By Jason McKeown
To lower league supporters, opposition players are a much of muchness. They are the filler material, or the extras, to the main subplot of cheering on your own team. I think it’s fair to say that we only ever notice them as individuals in three circumstances. 1) They have a distinct/terrible haircut, 2) They are a dirty player, or 3) They play out of their skin and have a significant impact on the pattern of the match.
Devante Cole was one such opposition player to attract interest for circumstance number three. Barnsley away in October 2014, and the home side’s come-from-behind, 3-1 victory was evidently inspired by a terrific performance from the on-loan Devante Cole. He terrorised the Bradford City backline that included the formidable presence of Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle. And the young striker’s display was like night and day to the struggling Aaron Mclean at the other end of the field; unimpressive as ever, on what would prove to be his penultimate outing for the Bantams.
“Who is that number 44?” I remember asking from the Oakwell away end that day, and in my match report I wrote, “Up front, on-loan Man City striker Devante Cole – son of ex-Man United forward Andy – was outstanding for the home team.”
And so when word reached my ear, back in August 2015, that City were on the verge of snapping up Cole from Manchester City, I instantly thought back to that afternoon in South Yorkshire and was excited. It’s easy to follow the media narrative of focusing on the fact Devante has a famous dad. But the fact was he had looked a good player in his own right, and was exactly the kind of striker we needed. It looked a great piece of business, and the early weeks of Cole’s Valley Parade career only reinforced that view.
But that, as we were to quickly learn, was only half of the Devante Cole story. And when I had rubbed my hands in glee at the prospect of his imminent arrival, I had airbrushed from my mind the fact that the October 2014 afternoon at Oakwell was not the last time I had seen Cole play.
Five months later (February 2015), Cole had played at Valley Parade – for the MK Dons. Having just fallen 2-1 behind due to James Hanson’s well-taken, so what? goal. MK Dons boss Karl Robinson turned to his bench and summoned on-loan Devante Cole. I remember hearing his name read out on the tannoy and feeling a heavy sense of fear and dread. Yet in those final 17 minutes of the game, Cole barely had a kick and City held on.
And this is the hot-and-cold pattern of Cole. He signed on loan for Barnsley in August 2014 and netted in his second game. By November he had scored a respectable six goals in 16 appearances, but after that he faded with just one further goal in seven matches. Cole returned to Man City and then headed to the MK Dons for the rest of the season. He netted twice on his full debut, but then only once more in 12 games. In fairness, he was up against Dean Bowditch and Will Grigg in the battle to start up front, but his role in the MK Dons’ promotion was a small one.
Nevertheless, the potential of Cole is vast. It was a coup for Parkinson to have signed him during the summer, given the interest shown in him by West Ham and Birmingham. Cole was a free transfer, but has a sell on clause – rumoured to be around 55% – that means any future transfer fee City receive will be shared with the Premier League giants. Man City are supposed to be the richest club in the world, but still insisted on making sure they receive some reward for any future transfer fee that Cole attracts. That’s how much they rated him.
Just like at Barnsley, Cole made a blistering start to life in West Yorkshire. His debut goal against Port Vale lifting some fairly heavy gloom that engulfed City at the time, following a dreadful start to the season. At Oldham a week later was a stunning finish that attracted comparisons with Wells. In his ninth appearance, away to Doncaster, Cole netted his fifth goal for the club. It was some start. Here was a natural goalscorer City had been badly lacking since Wells shacked up with the neighbours.
Cole’s excellent goal at Oldham aside, his goals have all been scrambled efforts. In the right place at the right time to stab the ball home. A true fox in the box. If City’s failed play off attempt of 2014/15 was largely blamed on the lack of an out and out goalscorer, it appeared the solution had been found.
Only since that goal against Doncaster, Cole has followed the path he trod at Barnsley and the MK Dons. The goals have dried up, and eventually he has lost his place in the team. He has largely sat on the bench, whilst James Hanson and Billy Clarke lead the attack. From five goals in nine appearances to one in 12. Hot and cold. Now he’s at risk of been frozen out.
Those close to Cole state that he is deeply unhappy about this situation. That has to be a good thing, because what other reaction would we want from him? But it’s how he moves on from this major set back that will define his career. For all the promise and all the potential he has shown so far, this is the point where he really has to prove himself.
Even when Cole was hot in front of goal, there were some concerns about his all round performances. Concerns that would have kept Parkinson busy on the training ground. The problem the manager has faced since Wells departed two years ago is not simply replacing the Bermudian’s goals, but finding the right partner for Hanson; or failing that, the right partnership from two other players. Hanson has not gelled with any other forward, and it has been the same story with Cole. In theory it should work as well given the style of play of both Wells and Cole, but it hasn’t happened. Too often Hanson and Cole as a pair have looked like strangers. Hanson can share the blame with Cole for that, but for now he has remained too valuable to be sacrificed for Cole’s benefit.
It is arguably no coincidence that Cole has struggled since the injury Steve Davies, picked up in the home game against Bury, in October. Davies had won the shirt from Hanson at the end of September and impressed. Cole evidently preferred to play with him, and the team was benefiting. But it was only two and a half full league games that this partnership existed for. And Davies himself had yet to net a goal in claret and amber. And Billy Clarke was still injured at that time. So Cole can hardly wait around for Davies to get fit again, as there are no guarantees Parkinson will go back to Davies and Cole as his front pairing.
Initially when Cole’s goal drought began, he was starting to offer more in the final third. He wasn’t just someone who would sniff out a half chance, he was getting involved in the build up play. Against Bury – the night where Davies got his bad injury – Cole did not score but played well. Parkinson’s attempts to get him to working harder were beginning to bear fruit. Cole looked increasingly a team player.
Ultimately I think this is what Cole has to deliver if he is to win the first team jersey on a permanent basis. If all he is going to offer is a threat in the box, he will find that he is only used from the bench when City are desperate for a goal. It’s not how City have ever operated under Parkinson to have a striker offering nothing outside the box. Nahki Wells had to learn that, and Cole will need to as well.
Historically that has been true at Valley Parade in particular. In the 1998/99 season Paul Jewell had signed Isaiah Rankin from Arsenal – a player comparable to Cole in style of play and age – and he scored a few goals early doors but lost his place to Robbie Blake. The latter could score just as many goals but involved himself in the build up play to deadly effect.
More recently there was the case of Michael Boulding. In 2007/08 Boulding netted 25 goals for Mansfield Town and it was a real coup for Stuart McCall to sign him for Bradford City that summer. But Boulding struggled at Valley Parade, because he was asked to play a different role to the one he evidently had at Mansfield. He needed to offer more than just play on the shoulder of the last man – especially as visiting teams to Valley Parade that season invariably sat deep to deny him the space – and his overall game was lacking. And as tempting as it might have been to build the team around him, like Mansfield had done the year before, the fact was Boulding’s 25 goals were not enough to keep the Stags in the Football League.
Cole has lot of talent, there is no doubt about it. Pace always scares defenders, and he offers lighting speed. He can find room in the box that other, less natural goalscorers, never seem to sniff out. He is an excellent striker of the ball and he could net 20-30 goals over a season.
But to do that he needs to improve his overall game. He needs to work harder on and off the ball. He needs to understand that it’s not all about him. He needs to drop the superstar attitude he seems to have carried with him from the Etihad. I like my strikers to be arrogant and selfish, but his team mates are not beneath him, and all have just a big a role as he does.
WOAP understands that Cole and Parkinson do not get on great, and that the player is keen to move away this January. Cole needs to get his head down, learn from his manager and be patient. Do the things that are asked of him, and he will shine and go a long way in this game. Ignore the instructions or engineer a move away, and he might still do okay for a spell elsewhere but is destined to follow the same path of blowing hot and cold.
Cole is not even 21 until May. His potential should be frighting. His ability in the box is unquestionable. Now it’s time for Devante Cole to move from promising footballer to footballer. To truly learn about the game at this level, so that he can dominate it and then go higher and higher.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus