When Joe Cole was first breaking out at West Ham United, there was no questioning which club ruled London.
Arsene Wenger had turned Arsenal back into a powerhouse. Chelsea finished 15 points behind their double-winning side of 1997-98, the first of eight successive years that the Gunners finished in the top two. West Ham were further back. Tottenham even further.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Arsenal football club,” says Cole, who was speaking on behalf of BT Sport. “I’m a lad from Kentish Town, which is right bang in Arsenal territory. I know all about the great Arsenal teams.”
It was during that period that a teenage Cole was establishing a reputation as the most talented kid in the capital, if not the country. He shone as West Ham’s Under-18s won the 1999 FA Youth Cup, famously thrashing Coventry City 9-0 over two legs in the final.
Such was his ability, there was a sense of inevitability that Cole would regularly play for England and win multiple league titles. The only question was where.
It was always unlikely his boyhood Hammers could ever take him to such heights. Around the turn of the century, it was difficult to imagine any club besides Manchester United or Arsenal winning the league. Liverpool, maybe. Pre-implosion Leeds, at a push.
As a boy, Cole had already turned down Sir Alex Ferguson after going up to Manchester on trial. Wenger built his great sides by looking to the continent rather than poaching English talent from domestic rivals.
Come the summer of 2003, when the time came for Cole to move to a club that matched his ambitions of lifting silverware, United were in the process of signing a young Cristiano Ronaldo. Arsenal’s squad was already stacked with quality wingers and attacking midfielders.
But a new challenger had emerged. A nascent Chelsea had just pipped Liverpool to Champions League qualification and the investment from new owner Roman Abramovich would change the game forever.
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“Without Gianfranco (Zola), I need a player who can dribble – and I think Joe Cole is that kind of player,” said Claudio Ranieri.
“He can play in any midfield position from the left to the right, or behind the front two. He’s fantastic one-on-one. He’s very clever and passes the ball very well. I like him when a match is close.
“He can dribble, pass and score a goal. He’s strong and an Englishman. When I arrived, I said I’d like a blend of young English players and experienced players. Slowly, slowly, that is possible.”
Cole was Chelsea’s fifth signing of that first Abramovich summer, following Glen Johnson, Geremi, Wayne Bridge and Damien Duff. Juan Sebastian Veron arrived for a £15million fee on the same day. Adrian Mutu, Alexey Smertin, Hernan Crespo and Claude Makelele would follow before the end of the window.
Ranieri got what he wanted. All of a sudden, Chelsea were contenders. They had hungry English youth and proven players from overseas.
The Italian led the newly-minted Blues to second during Cole’s debut season. They finished above Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, and enjoyed their highest league placing in almost half a century.
All the while, Arsenal enjoyed their greatest-ever season. Invincible. Their 11-point lead at the top can be accounted for by doing a league double over Ranieri’s runners-up, winning 2-1 home and away.
Cole had never tasted victory against Arsenal with West Ham and the wait went on. But not for much longer. Not even until the end of that season. Fate conspired to see the Premier League’s top two meet in the Champions League quarter-final.
“We had a great rivalry with them,” says Cole.
“That Champions League quarter-final, that was a real turning point in Chelsea’s history and in Arsenal’s history. They had a wonderful team, and we had a young and hungry team that went on to eventually do some fantastic things.
“We knew that they were the better side at that point. We had to find a way to win, and we did, and it really gave us confidence. A London derby will always be a rivalry between the fans, but I think that was a real changing of the guard.”
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Chelsea went trophyless in 2003-04, but taking the scalp of that season’s historic champions by knocking them out of Europe evidently had huge symbolic importance. It showed they could better the best side in the country.
“When I played centrally, playing against Patrick Vieira was so tough. He was an unbelievable athlete. An unbelievable player,” recalls Cole.
“When I played on the right, it was against Ashley [Cole], who obviously later came to us. Knowing him from youth football, it added extra competitiveness.
“Such good players. That Arsenal team are up there with any team I’ve seen in the Premier League. They were similar to us where you had to be able to mix it; they were giants. They were huge. They had the talent, too – Pires, Bergkamp, Henry.
“They were an incredible team, but so we were.”
Chelsea went into the Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal having not beaten them in 17 meetings, a run that stretched back to 1998. The 3-2 aggregate victory in Europe was the start of a nine-match unbeaten run against Wenger’s side.
After their Invincible peak, Arsenal finished behind Chelsea for seven seasons running. The Gunners had enjoyed a near-decade of London bragging rights, but had been knocked off their perch. Emphatically.
“I used to love these games,” says Cole.
“You can’t be a footballer, and a lad from London, and not love these games.
“I remember scoring at Highbury [a 2-0 win in December 2005], a really big game in the league. I got drug tested after the match, and I thought I was the bee’s knees, and everyone would wait for me. But by the time I got back to the dressing room, they’d all left on the coach.
“I had to go outside Highbury and get a cab by myself, which brought me back down to earth. Hanging around outside Highbury trying to hail a cab was dangerous territory after scoring the winner against them.”
— Premier League (@premierleague) December 18, 2020
That strike capped off Chelsea’s first league win at Highbury since 1990. It wasn’t even Christmas, but the three points put them in pole position to retain their Premier League crown.
All the while, Wenger and Jose Mourinho’s verbal jousting added extra spice to the rivalry.
“It seems like the rivalry was more intense 20 years ago,” says Cole.
“All the players follow each other on social media, they’re all friends, which is wonderful. But back then, you didn’t see these players until you were looking at them eyeball-to-eyeball. The world was different, the football was different. It was a lot more intense, a lot more physical.”
Watch Chelsea v Arsenal in the Premier League exclusively live on BT Sport 1 from 11.30am on Sunday 6th November. For more info, visit btsport.com.