Jack Wilshere and the Joe Cole Fallacy: As one fire-fly fizzles out, do England have a new kid to put on the block?

Posted on August 16, 2010


Two Englishmen made debut Premier League starts for their clubs in the stand-out fixture of the season’s opening weekend (or ‘Super Duper Heavyweight Sunday’ as Sky Sports insists on calling such encounters): Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Anfield’s highest-profile summer recruit, Joe Cole.

Separated by a decade in years (Wilshere, 18 and Cole, 28), there is an excitable expectation of both sets of fans on these diminutive playmakers.  A free agent after failing to re-negotiate a contract with the club he supported as a boy, the burden is on Cole to invigorate a Kop that had grown frustrated with the perplexing cautiousness of former manager Rafa Benitez. Wilshere – having spent a loan-season at Bolton last year – has been entrusted by Arsene Wenger to make his breakthrough with the Gunners in what may prove to be Cesc Fabregas’s final season for the club.

Earning his first England cap against Hungary last week (prompting Henry Winter to tweet that Wilshere looked like he was on work experience), the whisperings around the potential of the baby-faced Wilshere are liable to grow if the trajectory of his burgeoning career continues on its upward path. Judging by yesterday’s performance, this threatens to be the case.

Precocious Arsenal forward, Jack Wilshere

But a glance at his opposing no. 10 on Sunday offered a sombre reminder that the parable of the English teenage sensation is far more likely to end in frustration, not fruition.

Expectation has plagued Joe Cole ever since his days as a schoolboy with West Ham. Ascending through the ranks of the Hammers youth system, Cole is a product of the East London academy that garnered a generation of footballers that now ply their trade in the top-flight. But even when his professional career was in its infancy, Cole stood apart from the rest.

A pacy trickster who dribbled around defenders with his tongue stuck out like a child learning to write, Cole’s youthful abandon saw early comparisons with a young Paul Gascoigne. England simply didn’t produce players of the technical ability of Joe Cole – we’d always left that to the Brazilians – but here was a boy that could bring samba to Spitalfields and solve the much hyped puzzle of England’s left-midfield.

Joining only the third professional club of his career this summer, the talk is still when Cole will set the Premiership ablaze.  The most remarkable thing about the ex-Chelsea man is not his unfulfilled initial promise but the persistence of pundits and observers in claiming that he remains one of the best playmakers in the league. In the era of fan fickledom, the popular consensus on Cole is that he can still come up with the goods, a hope that is contrary to the judgement of the managerial trinity of Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, and most recently, Fabio Capello, for whom Cole made only two substitute appearances in during England’s hapless World Cup campaign.

Herein lies the fallacy of Liverpool’s new no. 10: the perpetual fire-fly, his sprightly presence on any team-sheet induces promise, the bursts of his illumination are always mesmerising, unparalleled colour in the dark of an evening, but watching is to realise that that sporadic flash is all there ever is.

Cole’s Premier League debut on Merseyside was more of the same. An invisible 45mins were cut short after he was issued a card that matched the colour of his shirt and the hue of the fans that have seen him play week in week out for the past five seasons or so: red.

Joe Cole is sent off on League debut for Liverpool

Red is the Colour: Joe Cole receives the first straight red-card of his career

The dismissal was his most meaningful contribution to his new side. Once down to ten, Liverpool started the second half at a rate of knots, Ngog giving them the lead in under a minute of the restart. The man-down momentum looked to have carried the home side through to the final-whistle but were it for a cruel blunder from Pepe Reina that denied Roy Hodgson a first three points and a savoured victory against Liverpool’s closest top four rivals. Reina may have to ask to sit out the next season opener after suffering similar early-season misfortune away at Sunderland last season when he was the unwitting victim of an on-the-pitch beach-ball.

Wilshere’s first Premiership start for Arsenal displayed more of the age-defying maturity that graced the Wanderers Stadium last season. The Gunners were dominant in possession for large periods before the opening goal and Jack the Lad was the crux of the away side’s attacking play. Matched up against Steven Gerrard – who partnered the bearded Mascherano in front of the defence for large parts – too often the debutant was let down by a below-par Andrei Arshavin and the often-wasteful Samir Nasri.

It is not yet the case of ‘England Expects’ for the boy from Hitchin. Under the tutelage of the Mr. Miyagi-esque Wenger, Arsenal fans will hope that their club’s decision to not break the pay-structure for Cole and instead opt to hone the precocious Master Wilshere will pay dividends. Early indicators show that it may have already done so.