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Carlton Cole hopes to make up for lost time against Manchester United

07 February 2009 05:38
West Ham United v Manchester UnitedKick-off: Sun Feb 8, 4.00pm; Upton Park, LondonTV: Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports HD1Radio: Radio 5 Live

Some are born unthinking competitors – like Michael Essien who apparently sleeps all day until you wake him and stick a football before him: instant intensity. Others are less fortunate, condemned to struggle with doubt and insecurity.

Carlton Cole's body is the perfect footballing tool. He is 6ft 4in, searingly swift at full lope and blessed with the co-ordination to instantly tame the blur of a passing ball.

However, he has never managed to master those physical gifts and he confesses to have become plagued by the idea of his own unfulfilled potential. Yet in the past months and weeks something has happened to Cole: he has begun to shed the skin of his old timidity and the result has been revelatory.

He is the in-form striker in the division, his five goals in six Premier League games attracting the curiosity of Fabio Capello.

On Sunday, rather than worry about finding breathing space between the constricting partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, he is ready to impose himself on the Manchester United defence.

Through the faithful cajoling of Gianfranco Zola and his coaching team, combined with the advent of a greater maturity, Cole has flourished into the footballer he has always threatened to be.

When he arrived at West Ham, Zola knew there was real ability trapped inside Cole. He had played alongside him as a rangy teenager at Chelsea, seen his capabilities but also how he inhibited them.

"The manager knew what I was about, knew I had to build on what I had done last season," Cole said. "He said in front of the whole team that he has 100 per cent faith in me and that if you get the ball up to Carlton, he'll cause the opposition problems.

" I had to change my mentality. I had to become more selfish. It is hard to change your mentality after playing three or four years in the same way but it's happening now."

Kevin Keen and Steve Clarke have stalked Cole on the training ground with the mantra: "goals, goals, goals". With training becoming more intense, with lots of fast ball-work, Cole has been part of a general elevation of expectations and ambitions.

But is has been establishing a personal commitment to improvement that has allowed him to thrive in Zola and Clarke's team.

He takes home and studies DVDs of his own performances and works closely with a sports psychologist. He says he "has read whole a host of books" to help with motivation and focus.

Books? Most players prefer the bookies. "I've read about the greatest people in sport. I read about the lives of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, people like that.

"I'm not saying I'm going to get up there but I'm going to try and get up there. That's the only way you progress in life is if you aim for the highest point. If you keep striving and are never satisfied then you'll do well in your career.

"I know how important it is for me to take my life seriously. Things happened off the field that were out of my control. It set me back a bit. I don't want to go back into it. A few things have happened away from the field made me realise how important football is and how many people would love to be in my position.

"There are a lot of people who would rather not think about football, go home and relax. At this stage of my life, I think I have pissed away a large percentage of my career.

Well, maybe not pissed away but not been focused enough. I'm making up for lost time, trying to get to a level where I can say I have achieved a lot."

Those troubles off the field – the most recent being an arrest for drink-driving in September – are, he insists, behind him. He has a young son and what he calls the "support system" of his mother and uncle to help maintain his new-found "drive".

His mother is from Sierra Leone and he visits relatives there every year. He has also begun to visit Nigeria, his father's home country.

"I go back to Sierra Leone every year. It's funny, I saw Craig Bellamy there last time. He's contributed a lot to a football academy there. I didn't know he was doing it until I saw him there!

"I said to him, 'You come to my country and don't even tell me!' I've got a lot of family there. I've been going to Nigeria for a couple of years now, straight after Sierra Leone.

I was there in the summer and played in Jay-Jay Okocha's testimonial match. The fans are unbelievable. I didn't realise people knew me there. It's crazy. That spurred me on – they worship you. It opened my eyes to another side of football.

"They approached me to play for the Nigerian national team. At the time I was nowhere near the England set up so I agreed to it.

"However there were some complications with Fifa. I had represented England under 21s and been captain so it was a bit unfair."

The flirtation with playing for Nigeria shows how far Cole thought himself to be from the England reckoning. How things change.

Capello has been impressed with Cole's pace and power and the quality of his approach play, while expressing reservations about his composure in front of goal. He should keep watching. Cole is coming into his own.

Source: Telegraph