4 September 2011

The Deathly Dance of Joseph John Cole

The hour was late when the window slammed shut. After flurry of late activity, followed by the slow trickle of further mundane revelations, the GULag acclimatised itself to the fact that the 2011 summer transfer period was over. Chancy penny-pinchers Everton managed to avoid spending any money for what seems like the eighth year in a row; Newcastle would not sign the striker they so dearly needed; Kenny Dalglish managed to offload a pesky foreigner. Perhaps these movements were predictable, but some onlookers expressed surprise, dear reader, that Joe Cole had left these shores to ply his trade with French champions Lille. Well, surprise to some, perhaps, but not, I must insist, to Nineteenth Century symbolist painter Felicien Rops – the fantastically moustached Belgian whose uncanny prescience on this matter should arouse suspicions of spiritualism and dabbling with the occult.

In his work, Death at the Ball, Rops presents the image of death as a grim skeleton, posturing seductively in a ball gown. I would challenge anyone to look upon this image and not be immediately put in mind of Joe Cole. Cole, a product of West Ham’s famous youth academy (sic), was vaunted as being one the most naturally gifted footballers ever produced in England. He was, according to those who we would give the appellation ‘experts’, destined for big things. From West Ham he went on to play for Chelsea and Liverpool before his move to Lille, as well as making over fifty appearances for the national team. Indeed the qualities that marked Cole out as being special are not lost on Rops. Consider the elegant woman’s foot which coquettishly protrudes from the hem of the gown in the aforementioned painting – Joe always was dainty on his feet. Yet his gentle grace on the pitch has always counted against him somewhat, as if he was not quite muscular enough to play in the English game. Cole, like the skeleton figure of Death, is lacking meat on his bones.

Portrait of a midfielder?

It is because of this perception of his weakness that Cole's career has not been flush with success. He has often been sidelined at clubs and rarely played in his favoured position. In the painting this is suggested by the ominous darkness that surrounds the dancing spectre.[1] Indeed the general juxtaposition between vitality and morbidity seen in the form of Death is reminiscent of the tension between Cole’s undoubted talent and his often underwhelming impact. Rops confronts us with the image of a skeleton dancing long after the dancing should have stopped, with the death of the body. Has Cole continued to dance when he should have stopped long ago? Is there not something undead about his career? And has it taken our long deceased painter-seer to draw our attention to this?

In the darkness behind Death we can just about see a figure lurking, almost entirely consumed within the black. Who is this figure? One cannot help but jump to the obvious conclusion: Harry Redknapp in mischievous disguise. But what is his intention? Either way, it is clear that Cole’s future rests here, in the shadows, subsumed in uncertainty. In this work, Rops provides us with a tension between death and sexuality that perfectly captures Cole’s enigmatic position. As much as a sense of disappointment will always be attached to Cole and his faltering career, he retains the vague air of the sexy continental passer-playmaker that he had the potential to be. Rops was correct: Cole may be little more than a shade, but he is certainly a seductive one.

[1] In reference to the colour pallet used, note also that the ball gown is made up of  Lille’s colours. Did Rops know? We must conclude that he did.


  1. I can imagine Joe Cole seeing this piece and just standing and staring, his eyes welling with tears due to self-recognition, while an instrumental version of "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want" plays softly in the background...

  2. We could all do worse than weep with Joe, for Joe.