think he has been our player of the year to be honest.'

There's no doubt Chelsea's Serbian international falls under the description of defender even if he has shown himself just as much a raiding full-back as robust centre-half, but it perhaps says something about Joe's view on the game that when pinned down to name names from further back in the decade, he picks players with undoubted defensive strengths, but not defenders by position.

'When I was playing in midfield at West Ham I used to love playing against Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira. They were the two best players in their position in the world at the time and I used to really enjoy the challenge as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old.

'I still take a lot of pleasure from some of the games I played against them. I did occasionally get the upper hand but it was only occasionally because they were great players. It was a great challenge and I do love a challenge.'

That much is clear when he discusses rule changes that allow playmakers to keep possession of the ball when decades ago they risked being felled like plantation trees. The tackle from behind was a target for the law-makers throughout the 1990s to the extent that it was more or less eradicated by the time Joe came into the game. Few would argue football isn't better for it and despite tackling coming under the microscope again following the weekend injury to Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, footage of matches 30 or 40 years ago can sometimes look a different sport when skilful players are kicked about the pitch.

'You do get more protection physically now,' agrees Joe when told he must be pleased to play in the current era, 'but I enjoy all types of games and sometimes there is nothing better than a good old dog fight, even for a player like myself. 'Football in this country has undergone a massive change in the last 10 years. The money has come in more and more each season and on the back of that the professionalism has gone up. 'The lifestyles have improved. When I was at West Ham, with some of the senior players that came from the late 80s period, I wouldn't say they were unprofessional because it was all they knew but there was a drinking culture.

'It is much, much less now. You talk to the young kids and they hardly go out clubbing and they look after their diet. We had no clue. West Ham were a bit late on the uptake of it all - I know it is not a problem there now, they are very professional these days - but I had no idea on diet. I didn't have a clue what a salad was.'

In front of Joe as he recalls his past is a pile of grated carrot salad resembling a small haystack. It is the perfect illustration. 'The professionalism has gone through the roof, and fitness levels and tactics have improved as well,' he continues.

'When English teams were banned from Europe in the 1980s it affected us greatly. We were stuck in the doldrums and the coaches didn't have to play against different teams.

'We had one way of playing and that wasn't working in Europe until we finally got our act together. The last five or six years you can probably say that English teams have been the strongest in Europe. There was not much tactics at all when I started to be honest.'

Raising the bar for fitness levels and the distance players can cover in a game is no doubt good for the functioning of a football team, but is it good for the spectacle? There has been a debate in rugby union on whether greater capacity by players to cover the pitch, a natural consequence of professionalism and increased training, has affected the entertainment now space and time are harder to come by.

'I think football went through a spell of that, it was easier to stop people playing,' reckons Joe, 'but that's changed with the offside rule and the ball becoming a lot lighter. You can move it quicker. Better pitches have led to better quality football as well.

'Football is always evolving, and you can only try to do what you can in your era. It is always improving. You only have to look at the Olympics, why do people keep breaking records? It is because people improve techniques.'

That leads Joe to conclude the discussion with a thought that is both confident and self-effacing.

'It might be controversial to say it and some ex-players might not agree with me but football now is better than it was in the 90s, and football in 10 years will be better than it is now,' he says.