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Ligue 1 flashback: frogs’ legs, franglais and flashes of brilliance as Joe Cole charms Lille

April 17, 2020January 6th, 2022

IF Joe Cole went to France hoping to find the affection that he had been deprived of during a forgettable maiden season at Liverpool, it didn't take him long to locate it.

He needed only 21 minutes to make an impact on his Lille debut, slaloming through the Saint-Étienne defence to set up a goal for Ludovic Obraniak, and by the time he scored his first Ligue 1 goal two weeks later, slamming a 25-yard shot into the top-left corner against Lorient, the fans of his new club were smitten. When he was substituted with two minutes remaining against Lorient, the Stade Villeneuve d’Ascq rose to give him a standing ovation. "He's been adopted!" declared the commentator on Canal+.

Cole had failed to settle at Liverpool after arriving from Chelsea in 2010, getting sent off on his league debut against Arsenal, struggling with injuries and falling out of favour when Kenny Dalglish returned to the club to replace Roy Hodgson as manager. By the summer of 2011, he was desperate for a change of scene, while Lille were looking to equip themselves for their forthcoming Champions League campaign after winning a brilliant Ligue 1 and Coupe de France double the season before.

There was strong interest from Aston Villa, whose representatives were calling Cole even as he arrived at Lille on transfer deadline day to complete a season-long loan, but the French champions succeeded in getting their man.

Cole, then aged 29, sang ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ for his Lille initiation. In the changing room, he was put next to the former Newcastle United centre-back David Rozehnal, one of the squad’s few English-speakers, but he made a concerted attempt to learn his hosts’ language, attending regular French classes with his wife, Carly, and watching French films with English subtitles. After scoring in a 3-1 win over Lyon in the autumn, he felt bold enough to attempt a post-match interview with Canal+ touchline reporter Laurent Paganelli. “Bon match pour… my team – mon équipe,” smiled the Londoner. “Et… I’m very happy!”

Together with their one-year-old daughter, Ruby, the Coles moved into a rented apartment in the centre of Lille. Eager to embrace life in northern France, Cole would spend time in cafes leafing through the pages of L’Équipe and became a regular at local restaurant Le Market, branding their fillet steak “the best meat I’ve ever eaten”. He even tried frogs’ legs.

"I'm a lad from Camden Town who never dreamed he'd have the opportunity to live or play football in France,” Cole told The Guardian in October 2011. “Notoriously, we don't export our players often. But I'd like to hope I could help change that perception. It's about flinging yourself in.”

Cole became the first England international to play in the French top flight since Chris Waddle, Trevor Steven (both Marseille) and Graham Rix (Le Havre) in 1992. Initially taken aback by the slower pace of Ligue 1’s football, he quickly found his feet on the pitch. He had hoped to play as a central playmaker – a wish that had previously been thwarted at Liverpool – but ended up playing on the opposite flank to Eden Hazard in Rudi Garcia’s 4-3-3 system. Chelsea past and Chelsea future, Cole and Hazard immediately struck up a rapport.

In his first seven Ligue 1 appearances, Cole scored two goals and delivered four assists. In the December, he was named as one of the 10 best wide players in the French top flight by L’Équipe despite having arrived in the country only four months previously. Weeks later, he scored his first senior hat-trick in a 6-0 thrashing of amateur side US Chantilly in the Coupe de France.

But as the season wore on, so Cole’s early momentum faded. He found the net only once in Ligue 1 in the second half of the campaign and would supply only one further assist, laying on the first goal of the farewell hat-trick that Hazard scored against Nancy on the season’s final day. Garcia was reluctant to include Hazard, Cole and fellow summer signing Dimitri Payet in the same starting XI and as the months passed, Cole slipped below Payet in the pecking order. For all his efforts, the language barrier remained an issue as well.

"The only thing I miss [about England] is in the changing room,” he said in January 2012. “I can't understand all the jokes and it's frustrating. French is more difficult than I thought.”

While he could not sustain his initial pace, Cole nevertheless ended the season with a respectable tally of nine goals and six assists from 43 appearances in all competitions, helping Lille to finish third in Ligue 1 behind Paris Saint-Germain and surprise champions Montpellier.

Although he missed out on a place in Hodgson’s England squad for Euro 2012, he returned to Liverpool vowing to make amends for the disappointments of his first season. It would prove a forlorn ambition. By the following January he found himself back at his formative club West Ham United, having failed to prove his worth to new manager Brendan Rodgers.

In hindsight, Cole’s time at Lille was an ending rather than a new beginning. It was the last time he played over 30 games in a major European championship and the last time he got anywhere near double figures for goals. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of his time in France was the role he played in planting the seeds of Hazard’s move to Chelsea in 2012 and Payet’s transfer to West Ham three years later, with both players crediting Cole for influencing their decisions to up sticks for London.

But however you break it down, it is a season that Cole looks back on now with no regrets. “I had a great time playing for Lille,” he told FourFourTwo last year. “I was really happy I did that. I went with my gut feeling and thoroughly enjoyed it all.”
 

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