Life begins at 30
"The banter was hardcore at Chelsea" - Carlton Cole talks exclusively to Sky Sports about his career, West Ham ambitions, and being a target of Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips' jokes, while Ryan Giggs is not the only man to have passed a landmark birthday...
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF
Last Updated: 30/11/13 5:28pm
Speaking to Premier League footballers can be a painful experience. It usually involves one-word answers and repeated clichés from media-trained men who are terrified of saying the wrong thing. Thankfully when skysports.com's interview began with Carlton Cole, the West Ham United striker was laughing down the phone.
The reason for the former Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Charlton Athletic and Aston Villa man's amusement was this opening question - 'How's life in your 30s?'. Fortunately Cole was chuckling with, not at, the line of enquiry and it got things off to a good start.
It does seem to be his natural character but Cole was in a chatty mood on Thursday evening. Whether this was due to now being in the third decade of his life and feeling more comfortable, or whether this was just simply due an extroverted personality, he was more than happy to talk about reaching that landmark age of 30 years old - having celebrated his birthday at the beginning of October - his lifestyle as an "easy-going guy", and even being the target of Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips in that favourite footballers' hobby of "banter".
However, Carlton Cole's main focus is clearly football. It was evident he remains upbeat about this season even though it has not gone as he might have hoped since returning to West Ham. He has played just four games and has yet to start a Premier League match this season, having rejoined the Upton Park club just a few days after his birthday following a summer exit at the end of a seven-year spell.
Even in the problematic, injury-enforced absence of Andy Carroll - along with Modibo Maiga's failure to adapt to English football - Cole has been overlooked by Sam Allardyce. The under-pressure West Ham boss has even preferred to stick with striker-less formations than select Cole. The tactic worked in style in a 3-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur on 6th October, before Cole returned, but West Ham have otherwise not won in five league games, scoring just two goals in that time. They consequently sit in 17th place in the table with only goal difference keeping them out of the relegation zone at the expense of their Saturday opponents, London derby rivals Fulham.
"Basically, I know what I bring to the table," said Cole, who did start in the Capital One Cup win over Burnley. "I've been at West Ham so long now. I obviously left and came back but I know what the manager wants. Hopefully he sees it within himself to play me. The system we've been playing has been going well. But that system doesn't help me [laughing]!
"We've been playing well with that system but the goals haven't come. We've been a bit unlucky with some of the games. I'd love to be playing week in, week out - obviously - and, sometimes, when I see a striker not playing, it does get me down. But I've just got to be professional. When the manager sees fit, I'll play."
Cole considered moves to France, Turkey and the USA before rejoining West Ham. He also only signed a three-month contract when he returned to the London club. Although he does not say so, you do get the impression he will be moving on when that deal expires in January.
He still has ambitions he wants to fulfil. As a forward whose most recent of seven England caps came under Fabio Capello back in February 2011, he admitted when we spoke that his childhood dream of playing at a World Cup is over - despite the example being set of 31-year-old Southampton star Rickie Lambert. But Cole remains keener than ever to be playing on a regular basis in the Premier League or the Championship. He would still give thought to playing abroad and confessed he "would not write that off" but he would prefer to stay in England for at least the next couple of years.
Some would consider Cole's career and think he has not fulfilled the potential he offered when emerging as a tall, powerful and skilful 18-year-old at Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea back in 2001. But he is still at a Premier League club some 12 years after beginning as a professional. To put that in perspective, of the other members of that Chelsea squad who had birthdays in 1983, only Stoke City's Robert Huth is also still playing in England's top flight. Those other Chelsea squad members in that season with 1983 date of births were Italian centre-back Valerio di Cesare (now at Brescia in Serie B), Scott Cousins (now working as a coach) and, more startlingly, Ugandan-born defender Joel Kitamirike (career ended in 2008 after pleading guilty to five charges of dealing in Class A drugs).
"I'm grateful every day for how far I've come in my career," reflected Cole, speaking at the launch of Need for Speed Rivals. "Now I really appreciate being a professional footballer. For kids aspiring to get 10 years in the Premier League, it's really hard. But I've done that. I don't know how I've done it but I have!
"You see all these talented kids coming through. If they do that, they will be happy, as well, even if they don't make the grade they wanted. I had high dreams and I at least got halfway there. It's a respectable achievement."
Cole was at Chelsea for five years but, amid the intense competition for places in a squad which included fellow strikers of the quality of Gianfranco Zola, Eidur Gudjonsson and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, he was always struggling to earn a first-team place. That led to loans at Wolves, Charlton and Villa before eventually moving to West Ham in 2006.
It must have been quite a learning curve at Chelsea, where a teenage Cole was mixing with World Cup and UEFA Champions League winners, such as Emmanuel Petit, Marcel Desailly and Winston Bogarde. He also experienced the traditional rites of passage which any young professional suffers at the hands of senior footballers.
"Back in those days, it was good banter," remembered Cole. "But the stuff that happened, you can't say any more [laughing]. We'll keep that off the record. The banter was very different. Some of the lads these days would not understand it. It was hardcore banter. It was a lot different.
"But I appreciate all my experiences when growing up at Chelsea. I've since changed into a man and I've grown in football. I'm obviously more experienced with games under my belt. When I was at Chelsea, I was not allowed to express myself in the way I've done at West Ham. West Ham gave me that platform to play. I'm very grateful for that. I've been playing the last six or seven years consistently with West Ham and I've been very happy.
"But when I first came to West Ham I didn't have my head in the right place. I was still young and trying to break through. Sometimes you also get misled off the field as a young player. I always tell the young players now to stay focused and keep their eyes on the prize until they've earned their stripes. Then they can be in my position and give advice. That's what I've done, because I've been there and gone through what the young players are doing. I understand what they're going through when they know they can do it and they're not getting the chance. Sometimes it's really hard to focus."
Listening to Cole speak, along with anyone who follows his Twitter tweets and retweets of proverbs and mottos, it would be easy to consider him a philosophical individual. Adding weight to that assumption, Cole is also embracing West Ham's club psychologist, former Blackburn Rovers and Oldham Athletic midfielder Lee Richardson. Cole says Richardson will, "make you look deep into yourself to get the best out of you".
A very good morning to you all, positive mindset and positive hearts is all we need to have a positive start to the day. Bless- Carlton Cole (@CarltonCole1) November 28, 2013
But when asked if he had a motto for football, Cole said: "Nah, nah, do you know what? I'm more of an impulsive person. If I'm feeling something, I'll say it. That's the way I go. I'm not a philosophical guy. I go with the flow. I'm an easy-going guy and say what I feel."
Indeed going with the flow has sometimes landed Cole in hot water during his career, with the most recent occurrence coming earlier in November when he caused a stir by criticising West Ham on Twitter after the club's official account posted a link to watch an experienced Hammers side, in which he played, earn a 9-0 friendly thrashing of an inexperienced Gillingham team.
"It does get me in trouble sometimes," added Cole regarding his tendency to say what he thinks. "Some of the stuff I say, I never really mean to offend anybody, but sometimes it does get me in trouble."
Cole clearly believes he gets in less trouble than when he was younger and that comes with age. So, what of that question about reaching 30? This interviewer is just exactly one week older than Cole and so appreciates what the striker has been going through, although perhaps not being accused of being closer to 40 years old by 32-year-old former Chelsea team-mates Ashley Cole and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, you know how it is," said Cole, laughing again. "I wasn't happy about it (turning 30). But they all give me banter. They say I'm much older, because I'm so tall and big. But they're all older than me! Most of my mates are older than me apart from one!"
Relatively speaking, too, the age of 30 is of course far from being over the hill. It is just something about which people like to have a pretend whinge. That thought is underlined by a weekend in which Ryan Giggs is celebrating his 40th birthday. Cole therefore knows he still has a future to enjoy.
"Being 30 is not old, come on, let's get serious," he said. "But, in football life, it's cracking on, do you know what I mean? The only thing I've got to compliment me is that it's still young when you step out of the football bubble! I'm very privileged to be in this position. You just see life from a different angle when you get to 30 and you're still playing at the top level. Hopefully I can carry it on."
Carlton Cole was speaking at the launch of Need for Speed Rivals. The latest instalment in the ever-popular franchise is the only driving game launching on PS4. Need for Speed Rivals is also available on Xbox One and all other formats. Watch the trailer here and let the rivalry commence!