The conditioning that causes us to denigrate our own game by comparison made the sight of Carlton Cole stomping around tiny Stair Park for Celtic last Sunday seem incongruous. Really, what was a 32-year-old who has pocketed lavish Premier League wages with Chelsea and West Ham United across more than a decade doing in Scottish Cup action at so antiquated a ground?
The answer from the forward, who signed for Ronny Deila’s side in late October, was a reminder that old-school principles haven’t been washed away by the gold rush. A renowned character, the other day the Englishman showed he was no Big Time Carly in exhibiting an unexpected degree of humility, and even nervousness, as he expressed the motivations for his trek north.
“I want to score goals, I want to win the league, I want to be successful,” he said, in the fashion redolent of a breakthrough teenager. “Having been part of West Ham for so long, we were mid-table, we were relegated, we were promoted the next season but I want to win the league up here.”
Cole already has a league winners’ medal. Except he hasn’t. He was given such a badge after he made nine substitute appearances as Jose Mourinho led Chelsea to a second straight title in 2006. He lost it. Any temptation to see that as a metaphor for a career that brought him seven England caps in his peak years would raise strong objections from the player.
On the “long story” of how he “physically” doesn’t have his Chelsea medal, Cole laughed as “going into that” was declined. “When I was at Chelsea I didn’t really appreciate it,” he said. “That was kind of my naivety back then, thinking that everything came easy. But looking back now, I think, ‘bloody hell, that was a great squad to be involved in’, and to be a part of a team like that and to win the league was brilliant. I want to do that here but I want to be a proper part of it this time and make sure that my presence is felt.
“We had lot of players who were really influential. I tended to gravitate to John Terry and Frank Lampard because they were the English core that we had. It was one of those ones where I was being punished because Mourinho didn’t really believe in me and I wasn’t showing enough.”
Cole does not feel unfulfilled at not showing more at a bigger club than West Ham – which many considered was well within the gifted forward’s capabilities. “Everyone takes their own paths in life. My ambition was to play for England and if I had stayed at Chelsea I don’t think that would have happened. I was already in the under-21s but I knew that I wanted to get to the next level but I had to play regularly to do that so that’s why I went off to West Ham and they gave me my chance to do that. Eventually, I got into the England team.”
It has felt as if it has taken Cole as long to make it into the Celtic team, the Stranraer encounter bringing him both a first start and first goal of the 18-month spell he has signed on for. Yet, it is a measure of the striker’s respect for his new environment that he has spent two months building up his fitness after, by his own admission, becoming “plump” on attempting to keep himself ticking over in the five months since he was freed by West Ham. His pre-Celtic situation has him full of “gratitude and respect” for Ronny Deila over the Norwegian’s willingness to take the plunge on him beyond the short term.
“He knew that I needed to get to a certain point before I could start getting into the team. He did actually put me in quite early, earlier than I expected, but I told him that I wanted a little bit more time because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself and everyone to start battering me.
“I want to be able to come in and show what I can do straight away. I didn’t want to be too off the pace because it would have looked really bad. I thought the other day was the right to come in. I got a goal and that has got my confidence up.
“Sometimes in football, it is about chemistry and timing. You can’t just rush it. I wasn’t in the position to be rushed in, because I wasn’t fit enough.”
The chemistry that warmed Celtic supporters at the weekend was that between Cole and Leigh Griffiths. The unloved single central striker approach within Deila’s 4-2-3-1 system gave way to a 4-4-2 to provide Celtic’s prodigious goal snatcher with a partner. Cole revealed that recent sessions at Celtic’s Lennoxtown training ground suggest the switch in formation may not have been a one-off.
“Leigh reminds me a little bit of Jermain Defoe,” said Cole, whose favourite partner of the past was six-month Celtic striker Craig Bellamy. “He’s an out-and-out goal getter, the kind of player you like to have in your team if you need a goal. He can come off the bench or start the game and produce a goal. He’s very hungry. He wants to be one of the best.
“We’re both intelligent players. I haven’t really played that much with Leigh – even in training. We just bounce off each other. I know the sort of service he needs and I know what I need. I’ll come to feet, he’ll go long. It’s that old-fashioned little man, big man partnership but you need to work on that in training to get that chemistry.
“We found there was good balance at the weekend but with better opposition it might be a little bit harder.
“We need to keep replicating that in training or even in a game when you need to change it so that you have a Plan B. The manager knows that and we have been working on that in training during the past week so that we have another string to our bow.”
Cole’s presence has prompted a different kind of orchestration. The towering forward was regaled in song throughout the trip to Stranraer, his name easily transposed for the word Gold in the 1980s Spandau Ballet hit. He is frank about the reason for the Celtic support’s serenades to him.
“I don’t think I deserve it,” he said. “I need to start scoring a few goals before they start singing my name. They only sing it because it’s a catchy song, innit? The West Ham faithful used to sing it for me but they stole that off Joe Cole. I adopted it. That was Joe Cole’s original song. So when Joe Cole came back to West Ham they didn’t know whether to sing it for him or for me. Well, the majority sang it for me.
“Obviously, you know what the internet’s like. Someone has picked up on the fact that West Ham fans used to sing it for me and they sing it at Celtic. It’s great to have the Celtic faithful sing my name. I didn’t know what to expect from them. I’ve been on loan at other teams but the permanent teams I’ve signed for are Celtic, Chelsea and West Ham. These are my three main teams, really.”
A reflection offered up by Cole with an endearingly boyish pride. You cannot put a price on affection.