Taking initiative

James Eastham on Joe Cole’s encouraging start at Lille

As first impressions go, Joe Cole’s at Lille was about as good as it gets. Just 21 minutes into his debut as a substitute in a league game against St Etienne, Cole recalled his youth. Picking up the ball in the inside-right position, he spun through 360 degrees, set off on a run towards the byline, evaded four challenges and had the presence of mind to pull the ball back for team-mate Ludovic Obraniak to score the third in a 3-1 win.

Hey Joe! ran the headline on the front cover of local paper La Voix du Nord‘s Monday-morning sports supplement. The picture showed Cole, his face a study in concentration, skipping past the challenge of one of those St Etienne defenders on his nimbly brilliant dash into the hearts of Lille supporters. Just ten days after agreeing to join the French champions on a season-long loan, he had already become a local hero.

“When I first heard the news I didn’t believe it,” says Philippe Verwaerde, who runs a pharmaceutical research company in the city and has been a Lille fan for 30 years. “He’s an England international and Premier League legend; why would he want to join us? Compared to what he was doing before, French football is nothing. But then when I heard he’d had a difficult season at Liverpool, I started to think, OK, maybe it’s possible.”

It’s a sign of the popularity of England’s top division that Cole was not only known but also fêted before his arrival in France. “We knew all about Joe Cole already,” says Jean-Baptiste, a Lille fan whose dedication to the club known locally as LOSC stretches to carrying the current home shirt in his bag at all times.

“We glorify the Premier League over here. The skill, the excitement, the 30-yard goals – you rarely see things like that watching French football, although we’ve realised the standard of goalkeeping in England isn’t great. We watched Joe Cole a lot when he played for Chelsea and we knew what he could do.”

Lille coach Rudi Garcia, a man with Spanish roots, labelled Cole “one of the most Latin of British footballers”. It was obvious why Garcia would want him – over the past 18 months, the 47-year-old manager has made Lille France’s most successful and entertaining side. Cole’s skill offers great options on both flanks and as the most advanced midfielder in Garcia’s favoured 4-3-3 formation. As Jean-Baptiste puts it: “Under our last manager, Claude Puel, the team did everything to avoid conceding a goal. Under Garcia, the philosophy is to do everything we can to score one more goal than the opposition.”

The player the fans are most excited about seeing Cole link up with is Eden Hazard. The 20-year-old Belgium winger is Ligue 1’s Player of the Year and one of Europe’s most widely coveted young footballers. It says a lot about his ability that he managed to overshadow Cole’s debut – in the same game in St Etienne, Hazard scored two stunning individual goals to add to his growing reputation. “Hazard is really lucky to have Cole here, because ten to 15 years ago Cole effectively went through what Hazard is going through now. If there’s one player that knows what all that hype, press attention and transfer speculation is like as a young footballer, it’s Cole. He will help Hazard on and off the pitch,” says Verwaerde.

Much has been made of Lille’s proximity to London, but rumours that Cole might commute daily always seemed groundless. Looking at the Eurostar timetable, he would have to catch a 6.19am train from St Pancras International to make a 10am training session at the club’s Luchin complex on the city’s outskirts. On the plus side, the 90-minute return journey is fantastically convenient. Putting the clocks back an hour as you head for the UK, you leave at 2.06pm and arrive at 2.36pm.

Cole might feel at home without making the trip under the Channel. “He’s joined the most British of French clubs,” says Verwaerde. “If you travel around the region, you see brick houses everywhere. There are lots of villages with names ending in derivations of ‘ham’. That’s because at one point in history we were Saxon people. We don’t look stereotypically French. This is a mining area, with an ethic of hard work. There are lots of similarities with Britain.”

One of the club’s fan groups, Y’Est D’Dins, written in local dialect, are working on a song in Cole’s honour. It will be in English and French. In this corner of France, l’entente cordiale is alive and kicking.

From WSC 297 November 2011