By Karl Coppack

SOMETIMES great players have graceless exits. Robbie Fowler ended his first tenure by being substituted at half time thanks to Didi Hamann being sent off at Sunderland, Fernando Torres skulked off with two goals at Molineux but without a smile and Michael Owen spent his last hour in uniform grinning on a bench in Austria. Not everyone gets a lap of honour and a plaque.

It”s unlikely that it”ll be his final game but Joe Cole last trotted onto the pitch in the League Cup and left it just before Liverpool did. Angry at himself, exhausted and frustrated, he cut a pathetic figure as he headed for the tunnel. The sad and brutal facts were there for all to see. The skill could occasionally be coaxed out of a fug of a mind lacking in confidence, the footballing brain was sharp and the desire is still there but little else remains. Joe Cole”s best days are over.

It wasn”t meant to be this way. Cole represented Hodgson”s flagship signing and a fillip to the post Rafa era and internecine strife between Hicks, Gillett and the fans. There he was – the England international who fans and media alike used as a brickbat to pummel Capello for his non-inclusion in the first team during that summer”s World Cup. The hope on the wing. The crafty runs, the goals (which did for us more than once) and the spark of creative genius the country desperately needed.

I was in a pub for the final group game against Slovenia and was surprised to see people get to their feet and applaud when Cole came on as a late sub. He was greeted like a returning son who had been given up for dead. He”ll save us! His star wasn”t on the rise in the summer of 2010 but it was certainly holding its own.

Then came Liverpool. Hodgson spoke excitedly about Cole”s new career (or as excitedly as Hodgson can speak about anything) and Anfield waited for his debut with baited breath. Forty five minutes later we witnessed the first slip in a downward trajectory when he kicked Koscielny in the air and was summarily sent off. Joe still wore the shine of England and Chelsea upon him so at half time Richard Keys asked if the ref should consider the player”s character before brandishing a card. Evidence if needed that there is more than one reason why Richard Keys is no longer on the telly.

As it was only a domestic ban he bounded on to help crush Trabzonspor 1-0 at Anfield. He took a penalty. He missed. Quite. Breath was still baited.

Thanks to inane international friendlies it was many weeks before Cole returned to the League programme and tried to right the wrongs of his ill-fated debut but the grumblings had already started. This man was shot. True, he looked knackered during most games, even in his pomp, but this was different. Hooked off time and again he”d give a sotto voce swear fest as he wiped an ocean of sweat from brow to shirt before gamely applauding the crowd who didn”t always return the compliment. He was clearly more disappointed with himself than the decision to take him off.

He has just three Liverpool goals. The first minute goal against Steaua Bucharest, a late tap-in against Bolton in Hodgson”s last home game that looked like it had already crossed the line and the last in a 5-0 rout of Birmingham. All three goals were greeted with laughter. One for the speed (just 27 seconds into the game), one for the over-zealous celebration while other players ran to Maxi and the last of a “Jesus, even Cole”s scoring now!” nature.

Ever the motivator his manager and saviour elected to tell the world that Cole was more Rafa”s signing more than his. Strong rumour has it that Purslow offered him to Rafa months earlier but like Ancelotti and Capello before him, he wasn”t interested and saw a good player on the way down rather than a natural replacement for Yossi. Purslow”s “Football Manager” stats were high, however, and he ushered through the gates for a paltry wage of £29m for four years. The Fernando Torres of finance in his finest and most devastating hour.

Joe has shrunk from one of the most gifted players of his age to a husk of a man who cannot escape criticism even when he can only make it onto the bench as, ultimately, it”s a waste of a seat. Rodgers has tried to tease out the talent within him when choosing to send him on over Carroll at the West Brom game (he lasted ten jameshallison casino minutes) and ahead of Borini at Stoke but there”s too little left in the engine now. He”s all played out.

Despite the criticism, the jokes, the sighs and sarcastic applause when he drags his sorry carcass off the field Cole has never once complained. Nor has he ever lashed out in frustration and criticised the club or staff. He thanked Dalglish for his loan spell at Lille (four goals and numerous Man of the Match awards in a slower League) and promised to work hard for Liverpool upon his return. Contrast that with his one of his predecessors, Albert Riera, who fired off a spoilt volley of abuse to anyone who would listen. Try passing the ball, you charmless nurk. Of course, it”s easy to keep quiet while you”re raking in a fortune but something tells me that Joe Cole isn”t in the Winston Bogarde league. He hates what”s happening to him. He wants Liverpool to do well and he wants to be a part of that. He just can”t be and that obviously eats at him daily.

The signing of Joe Cole was disastrous and is matched by our other expensive mistakes (Keane, Aquilani, Downing etc) in recent years but none of that is his fault. If an egotistical loon wants you to offer you a fortune to play for a club who had nearly won the League two years earlier then who wouldn”t leap at the opportunity? I would.  Thanks for that, Christian.

Of course, Joe could take a pay cut and go to QPR or such like but who would take the risk? If you put a “product” in the shop window you”d hope that it didn”t show the rusty nails, the cuts and scratches or the creaking engine but as things stand that”s all we have to show. Who would buy him? Who”s going to fall for that? As we”re losing £90k a week, we can”t just wait for Christian Purslow to join another club and sit in on transfer meetings with a list of footballers he”s heard of. It”s a paradox. Please buy him but for God”s sake don”t look at him first.

Sometimes we buy players too late in their careers. Nigel Clough wasn”t the Nigel Clough we wanted, Jari should have given us his best years for us rather than his swansong as should Gary Mac. It”s a shame, a real shame. And an expensive one.

Some players have graceless exits. Joe Cole seems to be waiting for his.

Follow Karl on Twitter: @TheCenci.