On a frigid Sunday afternoon in mid-January 2018, Arsenal found themselves on the south coast, taking on a Bournemouth side keen to upset their London guests for the first time in the club’s history.
Thankfully I was out of the cold and nestled in the cosy confines of the local pub, ready to watch my beloved Arsenal try in vain to impose themselves in the Premier League, away from the safety of the Emirates Stadium. This was a task that often proved difficult, and continues to today.
Wearing their not-awful but certainly unpopular blue Puma away strip, I had a bad feeling about Arsenal that afternoon. It’s a feeling I’ve become accustomed to in recent years and that all-too-familiar sense of melancholy was hanging in the air. Arsene Wenger’s side had not been playing well for some time, winless in their previous four games, whereas Bournemouth were enjoying their football on the climb to Premier League safety.
What I proceeded to witness was a rather routine Arsenal defeat away from home, littered with errors, and the sort of performance I would grow used to in the second half of the 2017/18 season.
What I didn’t expect to see, and enjoy, was a performance from an opposition midfielder that made me wish he was playing for the other team. My team, to be exact.
Lewis Cook, standing a slender 5’9, would probably go unnoticed by most of us on the street. Make no mistake: he has the quintessential footballer look about him, the chiselled face and immaculately trimmed haircut a dead giveaway. He won’t go unnoticed today though, not in those golden Adidas boots, not when he’s repeatedly testing and tormenting the Arsenal defence all day.
Cook was busy raking balls into the channels, stretching the youthful group of Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers, Rob Holding, and Shkodran Mustafi all afternoon. This sorry excuse for a defence were run ragged by the Bournemouth attack in the second half, largely thanks to this English reincarnation of Luka Modric, conducting the Bournemouth orchestra like a footballing maestro. Cook seemed to be everywhere, a red and black blur constantly driving into space, shifting the ball from left to right to beat his man, always pushing forward, always attacking. He was at the heart of everything positive for the Cherries the entire afternoon.
When Callum Wilson levelled the score at 1-1 after 70 minutes, Bournemouth smelled blood in the water. Arsenal were nervous now, sinking without a trace. Minutes later Cook was involved once more, drifting out to the left wing to receive a pass from his fullback, head up and alert for movement the entire time. Cook corralled the ball with a perfect first touch, picked his target, and already knew what was going to happen before he connected with the ball again. The expertly timed cross found an open Wilson, who cushioned the ball to Jordon Ibe to easily lash home the winning goal, sending the Bournemouth faithful into rapture and my Gunners crashing to defeat.
Despite my anger and frustration at the result, Cook’s performance made quite the impression on me, I must admit.
Whenever a young English midfielder bursts onto the scene, displaying the sort of technical ability that elevates him above his peers, a buzz is created. Think Paul Gascoigne, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere, Dele Alli, et al. That buzz will not diminish until the player has been tested.
Cook has experienced plenty of tests in his fledgling career thus far and the 22-year-old Yorkshireman has passed them all with flying colours.
Not many players can claim they’ve led their nation to World Cup glory but Cook can count himself among them, having spent the summer of 2017 captaining the England under-20s to a dramatic victory in South Korea. On the biggest stage in youth football against a dynamic Venezuelan team in the final, it was Cook’s precise free-kick that found the head Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who converted the chance for the only goal of the game to lift England to victory. Even at such a young age, Cook’s name entered the history books as the first English captain to lift a World Cup trophy in 51 years. A link to Bobby Moore isn’t a bad thing to have on your CV by any means.
Cook has enjoyed tremendous success with the Three Lions, winning the 2014 European under-17 Championship, as well as the 2018 Toulon Tournament, captaining the team again to victory to claim yet another international title. The leadership qualities he exhibits on the pitch are evident for all to see.
In fact, Cook represented his country from the under-16s through to the under-21s, before finally graduating to become Bournemouth’s first-ever senior England international. In March 2018 in a friendly at Wembley against Italy, Cook entered play as a 71st-minute substitute to make his debut for Gareth Southgate’s side. The historic achievement is naturally of immense pride to Cook and his entire family, but maybe more so for one man in particular: Cook’s selection won his grandad £17,000 in the process, thanks to a £500 bet placed four years prior. Vision and foresight clearly run in the family.
His form over the 2017/18 season was good enough to earn him a place on the standby list for England’s 2018 World Cup squad, and a full-time breakthrough into the senior side seemed a matter of when, not if.
Sadly, it was a different type of break that followed.
During a routine home victory against Huddersfield in December 2018, Cook ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. You’ve probably heard of that ligament before: it’s the really serious one that basically keeps your leg together. It was a devastating blow at the worst possible time, sidelining him for 282 days. He was unceremoniously forced out of action and manager Eddie Howe’s immediate plans.
To that point Cook had experienced a remarkable rise up the football ladder at every level. Joining the Leeds United academy as a youngster in 2004, he quickly progressed through their ranks before breaking into the first team in 2014. Aged just 17, Cook had the intimidating proposition of making his Leeds debut at The Den, home of Millwall. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Cook would not be deterred though and continued his rapid development, and was deservedly awarded the Football League Young Player of the Year Award at the end of 2015/16, in recognition of the fine footballer he had become.
Eddie Howe liked what he saw in the talented midfielder, blessed with an eye for a pass and the ability to consistently create opportunities. Howe recognised Cook as a perfect addition to his squad on the south coast, and brought him to Bournemouth for a reported fee of just £6 million. Cook was an Elland Road favourite and Leeds supporters were understandably devastated to lose such a talented local lad. The four-year commitment to the Cherries underlined what a serious prospect they considered him to be and the faith Howe had in him.
In the quiet seaside Dorset town Cook flourished under Howe’s tutelage. Already capable of unpicking the locks of the tightest defences, Cook blossomed into a player who could run the show, and became an integral part of the Cherries’ team. Strong in the tackle, with an enviable speed of thought and ability to create space, Cook’s skillset made him the perfect player to facilitate Howe’s vision at Bournemouth.
Then the knee went. The setback, a huge one for any athlete, didn’t faze him. It only left Cook more determined to win back his place in the side. Despite being out of the squad, he never lost the competitive edge that had already carried him so far. It was this internal drive that helped him get through each agonisingly long day of rehabilitation at Bournemouth’s training ground, often alone and away from his teammates.
Finally this season, he made his long-awaited return in a mid-September clash at home to Everton. The referee blew the whistle to start the game and almost immediately Cook was there, shaking off the rust with a trademark challenge on Richarlison. It was obvious he’d put the months of pain and recovery firmly to the back of his mind. The tenacity and energy that Bournemouth had so desperately missed was back.
There he is, bursting from his position to intercept a stray Alex Iwobi pass before pinging a pinpoint ball directly to the feet of left-winger Joshua King. There he is again, casually dropping deep between his centre backs to receive a pass to initiate yet another attack. Cook now finds himself one-on-one with Fabian Delph in the centre of the pitch and there’s absolutely no hesitation. He outmuscles the man in blue and Cook’s past him, feeding the ball to an open Dominic Solanke in space. The knee feels good, the sun is shining; everything is going to plan.
Cook deservedly received a standing ovation from the home crowd when he was substituted for Jefferson Lerma after 77 minutes. Bournemouth secured all the points with a 3-1 victory and Howe was overjoyed with Cook’s performance. The manager was quoted saying, “he is very much the modern-day centre midfield player and we are just pleased to get him back… We hope he stays fit and available for us and gets back to the levels he was consistently before, because he was a huge part of our team.”
Cook’s immediate focus will be re-establishing himself as an automatic choice in Howe’s first eleven and any talk of England and Euro 2020 is firmly in the background for now. Perhaps hopes of representing England again will become reality for the young midfielder: the European Championships are getting ever closer and Southgate could be tempted by a creative player of Cook’s immense quality.
There’s still a lot of football left to play before the summer though, and Cook will need to take every opportunity that comes his way in the Premier League. The road to recovery can be a long and arduous journey, particularly for an injury as severe as Cook’s was, but he’ll believe his best days still lie ahead of him. At still just 22-years of age, time is most definitely on his side.