November 30, 2023
Cole Palmer

As the country’s finest young players approach the age of 18, they are graded by the FA’s coaches. On where they are on the ladder and how high they might go.

With Cole Palmer, there was no doubt in the mind of Ian Foster, who has managed three of England’s age groups. Potential: senior first team. Despite reservations elsewhere, not least within Manchester City, he was unequivocal.

Foster, now Steven Gerrard’s assistant in Saudi Arabia, will have raised a smile. A first call-up by Gareth Southgate follows Palmer’s eye-catching opening weeks to life at Chelsea, life as a ¬£42.5million footballer and life away from home, away from the bosom of City.

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Cole Palmer, 21, wears the look that he is destined for a long international career. A positive arrogance on the grass, in contrast to the shy individual he is away from it.

His calmness in converting four penalties for Chelsea – and even taking over those duties in the first place – suggests he has the confidence to cope with the inevitable scrutiny. In taking charge of matches, his ability is obvious.

That was not always appreciated at City. Five years ago, they might have released him had it not been for the intervention of former academy director Jason Wilcox. Coaches and the hierarchy were split over whether he was worthy of a scholarship, which feels faintly ridiculous now. It meant he had to work harder than anyone else.

He was underdeveloped physically and had to make up for that with a sharp brain. City were making big signings in his position, spending a significant amount on Ben Knight from Ipswich. Wilcox vouched for the lad from Wythenshawe and Cole Palmer earned a contract that was shorter and less well-paid than most of his peers.

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The pecking order was set and Foster took calls from some at City wondering why Palmer continued to pip Knight to national squads when things were different at club level. Their trajectories since could not be more different. While Knight has spent time on loan at Crewe Alexandra, Palmer has scored in a Super Cup final and was growing increasingly frustrated by a lack of minutes with Pep Guardiola’s Treble winners.

He began debating a move away around March, wondering whether a loan this season might be his best option. That intensified over the summer as it became clear that City were on the hunt for a new winger with more speed, which culminated in their signing of Jeremy Doku.

Cole Palmer told them he wanted to leave, City asked him to bring them an acceptable offer, and off he went on deadline day to Stamford Bridge. The evening before he boarded the early train to Euston, Palmer sat in his car at the City Football Academy, taking it all in.

At that point the move was not 100 per cent certain and he didn’t know whether to say his goodbyes. Although born a Manchester United fan, 13 years of his life had been spent with the blue half of town after City spotted him at youth team NJ Wythenshawe.

 

He was always the most technically gifted, honing skills with his father, Jermaine, on Hollyhedge Park near Gatley. Until very recently, he was still hiring pitches at the local Powerleague for him and his mates during time off. There remains a street footballer within him. Add that to a mind that Guardiola has moulded and you have a serious player.

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Guardiola’s staff loved him. It was noticeable on Sunday that, even after his dramatic late equaliser and cheeky celebration, Palmer was welcomed into the City dugout and spent a considerable amount of time with the backroom team after the 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge. He still wants to go back and say thank you to those who took care of him in the academy, too.

‘The next star,’ said one City source after just a few days of first-team training. Consistently a standout performer in what can be unforgiving sessions, Palmer was following in Phil Foden’s footsteps. As with Foden, City rebuffed tens of offers to take him on loan. Unlike Foden, he picked up injuries at crucial moments and then put too much pressure on himself to excite when opportunities did come.

Palmer admits he tried too hard to impress last season, which is striking for someone usually so relaxed that he is horizontal.

‘Cole needs to be stimulated,’ said one source as Palmer was breaking into the senior set-up. Minutes were always going to be key for someone normally boasting supreme self-confidence. To satisfy that, Palmer once scored a hat-trick for the Under 23s about two hours after a cameo appearance in the Premier League.

‘When you are just training and not playing, it’s not good for him,’ Guardiola said at the time. It also indicates he should not have an issue dropping down to England’s Under 21s again if asked.

Cole Palmer eventually reached that awkward phase of being too good to sit on a Premier League bench, requiring the time and space to fully develop, but not earning the complete trust of his manager.

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In that sense, a switch to Chelsea suited all parties. Palmer studied Mauricio Pochettino’s squad and possible threats to his own spot and surmised that this was a chance ripe for the taking.

‘How he’s done is unsurprising,’ says England Under 21s boss Lee Carsley, who played him up front, wide right, as a No 10 and deeper midfielder as they won the European Championship in the summer.

‘There will be dips at times but if you keep believing in players like Cole you will get your rewards. He is definitely not overconfident but he has an assuredness about his play. Like a lot of the top players, there is no point in the game where he doesn’t want the ball. That generally separates the good ones from the special ones and Cole is definitely in that bracket.’

City staff were laughing at how nothing fazes him after a first Champions League goal at Club Bruges two years ago, when Raheem Sterling was first to congratulate him for his strike from the edge of the box. ‘It was a “Wow” moment,’ a source says.

Nothing has ruffled him at Chelsea, either. Learning to cook, do laundry and get about on the Tube are all more daunting than the actual football. Dad Jermaine – whose heritage means Palmer also qualifies to play for Saint Kitts and Nevis – is helping him settle, but the home comforts are missing. There’s also no chance to nip for a takeaway at his favourite Lebanese place near Stockport.

Everything is new. And, to many, it feels like Palmer himself is too. Yet those who know him believe this was only a matter of time.

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