There used to be a joke around Tampa Bay that St Petersburg was where old people went to die. ‘God’s waiting room,’ they called the city.
But for Joe Cole, now a football veteran, joining Tampa Bay Rowdies has given him his life — and playing career — back again.
In an interview at his plush apartment in downtown St Pete — as the locals call it — Cole reveals how he almost retired from playing in 2015 when his body failed him, explains why he has become Tampa Bay’s resident expert on Brexit and what former club Chelsea will miss most when his friend John Terry leaves in the summer.
Joe Cole joined the North American Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies in May 2016
Yet while he talks enthusiastically about the game, an aspect he most relishes about moving away from England is that he can walk down the street and not get asked about football.
Rowdies employees say the thing they like about Cole is that although he is a big star, he is known as ‘Joe who gets coffee every morning’, at the local coffee shop on 2nd Avenue, and ‘Joe who watches the game at the bar’ — favouring The Moon Under Water, a British pub beneath his apartment building.
It is here that he spends time watching more Premier League football than he ever did back in England, sitting under the Scotland and St George’s flags hanging from the ceiling and the Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool scarves around the bar, a small part of home, 4,500 miles away.
Cole celebrates with Rowdies’ Neil Collins, who also played in England with Sunderland
‘I’ll have more conversations with people because it’s not all about football,’ he says. ‘For some reason I’ve become the expert on Brexit for the whole of Beach Drive. They hear my accent and ask me what’s happening. I say, “It might affect coffee prices”.’
Cole walks the half-mile from his apartment to training and home games at the Al Lang Stadium, where they play on a patchwork pitch, palm trees in one corner and yachts on view from another.
He cannot completely escape home. As we stroll to the recent home game against Charleston, two Americans call his name, shout ‘Irons’ and make West Ham’s trademark X with their forearms (which Cole returns), but largely he is left alone.
Cole admits he considered retirement at Aston Villa ‘because my body was letting me down’
‘I walk down the road every day, I’ll say “Hello” to the guys in the coffee shop. They’ll ask how we got on at the weekend — that’s it. Then it’ll be like, “Lovely day”, or “What’s going on with Theresa May and the election?” — that’ll be the new one now.’
Cole, now 35, returned to England last Christmas and found the attention difficult. ‘It was really getting to me because I’d not had it for seven months. I realise the anonymity I get here is precious.’
Yet none of this would be an issue if Cole had retired at Aston Villa. ‘I was considering packing it in, because my body was letting me down,’ he admits.
Cole celebrates winning the Premier League with his wife Carly and daughter Ruby Tatiana
‘At Villa a doctor said I needed surgery on my hip but I couldn’t afford the time. I was training on one leg for six months. I should’ve just got it sorted. It didn’t work and I was disenchanted.
‘I went all around the world looking for people: Belgium, Germany, America, all the best people and no one could sort me out. Ever since I did my knee at Chelsea (in 2009) it was an uphill struggle.
‘I tried all the weirdest, wackiest treatments: chiropractors, osteopaths, reflexologists, acupuncturists, physios, kinetic energy people, I’ve had nutters putting magnets on me. I stopped short of seeing a faith healer. I went to see a guy in London and it was last-chance saloon.’
Joe Cole scored during a match against Charleston Battery for the Tampa Bay Rowdies
Marsh during his spell at the North American Soccer League club – from 1984-1986
Marsh competes for the ball against Pele – the Brazilian was playing for the New York Cosmos
Cole was taught to listen to his body and to stop putting pressure on it. He adds: ‘Then I moved to Coventry and played without injury and I got my love back for the game, then Tampa Bay came along. I’m just as proud of anything I achieve now as what I achieved in my prime. I wish I found this way (of managing my body) six years ago, just after I did my knee. I’m convinced I’d still be playing in the Premier League.’
Unlike Cole, his former England and Chelsea team-mate Terry largely avoided injury and only now, at 36, has he decided to leave Stamford Bridge. Cole used to go out drinking in Essex with Terry and Michael Carrick when they were younger players.
Cole was in the massage room at Chelsea’s training ground with Terry when the defender received the call from Steve McClaren in 2006 to say he was being made England captain.
Cole during his spell in Ligue 1 with Lille, who he joined on loan from Liverpool in 2011
‘When I signed for Chelsea, he was the first person to see me as I walked through the door,’ Cole says. ‘Although he’s only a few months older, he put his arm around me and it was like, “I’ll look after you” like the new kid at school, like an older brother.
‘Chelsea will miss that. They are a well-run club but forget everything he does on the pitch, it’s the unseen things as a captain. I remember I was having a bit of a rough time there. He recognised it and got one of the video analysts to make a compilation of all my best bits. It was a little touch but it really lifted me.
‘For him to even notice that… in football you’re so focused on yourself and your own game, to have an eye on everyone else in the club is remarkable. You can’t quantify that. He was a younger man then, as well, and to have that empathy — that’s one of a million things the club will miss.
Cole came through West Ham’s youth system before leaving the club for Chelsea in 2003
‘They’ll have to spend a lot of money to replace him. He’d love it out here. He’d be perfect for any club out here. Anyone would take him.’
The Florida way of life might be more relaxed for Cole but the sporting demands are still intense. When we meet for this interview, he has just been away for six days playing games in Louisville and Cincinnati.
His one-year-old son Max is already in bed, but Ruby, seven, and Harry, four, have waited up to see dad. As the discussion continues, they both climb on a knee and Ruby calls him the best daddy ever. ‘Why you being nice to me? You’re never nice to me!’ Cole jokes, and they dissolve into giggles.
Cole says his time as a Coventry player in League One ‘got his love back for the game’
‘It’s nice to be playing football and still wanted — that’s what I do it for,’ Cole says, the words muffled by his children’s cheeks squashing his face. ‘I’d love still to be playing in the Premier League but my body unfortunately slowed down a lot quicker than other people’s.
‘I started young, similar to Wayne Rooney, I blew out my knee at 28. I’d love still to be playing for England. I watched the Champions League games the other week and felt that buzz.’
Here, Cole is part of something bigger than just football: he is a key player in a shift of sporting culture. Football once flourished in the area, when Rodney Marsh arrived in 1976 with his long golden locks — complementing the club’s gold and green colours — and they won the North American Soccer League in his first season.
The original Rowdies averaged 30,000 attendances at their peak and Marsh became one of the Bay’s most loved athletes. They folded in 1994, but the Rowdies returned in 2008 and real estate billionaire Bill Edwards became majority owner in 2013. Cole is Edwards’s Marsh.
Cole’s spell at Liverpool saw the midfielder struggle with a series of injury problems
‘There were a couple of times when I needed to get home for a family emergency and Bill let me use his jet,’ Cole says. ‘Imagine how much that costs him. My grandad was a big QPR fan so he grew up telling me stories about Rodney Marsh. He wanted me to play like him. Tampa Bay Rowdies were always in my mind.’
Now, they are challenging towards the top of the United Soccer League’s Eastern Conference and a bid to join the MLS has been lodged at the league’s New York HQ. The recognition Cole brings is a major part of that.
At the club, he is helping coach younger players and has input into decisions with manager Stuart Campbell. Cole wants a crack at management after he retires, although he has not decided when that will be. He has helped coach England Under 18s and is completing his A licence. The ultimate aim will be to manage the national team he is passionate about, having been part of the under—achieving ‘golden generation’.
‘John Stones, Ross Barkley, Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Eric Dier — they’re better than us, better players, a better group, they just need a bit of time and belief and they can do it.
‘Ross Barkley or Dele Alli could win you the next World Cup, but they’ve got to be allowed to make mistakes.
‘The “golden generation” came from the fact we were all so young doing so much in the Premier League. Most of these guys have taken slightly longer to get in the teams but they’ll be more seasoned than us come tournament time.’
‘God’s waiting room’ has brought Joe Cole back to life.
Cole describes Ross Barkley (pictured), Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Eric Dier as ‘better than us’