"Oh for fuck's sake!" or words to that effect, were exclaimed by Joe Cole as he was subbed off for David N'Gog towards the end of yesterday's Europa League match against Steaua Bucureşti. I rather suspect more than a few watching the match muttered much the same thing for every minute after the sixtieth he remained on the pitch, it having become painfully clear he wasn't going to find his form immediately on return from injury and that it might be better to have him make way for a player who could conceivably effect the outcome. Though perhaps a related point, those weren't quite the words I found myself thinking at the time. Instead, my muttered curse was, "So much for Liverpool's glorious transfer coup!"
Let's get one thing clear right off the top: Joe Cole's shaky play yesterday wasn't the problem. He was coming back from a long lay off and rust was to be expected. Moreover, there is the oft discussed idea that especially when it comes to more attack-minded players our current manager's usual tactics are not best suited to casting them in a particularly favourable light. Certainly, then, Liverpool's somnambulant set-up against Steaua did no favours to Joe Cole, but on the back of a season that has seen him sandwich an unimpressive run while fit between a stretch in the stands for a foolishly acquired red card and a lengthy injury it certainly did him no favours when Ryan Babel put him clear on goal with the keeper scrambling to cover the changed angle and instead of passing it into the open net Liverpool's southern import chose to stomp down on the ball and lose the opportunity. Throw in a petulant outburst when his generally ineffective day came to a close and despite the entirely valid fitness excuse it became somewhat difficult to look at the club's supposed saviour as he trudged off the pitch and not wonder why?
Just why was it so many felt he would be some kind of saviour? Jamie Carragher said he would be. Steven Gerrard said he could do things with a ping-pong ball that Lionel Messi could only dream of (though he made no comment on whether Messi's dreams of such involved a largely unclothed Winona Ryder). Either the manager Roy Hodgson or the man playing Football Manager Christian Purslow thought he warranted a £90,000 per week salary, placing him behind only Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard--as well as perhaps Pepe Reina depending on varying reports--in the club's wage hierarchy. He was presented as bringing so much to the table that it was implied he could effectively replace both Yossi Benayoun and Alberto Aquilani on Liverpool's roster.
There were certainly extenuating circumstances for his poor display yesterday, and there may even be extenuating circumstances for his season as a whole, but it's hard to understand the universe where making an injury-prone reclamation project closer to the end of his career than the beginning the third or fourth highest paid player at the club is any kind of coup. Even if he were to eventually come good and miraculously leave his injury riddled past behind it would still have meant paying superstar money for a high risk, moderate reward player whose biggest selling point in retrospect was perhaps his passport. Certainly it can't be his ironman-like fitness record, given that he's spent more time on the trainer's table over the past three years than the aforementioned Aquilani. And in the end the petulance he showed at being taken off after having offered nothing in yesterday's match and nothing for Liverpool, period--or in recent years for past clubs or with England, if we're being honest--was not a moment that covered him with glory or helped his cause.
In in the past there have been occasions where Torres or Gerrard have appeared petulant on the pitch--last year's Gerrard incident that shifted the "Rafa's lost the room" narrative into high gear when he showed his displeasure at Torres being taken off is perhaps the most obvious example--but at least they've done enough to suggest they can pull a magic moment out of an otherwise failed performance. Their other actions, and their history as superstar athletes, justify an inflated self-belief and some level of annoyance while feeling the manager is wrong and it hurts the team's chances to pull them. One can of course feel such actions are inappropriate and unfortunate, but right or wrong it is likely that most supporters wondered exactly the same thing as Gerrard last season when he mouthed his displeasure to the world.
Yesterday when Cole was subbed off most likely wondered what had taken so long, while on the whole his time with the club to date seems increasingly to be more about hype than substance. Perhaps it is not kind to say, but for a number of seasons now Cole has been nothing but failed potential and media hype, and he has done nothing in recent memory with any club at any level to suggest he has it in him to salvage a match any more than Lucas or N'Gog or Kuyt would. Players like that--good players, perhaps potentially great players, but certainly not current superstars--would be rightly criticized for throwing their toys out of the pram if they found themselves substituted after a poor display, and yet Cole behaves as though the entire world believes he's better than Fernando Torres. Perhaps he really believes it, too, since certain corners of the media have done their best to create another English superstar on faith and discarded strands of dental floss, but yesterday's petulance leaves a sour taste that an otherwise excusable poor performance wouldn't have on its own, because Cole has proven nothing and if he really does think he's god's gift to LFC it's hard to imagine that we'll see more than we already have over the length of his hefty contract.
None of this means he can't come good, but it's an apparent entitlement that he has in no way earned, and his on-pitch contributions have been a serious step down from either Aquilani or Benayoun individually. The extent to which he's been a downgrade from them as a pair, then, makes one inclined to reach further for a more apt comparison, and so at the end of the day I find myself looking at a more injury-prone Robbie Keane. Only LFC stands to lose far more over the length of Cole's contract than they lost in the Keane saga. For all the flack Rafa got for Keane, he was sold right back to Spurs in the following January window for a moderate loss. It was certainly disappointing and a hit to the club's finances at a time it couldn't afford to bleed money on failed transfers, but today Cole is on £90,000 a week--or £4.68/$7.29M a season. That's more per year than was lost on the Keane deal, and nobody's likely to buy an aging reclamation project like Cole from the club when he's on wages like that--and let's be honest, that's what he is, a once promising footballer to gamble on on the cheap in the hopes of salvaging some of that promise. He certainly is not a superstar worthy of being the third or fourth highest paid player at a club, which means Liverpool is stuck with him and his contract, one that will see them lose considerably more in total than they did on Keane.
Maybe he believes the hype, believes the press clippings and the price tag and that he truly is a superstar and Liverpool's savior. And again, maybe he will come good, even if he's spent most of the past three seasons either injured or innefective and considered surplus to requirements by former managers Hiddink, Capello, and Ancelotti. Certainly I have no reason to doubt it when people talk about how much he wants to succeed at the club, and I do hope he does--it doesn't give me pleasure to see a Liverpool player failing. Maybe one can even explain away his disgust at being substituted as a case of determination rather than petulance.
Unfortunately, the cold truth in the end is that he's a player on massive wages who isn't actually underperforming. Because for all the talk of him coming good in the end, talk that I've even hopefully stuck my toe in, the sad reality both on the pitch when he's been healthy and off it when he's not is that he's performing with Liverpool so far this season to roughly the standard set over the past few years. To say he hasn't yet gotten the chance to show us all the real Joe Cole would be to ignore more than his unimpressive displays when he's had a run of matches this season: it also ignores that Cole's recent history suggests that what we've seen from him this season on £90,000 a week isn't far off what we should expect to see from him for the remainder of his time with the club. Injured or rusty; rusty or injured. England's hoped for next superstar, continually on the verge of coming good but never quite delivering and more media construct than anything at this stage.
In light of yesterday's outburst it will be interesting to see how--or even if--he fits back into the club's best 11 with Maxi on form and a series of performances that would rightfully see him placed somewhere behind Jovanovic in the pecking order, because like it or not this version of Robbie Keane looks to be here for the long haul.