"The minute I got the captaincy at LA Galaxy, I turned into a different person," he tells ESPN in an exclusive interview. "I've never fallen out of love with the game. I've always loved and watched football. I thought I wanted to stay in football once I retired, but going to LA and them giving me the belief that I could be a captain and then giving me specific roles with individuals or team units, I felt I could do it."
The Galaxy had just beaten the Vancouver Whitecaps in their final preseason game ahead of the 2018 campaign when Cole was given the armband. By that stage of his career, his legendary status within the game was already assured, having amassed 107 England caps and 13 major honours including one Champions League, one Europa League, three Premier Leagues and seven FA Cups.
Cole was widely recognised for a time as the best left-back in the world, but off-field controversies and the fallout from an acrimonious move to Chelsea from Arsenal in 2006 often denied him the adulation his ability deserved. He became more reclusive in the face of sustained media scrutiny and was, therefore, not the most obvious candidate to remain in football upon retirement, let alone work in Chelsea's academy.
After all, Cole's most famous interaction with any youngster at Cobham came when he accidentally shot a work experience student with a .22 calibre air rifle he brought to the training ground in February 2011. However, as if to underline some of the public misconceptions, Cole had in fact been considering returning to Chelsea long before friend and former teammate Frank Lampard returned to take over as head coach last summer.
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The pair spent the previous campaign together at Derby County, where Cole had his final year as a player, and it appeared as though Lampard's homecoming was a factor in his own decision to move back to Stamford Bridge last October. But Cole revealed: "It was always on the cards. I spoke to [Chelsea's head of youth development] Neil Bath maybe three years ago when I was in L.A., and he asked me what I wanted to do. I mentioned to him maybe about scouting. He gave me options, saying I could come back and do six months as a coach, six months scouting if I wanted.
"Being in L.A., I was doing a lot of work behind the scenes as captain, whether it was coaching, the video analysis with the individual players or the units. As soon as I knew I was retiring and it came right to the end of my career at Derby, I knew this was what I wanted to do. I spoke to Neil again and he told me I was welcome whenever. I started the process with my badges during that time. It was an easy transition really.
"For me, Neil has been incredible with me. He doesn't just throw you into the busywork, the paperwork and all that. Frank being around is great, but I was coming back regardless."
Lampard's presence undoubtedly makes Cole's job easier. Cole returned to work initially with the Under-15s group alongside more experienced coaches including Frank O'Brien, and has since spent time helping the U16s, taking sessions and prematch team talks on occasion. Chelsea have habitually used their academy setup in a different way to most other clubs, developing talent they then sell on for a profit rather than nurture into the first-team, due to both the profitability of that model and the capricious environment created by high managerial turnover.
The club's FIFA transfer ban -- relating to alleged rule breaches in signing foreign minor players -- forced Lampard's hand to some extent, but Chelsea youngsters Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham featured on a much more regular basis than was strictly necessary, while Fikayo Tomori, Reece James and Billy Gilmour have taken notable strides forward.
"As coaches now, we are telling them 'Look, you are two years away," said Cole, speaking at the Hotels.com Dream Screen drive-in cinema experience. "That path is not as long as it was, even for some of the people like Ruben [Loftus-Cheek] and Callum [Hudson-Odoi]. They were involved in first-team environments but they never got the game time. Since Frank has been here, and with the transfer ban, it has given the kids a little bit of a push and ignited a few of them. Now, they start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Who knows what would have happened if Chelsea hadn't had a ban? But there's a lot of pressure being a manager of Chelsea. The owner [Roman Abramovich] wants to win. He felt that winning feeling and he wants to do it again, so any manager who goes in is under pressure. So the transfer ban helped the young kids. For that six months, a lot of them progressed. It was difficult for young kids when I was a player."
Cole's eight years at Chelsea as a player between 2006-2014 began and ended under Jose Mourinho's management with eight permanent or temporary appointments in between.
"I go back to Carlo Ancelotti when he was manager [from June 2009 to May 2011," said Cole. "He used to take a few senior players over to watch the kids train. We used to talk about the young players come through. It is easy to go over there and watch them but when your job is on the line, it is difficult. Unless you are ready at 17, 18, 19, then for sure the managers would have given them a chance.
"We used to have Nathan Ake [who just joined Man City from Bournemouth for 41 million] train with us, who has done well in the end at another club. But this is what happens at big clubs. Most big clubs have that. You have to have something special to make it, especially at Chelsea."
The latest crop have had a reminder of that this summer as the Blues seek to capitalise on a successful first season under Lampard, taking with an aggressive approach in the transfer market. Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Kai Havertz could soon join winger Hakim Ziyech and striker Timo Werner at the club if talks continue to progress between the Blues and Bayer Leverkusen, in a deal likely to be worth in excess of 75m. Cole believes these signings will help resolve a key issue Lampard has often publicly identified: re-establishing the ruthless, winning mentality that underpinned the apotheosis of the Abramovich era.
"It is a different generation now," he explains. "We were happy to sit at a dinner table and just talk for hours before or after training. Some players, they are a little bit more delicate, they are shy, timid. It is difficult to get that winning mentality in this day and age without having top, top stars with experience. That's what I feel. Frank seems to be getting it. The younger players and playing week in, week out, they are becoming more important to the club.
"But although the new players that have come in are young, they've got experience of playing Champions League, they were stars of their team. They can give that leadership off the pitch and on it as well because we had a lot of leaders when I was a player here.
"They led by example not just by talking, but with their feet, which I feel is more important. People can talk. It is easy to talk. But when you are backing it up with quality performances, that's what makes the difference."
And what next for Cole? There is a clear sense in conversation with the 39-year-old that he is feeling out the next steps, approaching them with humility far removed from public perception of him as brash. Perhaps too many people have spoken about him or on his behalf.
"For sure, I want to go into management but I'm not just going to dive in," he said. "Like as a player, I went through stages of learning and I feel I have to do that as a coach. But again, that's just me. Tactically, I know what I'm talking about it. I think I know how to get the best out of players. I think I know what young kids need and now I've just got to find a way to get out there, watch different coaches talking to first-team players. If a coach was talking to me, it was easy. I'd just stand there and listen. But I get it, times have changed. Not just the kids, but the stars, they are different now. You have to get your message across in different ways to keep them focused.
"Everyone has a different pathway. I could have retired and if someone had given me a job as a manager, I wouldn't have known what to do. That's me being honest. I felt I had to go that route, understanding how you address teams, players and going through that process of learning from other coaches. When I feel I'm ready, I'll say it, no one else."
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