There are many different ways of getting to know someone. For some, there is no more efficient ice breaker than a trip to the pub and overcoming any initial awkwardness with copious amounts of alcohol. Alternatively, introductions to a group of colleagues centred around ‘one interesting fact about yourself’ can be more nightmarish than sharing a lift with Katie Hopkins.
One housemate of mine uses a more binary technique. The first few weeks living together were marked by a barrage of questions that felt more relentless than the Manchester rain. For example, eating a banana would provoke a discussion on our favourite fruits. Wearing a green jumper would instigate inquiries into my favourite colour. One evening, polite small talk about the weather was met excitably with the question ‘what’s your favourite season?’ Considering the audience, spring was a more appropriate answer than the final year at Upton Park.
Far from being annoyed, this disarming tactic led me to question how we come to acquire our tastes and preferences. The realisation that nothing makes you question your sense of self quite like being asked about your favourite things was unavoidable.
I was reminded of this housemate when somebody asked me to nominate my favourite ever West Ham player. The question initially had me stumped. The method used by supporters of more successful clubs of picking the player with the most trophies was obviously redundant. Equally, any player of world-class talent (e.g. Carlos Tevez or Dimitri Payet) only stayed at the club for a fleeting period of time.
Eventually, the most appropriate choice was a player that best epitomised the club during my formative years. Once this criterion had been decided, there was one clear and obvious choice.
Carlton Cole joined the club from Chelsea for two million pounds in the summer of 2006 and was released in 2013, neatly bookending my years at secondary school (although like many performances, he was to have an unexpected encore). He never scored more than fifteen goals in a season, despite being the team’s primary striker for much of his time in East London.
Accordingly, he was christened with the nickname ‘Can’t Control’ – a tad harsh, although the best nicknames tend to have a grain of truth to them. Carlton is also the subject of one of the more ironic football compilations on YouTube.
Yet there has arguably never been a player that better epitomised the experience of supporting West Ham than Cole. Much of the time he was mediocre and sometimes downright appalling. On the other hand, there were occasions when Carlton would produce something brilliant – the unexpectedness of such an event heightening the disbelieving euphoria.
Following West Ham is effectively signing-up for a lifetime of frustration and thwarted ambitions. For a period of time, it seemed as if Cole represented this truism in human form. Despite this, it was impossible not to root for him.
Much of this can be attributed to his appearance. It is easy to feel distanced from elite footballers, many of whom seem fuelled by a sense of their own self-importance. While it must be essential to have a strong sense of self-belief, a quick glance through many players’ social media accounts demonstrate they are hardly relatable to most supporters.
These trappings largely seemed to allude Cole. His goal celebration, wheeling away with arms outstretched as if mimicking a jumbo jet during a game of charades, can be described as improvised rather than arrogant. Photographs of him tended to show a toothy smile in the manner of a bashful child having their school picture taken. Overall, he exuded the vibe of an endearing and sensitive younger relative.
As such, you instinctively wished to put your arm around him and offer encouragement when he was going through a bad run of form rather than chide him. It was hard to stay mad at Carlton for too long.
One favourite memory of mine came in January 2011. Having seen his mishit shot squirm under Blues keeper Ben Foster for the winning goal in the League Cup semi-final first-leg, Cole was chosen for the post-match interview. Despite the match having been played in freezing winter conditions, the BBC naturally conducted the interview on the pitch. While Cole spoke about his contribution to the game (something he described as ‘overchuffed’) vast amounts of steam poured off his head like an unattended kettle – providing a new twist to the phrase ‘steaming’.
Another part of Cole’s appeal were the match-winning performances that occurred almost randomly. After just one goal in eighteen games in 2010/11, he scored twice in a magical 4-0 League Cup win against Manchester United. In the semi-final second leg at Birmingham, Cole crashed in a 25-yarder to put the team on the brink of a Wembley cup final. It was only West Ham’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory that prevented Cole from appearing in the showpiece final against Arsenal.
He did have his day at Wembley one year later. In the first half of the Championship Play-Off final, Cole bought down a terrific crossfield pass from Matt Taylor and placed a cushioned shot past Blackpool goalkeeper Matt Gilks to give West Ham the lead. However, the big man produced an even greater contribution for the winning goal. Pouncing on a loose ball in the penalty area, Cole lunged in front in Gilks and managed to shield the ball from a horizontal position back for Ricardo Vaz Te to emphatically fire home. Cole’s selfless thinking was the difference between promotion and lower-league stagnation.
Alongside this were the snapshots of genuine quality. Again, it was impossible to predict when such moments would happen. For while many top strikers thrive when given time to think about their actions, Cole seemed to perform best specifically when deprived of it – almost as if extra seconds to deliberate would see his confidence squeezed out of him by a boa constrictor.
One such moment came in a Premier League game at Wigan Athletic in March 2009. In the form of his life, Carlton had earned a call-up to Fabio Capello’s England squad while the team looked tentatively well-placed for Europa League qualification. Fittingly, the only goal of the game was a special one.
Midway through the first half, slick interplay between Scott Parker, Mark Noble, Herita Ilunga and David Di Michele ensured the ball found Cole on the edge of the box. Rather than taking a touch, Cole swept the ball first time past Chris Kirkland to cap an outstanding team goal.
Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in his 2014 autobiography that he would like somebody to explain the ‘West Ham way to him’. He could do worse than re-watch this goal. It was as if Carlton had momentarily transformed into Thierry Henry, a metamorphosis that lasted a whole three minutes until he was sent off.
Arguably Carlton’s defining moment came at the start of the following season. Drawing 0-0 with Tottenham, Cole (who had already missed a tap-in in the first half) scored a sensational opener – instinctively flicking the ball up and smashing it in on the turn. It was a goal that no player without natural talent could have executed. More than that, he had given West Ham the lead against a more talented local rival.
Five minutes later, the full extent of Cole’s Jekyll and Hyde personality became apparent. Receiving possession on the halfway line, he attempted to pass the ball back to one of his defenders under no pressure from the opposition. This proved the perfect assist for Jermaine Defoe who duly equalised for Tottenham. It was an inexplicable choice and demonstrated Cole’s ability to self-destruct at any given moment. As Carlton slumped inconsolably to the turf, it was hard to remember a clearer example of a player shooting themselves in the foot so rapidly.
There will be some that would argue this article is merely a celebration in mediocrity. That, while fans indulge players like Cole, West Ham have no chance of establishing themselves as a top team. It certainly doesn’t reflect well on the club’s transfer record that Cole stayed for seven years and was re-signed for two further seasons months after being released.
Nevertheless, the club’s failure to adequately replace him was hardly Carlton’s fault. He gave West Ham years of committed service, never putting less than full effort, and provided us with some unforgettable moments. The mishaps and many frustrating performances only serve to emphasise how human Cole was, marking him out as more relatable than the average Premier League footballer.
His standing with the fanbase can be measured by the success of the ‘Sex, Drugs and Carlton Cole’ T-Shirts that were sold outside Upton Park – he is unquestionably a cult hero. Cole returned this affection and genuinely seemed to love his time with the club.
There have been many more talented players to have played for West Ham. On the other hand, none perfectly epitomised the experience of supporting the club better than Carlton Cole.
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