You were still only very young when you got your first England call-up...
I was 18. It was for the Germany game in October 2000 – the last one at the old Wembley and Kevin Keegan’s final game as manager. I was only in the squad though. I didn’t play.
It all happened so quickly though. I was at school one minute, then I was out of school and straight into the West Ham team, and then into an England squad. It was just crazy!
I can still remember the day my mum and dad dropped me off for that first call up, because I wasn’t even driving then. Scholesy and Phil Neville were there. Straight away I was like, wow! I’m here! For me, although it was a disappointing game in the end and no one likes to see England lose, I just remember the build up to it. It really was happy days for me. It was just so exciting to be there.
Your actual debut came in the 4-0 win over Mexico at Pride Park in May 2001. What do you remember about that occasion?
I remember thinking to myself before, "as soon as I get on that pitch I’ll always be Joe Cole of whatever club AND ENGLAND". To have England next to your name was just a dream come true. I’ve managed to play many games for England since then but at the time I was just buzzing to be out there, knowing that nobody could take away the fact that I’d become an England player.
You had to wait another year for your first England start though didn't you?
Yes, that came at a warm-up game against Cameroon before World Cup 2002 in Kobe, Japan. I remember it being 120 degrees – not the best kind of weather when you’re playing a team like Cameroon. They were loving it! I played centre midfield I really wanted to impress ahead of the World Cup and I came on in our first game – for ten minutes against Sweden. But after that it didn’t really happen for me.
Tell us about your first England goal...
The first one was a winner in a friendly against Serbia & Montenegro in 2003. And they were a decent side too. It was a free kick from about 30 yards – which isn’t what I’m known for. But it was a cracking goal and one I’ll always remember. I was buzzing after that.
"To have England next to your name was just a dream come true. I’ve managed to play many games for England since but at the time I was just buzzing to be out there."
It was over a year until your next start, which came against Denmark at Old Trafford in November 2003. But you made your point to Sven Goran Eriksson by scoring again...
I love Sven, I think he’s a top man. But it was hard with him. I found it very tough to convince him. But you know yourself when you’re playing well. I like international football. I think it suits me. But I was only 21, 22. And we had the like of Paul Scholes, and David Beckham at the peaks of their careers, Steven Gerrard coming through. So there was only one other place. Often that went to Kieron Dyer, Alan Thompson or Steve McManaman. There were loads of players tried there.
Your were part of Eriksson's squad for Euro 2004 but were an unused sub for all of England's four games. That must have been a very frustrating time...
I remember thinking to myself after that, “I never want to go away with England and not play.” It really hurt me. But those kind of things are also very motivational. They make you push that bit harder.
Despite your constant involvement with the England squad, amazingly it took until March 2005 for you to make your first actual competitive start, which came in a must-win World Cup qualifier against Northern Ireland...
It was 0-0 at half time and I knew I was playing well. And I remember five minutes into the second half looking over to the bench. I think the manager was panicking a bit because we needed a win. I knew that I was playing as well as anyone on the pitch, but then I saw Kieron Dyer warning up and I though to myself, “oh no, he’s going to give me the hook here…” and it wouldn’t have been deserved. But I managed to score the first goal and then the floodgates opened and we won 4-0. And I've played regularly since then.
Like I said, it took a lot of convincing. I had to convince Sven that I was ready. My international career seemed to be stalling until I went to Chelsea and started proving myself in the Champions League. Sven was very cautious with me. Maybe I could have played a couple of years earlier.
In hindsight was that a blessing in disguise? Had it allowed your more time to mature as a player?
Maybe. But you want to get to the top level and you want to be playing regularly for England. It took me a while to get myself in there.