PEOPLE always say nice things about someone who’s just died, don’t they? What a great player they were. What a lovely person. What a good laugh.
The name ‘Mitchell Cole’ has figured in almost every conversation I’ve had this week, whether with football folk, supporters or fellow parents at our local nursery who met him on the school run.
Actually, I should be more accurate. It’s the name ‘Mitch’ that has featured, because that’s what the flying left-winger was universally known as. And I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. Not this week. Not ever.
When the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, first diagnosed as a teenager at West Ham, claimed his life as he stood casually knocking a ball around ahead of a game with his mates last Friday, he had been on this earth for 27 years.
Forced to retire from the professional game in February 2011 aged 25, you think you’d struggle to argue the case that he was a great player.
Wrong. As Mark Stimson, who signed him for Grays and Stevenage, told me last Saturday morning as the news broke: “People think Non-League players can’t be great, but Mitchell was.”
His next Boro boss, Graham Westley, describes him as “an extraordinary talent who could win you a game single-handedly with creativity, pace, power and goals – incredible to think how good he was even though he must have been playing at a percentage of himself knowing of his health issue”.
As lower league players go, Cole has to go down as a great. Just look at his record.
From leaving Upton Park in 2004, he won club silverware in all bar one of the six full seasons he played before a reassessment of his condition by a cardiologist brought about what his then-Oxford United manager Chris Wilder calls the “devastating decision” to retire.
And that’s for both manager, club and player. He may have played only six times for United in 2010-11, but Wilder and those in his squad close to Cole struggled to play at Accrington last Saturday, such was the impression the likeable Londoner had made at the Kassam.
You only have to listen to Wilder’s voice in his post-match BBC interview to see what the aspiring agent meant to him. “He’s sat in my office and we’ve chatted more than ever since he left the club, with him coming to watch players in our youth games,” he told me.
Cole arrived in Non-League with Grays in 2004-05, aged 18, and won the Conference South title and FA Trophy before being sold to Southend for £75,000. Arsenal were watching him, but he preferred to “go somewhere and play rather than sit in the reserves”.
At Roots Hall, he made 32 appearances in a League One title-winning campaign. He moved to Stevenage in January 2007 and won the Trophy again that year, scoring in the first competitive game at the new Wembley to drag Boro back into the game with Kidderminster.
Craig Dobson got the TV vote as man-of-the-match that day, but I gave Mitch The NLP’s star man for turning the game after Stimson’s side trailed 2-0 at half-time. He was electric down the left wing.
The following year was a blank, Stimson’s departure to Gillingham with four players midway through derailing table-topping Boro’s progress.
Stimson recalls how, when the rumours of his exit first started to gather pace, the first player to knock on his door was his protégé. “He asked me if there was any truth in it because he was in the process of buying a house in Stotfold, but could easily pull out and look around Kent,” smiles the current Thurrock boss.
Such a talent was tied to a rare three-year deal though, and Boro dropped out of the play-offs in the final week of the season. Even then he lifted the Four Nations Tournament silverware with England C and was picked by manager Paul Fairclough as player of the year in our NLP National Game Awards.
His seven goals in seven matches that year, out of a total of 12 caps, make him the Non-League national side’s second-highest scorer of all-time.
In 2008-09, he scored 14 goals as Stevenage – managed by Westley – made the Blue Square Bet Premier play-offs. Cole also completed his hat-trick of Trophy wins, though he missed out on Wembley after getting the only red card of his career in the final league game.
“I remember thinking quietly to myself as we left Mansfield, ‘That’s us done – we haven’t got enough in the team to get up through the play-offs without Mitch’,” says Westley.
The next season, his last full one as a pro, Cole played 41 times as Boro won the Conference and reached the Trophy final again. He had played in every round leading up to Wembley, but missed out on the defeat to Barrow.
He was proud of the fact he’d never lost a Trophy tie – that is until last season when, unable to resist the football bug, he started playing part-time.
I remember him standing in my kitchen wearing his new Hitchin Town tracksuit, collecting a birthday cake my wife had made for his daughter Rhys en route to an evening game in the early part of 2011-12.
He’d played a couple of times for Stotfold, and the doctor had told him running around a pitch for 90 minutes to “stop me getting fat” was OK, if he played at 80 per cent of what he was used to.
He did so for six months, losing his Trophy record when he went on as a 72nd-minute substitute as Hitchin lost to Lowestoft on November 5, 2011.
He soon moved on to Biggleswade and Arlesey Town, in whose clubhouse he watched Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffer cardiac arrest in a Premier League game against Tottenham last March. It made him “knock it on the head” for good, because by now – unlike when he was single at Upton Park – he had wife Charly, seven-year-old Rhys and son Georgie, five, to think about.
One of the last times I saw him to speak to was in Tesco. Normally we’d laugh at each other for the shopping lists our wives had scribbled us, but this time I ribbed him about the amount of time he’d spent on TV talking about Muamba.
He replied: “It’s got even better. I’m being flown over to America tomorrow!”
And he was, to speak at a HCMA convention in June as an extension of the charity work he’d started to do at home with the Cardiomyopathy Association.
Mitch still couldn’t resist a run-out for Basildon United earlier this season, and he was about to have his “usual kickabout with the lads” – as he tweeted last Friday – when he collapsed.
I saw Charly on Thursday; took her a disc with over 100 pictures we’d had in The NLP of Mitch, and scans of so many front and back pages, big interviews and match reports he’d lit up.
This remarkably strong lady was on her way to drop her little girl’s gym kit off at school, 24 hours before going into hospital to have their third baby. Daughter Leni Boo arrived healthily on Friday, a week after her daddy died, weighing 7lb 2oz.
We talked about the benefit game Stevenage chairman Phil Wallace is putting on in May, with Westley, Stimson and Wilder all managing. Charly’s brother, Liverpool star Joe Cole, wants to play and is going to make sure big names are there.
I loved the banter we had whenever I saw Mitch around Baldock and Stevenage, but could never do justice to the impact he had on those close to him both at work and play, as ex-team-mates and relatives have this week.
You only have to look on the internet to read the thousands of words and view the pictures and videos to see what a great, fun-loving lad he was – even though he loved a moan!
When a player is no longer with a club, they are often forgotten.
Not Mitch, as the tributes from all of his old teams – with their Spandau Ballet Gold ‘Mitchell Cole’ songs, minutes’ applause, armbands and flowers – have proved.
They say only the good die young. In Mitch, a true lower league great is resting in peace, hopefully with a pair of white Nike boots and a ball at his feet after a Gold-en 27 years.