Having enjoyed seven successful years at Stamford Bridge and a season-long loan in northern France with Lille, Joe Cole is well-placed to discuss our upcoming Champions League opponents and reflect on his own time across the Channel…
A player with grace, guile and incredible technique from an early age, Joe Cole was always likely to have the opportunity to play overseas at some stage in his career. Growing up in London, it was something he wanted to experience one day, even though the allure of continental football must have seemed a world away from Camden Town at the time.
Having won six major trophies during a seven-year playing career with the Blues, he moved on from SW6 at the end of our Double-winning 2009/10 campaign. However, his time with Liverpool struggled to get going and he made only nine league starts in his first season as the Reds finished sixth.
That opened the door for a loan move to France, a chance to join a young, vibrant squad with an attack-focused coach and the reigning Ligue 1 champions.
‘The team had just won the league and were back in the Champions League, which had brought a buzz to the whole club,’ Cole reflects on his move across the Channel. ‘We had an exciting group of young players – Mathieu Debuchy, Lucas Digne, Idrissa Gueye, Eden Hazard, Dimitri Payet. It was a team of real quality.’
The England international was a fan favourite at Lille after just a few weeks, linking effortlessly in attack with a young Belgian called Hazard. It was Cole’s persistent PR that convinced Eden to choose Chelsea as his next club at the end of the campaign, while his contribution on the field of nine goals and double figures in assists helped Rudi Garcia’s side finish third behind Montpellier and Paris Saint-Germain.
Cole admits he had to adapt to the league both physically and tactically, the latter a more nuanced understanding following his upbringing among the hustle and bustle of the frenetic Premier League.
‘We missed out on the title but qualified for the Champions League again, which was the goal when I arrived because Lille are a big club,’ he continues. ‘Their new stadium is amazing, they have an incredible youth system and a fantastic training ground. The club is the real hub of the city so it’s a great place to play football and I have fond memories from my time there.
‘Ligue 1 is a strong league and I found it tough physically, as well as learning a lot tactically during my time there. Since I’ve left, the team have been a bit up and down. The French league is a different animal now and finishing second is almost like winning it because PSG are so strong.’
Cole was eager to shrug off the usual perceptions of the Englishman abroad when he arrived in Lille. He embraced the local culture, had French lessons with his wife and enjoyed every minute of his time in the city.
‘People think of the Englishman abroad and it’s typically about sinking 10 pints of lager and attacking the karaoke but this was a chance for me to help change that perception,’ Cole admitted in 2011.
‘I always wanted to play abroad, although I didn’t think it would be in France,’ he carries on in our interview. ‘I loved the city, it was a beautiful place to live and I enjoyed trying to learn the language and the culture. I just wish my time there had lasted longer. There was a genuine ambition from me and the club to make it work but circumstances happened and I went back to Liverpool. I should have stayed longer.’
There is a mix of power and technical proficiency in French football that Cole believes the Blues must be wary of ahead of our matchday two meeting in the Champions League. Both sides lost in the opening midweek of action so points are now even more precious.
‘It reminded me a lot of international football, which I loved, and because I had played so much European football I sort of knew what I was getting into,’ he adds. ‘There’s a different flow to the game compared to England because the Premier League is so unique.
‘There were still some powerful teams with a big African player influence in the league but the technical quality was very good and they placed a big emphasis on that.'
Chelsea’s return to the Champions League this season has pleased our former number 10, although there are mixed personal emotions when reflecting on his own involvement as a player.
‘Chelsea deserve to be in the Champions League, we’re a European giant now and we’ve been making history in Europe for the past 20 years so we should be a mainstay of the competition,’ he explained.
‘The Champions League is like the fish that got off the hook for me. I played in four semi-finals and a final so you don’t get much closer than that without winning it. I was buzzing as a fan when the club finally won it in Munich, really happy for the supporters and my mates in the team, but as an ex-player there was a part of me that was gutted it didn’t happen five or six years before.
‘Of course, I’d have loved to have won it to complete the medal haul but it wasn’t meant to be. I had some fantastic nights along the way and I’m just proud that I got to play in the Champions League for the club I supported as a boy.’