Cole Palmer might be on the cusp of breaking through into one of the best teams in world football right now – but you best believe this teenager's career will be anything but a Sideline Story.
Funnily enough, Cole Jermaine Palmer says he doesn’t really listen to much J Cole. Just like most guys his age in and around 0161, he’s big into his UK rap. “You probably wouldn’t know the guys I’m into,” he says to me, as I feel myself looking dustier every passing second.
Feeling like an old head, I tell him to try me. After showing me that Digga D’s “Pump 101” was the last song played on his phone, Palmer says he also listens to a lot of rising Chorlton rapper, Tunde. That actually makes a lot more sense – because if you’ve seen any of Palmer’s outings in sky blue as the latest teenager breaking through at the club, you'll soon agree They Land Better In Manchester.
If anyone is spearheading a new era at Manchester City, it’s Cole Palmer. Following the move to the state-of-the-art Etihad Campus in 2014, City have established one of the best academies in the country, reaching the FA Youth Cup final for six of the past seven years and unearthing gems such as England internationals Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho.
But it was Palmer who was the player who actually solidified that status in silverware. In 2020, a 3-2 victory over Chelsea in November that City finally ended their 12-year wait for FA Youth Cup glory. Palmer came up clutch to net their 83rd-minute winner and write their name into the history books once again.
“I’m really focussed on the pitch, but I’m also relaxed – it might sometimes look like I don’t care, but I do! I’m just pretty calm with it.”
Since then, Palmer’s continued to be a problem. Best with the ball at his feet, Palmer’s telepathic understanding of spaces and movement make him the perfect Pep player. He disrupts the lines of defence with ease with supersonic thinking and razor-sharp awareness in tight areas, plus is blessed with a lethal, left-footed shot.
Despite Cole’s slight physique, he’s anything but a pushover. That was made very clear by the man himself, in what was arguably the ‘headline moment’ of his burgeoning career so far when he headlined his own tour at The Etihad campus, back in October. Fresh from getting a run out off the bench for the first team at 3pm, CP80 bagged one of the cleanest hat-tricks you’ll see for the club’s U23s at 7:30pm.
As if that wasn’t warning enough, Cole then hit his first-ever Champions League goal under the Tuesday night lights two minutes after taking to the pitch against Club Brugge, with another ice cold, left-footed finish from the edge of the box.
Last month, he served up an assist for one of the biggest ballers this season in Bernardo Silva to open the scoring in City’s FA Cup third-round win over Swindon, before bagging yet another top bins finish. The levels have been staggering, but this is just the beginning.
We link up today in Kings Cross to celebrate another major moment in the rapid rise of the Wythenshawe-born baller. Gliding through the Nike offices to sign a new, headline contract with the brand that cements his name into the “next up” debates, Cole has arrived with his agents, good friend and his Dad, as well as a suitcase of Swoosh trainers to pair up with fits for the shoot.
“He’s always stealing my trainers as he’s the same size as me,” Cole tells me, as his Dad pulls out a box fresh pair of Panda Dunks and tries them on, removing his own pair of clean Nike Sacais. “Nah it’s normally the other way around,” his Dad says, “but I think this new deal should help him return the favour”.
It’s not just lending trainers, where he’ll be restoring the faith put in him though. Cole’s Dad Jermaine was a former baller himself, who put in the work to mould Cole into the player he is today. “I would go to the park with my Dad most days actually,” Cole tells us. “I’d make him stand in net. Before I did any shooting, he would just make me learn how to protect the ball.”
“I just used to kick ball across the road in my house, in the park and the use the gates outside my house as nets,” Cole explains, reminiscing on his come up, “Hollyedge Park was the first place I would play, as it was only 50 yards away from me, then East Avenue Park.”
“He’d only let me shoot as a sort of ‘present’ at the end of practising with him. I was only little at the time,” Cole explains, “so he knew that getting me to keep hold of the ball with the figure I had was the most important thing. That’s the most important thing I learned from a really young age, I’d say.”
Scouts immediately clocked his ability at his local club, NJ Wythenshawe, when they spotted a four-year-old running rings around older kids at a trial for the Under-7s. “My Mum and my Dad would travel across the country to make sure I was going to training. They’d be finishing work at 5pm, picking me up, giving me food in the car, then sending me out to train. It was round the clock.”
But even today in front of the cameras, it’s clear Cole Palmer isn’t the sort of person desperate to be on your radar and in front of the lens. His Dad, Jermaine, affirms that sentiment: “When he was 5-years-old, people thought he was good – but I don’t think even he realised quite how good he was. I think that’s only happened recently, and he’d agree himself, too.”
His lift off has coincided with a growth spurt that has seen him shoot up from being the smallest player in his youth teams to now being over six-feet. “I think his growth on the pitch has just happened at the same time,” his Dad says, “he’s really taken off development-wise in the last few years.”
Along with all the new trainers and clothing he’s been blessed with by Nike, Cole will bare the England flag alongside the St. Kitts flag – his Dad’s heritage – on his brand new Nike Mercurial boots. While the ones on the shoot are brand new, he’s already given another pair to his mate Ross – who joins us on today’s shoot – to wear in. Ross says he bagged four goals in a game in them a few nights previously, to all but confirm everything Cole touches turning to gold at present.
It seems bizarre that you’d use the words “unassuming” to describe one of the most talented young footballers in the country, described by Pep Guardiola as someone: “who will be an exceptional player,” but that’s exactly what Cole is.
“Phil’s journey has given everyone else in the academy hope that they go and do what he’s done.”
He’s incredibly down to earth when describing who Cole ‘the person’ is, instead of the player. “I’m very chilled out, really. I just hang out, see my mates, play PlayStation…that sort of thing,” he says, describing what you’d assume would be the most typical of teenagers, despite proving he’s the total opposite on the pitch on a weekly basis.
But even when he’s playing PlayStation, Cole is still showing that he can really mix it with the best players in the game. If you had any doubts about his ability to think ahead of anyone else, just ask Mr Ronaldo Nazario, who he sent packing in the gulag on a recent custom Call of Duty: Warzone tournament. “Yeah I had no idea it was him to be honest,” he says, in typically humble manner, “I’d seen a few gamer tags like Joao Felix, but I didn’t know he was taking part. But yeah, he got dealt with!”
Everything about Cole is composed and calm as we talk and when he signs his new Nike contract – but it’s clear the Wyhenshawe baller still has the subtle confidence of someone who knows he’s good enough to be at this level. Speaking about his play style, Cole is quietly confident as ever: “If you see me play, you know I take that attitude into my game. I’m really focussed on the pitch, but I’m also relaxed – it might sometimes look like I don’t care, but I do! I’m just pretty calm with it.”
So has Cole always had this sort of belief from a young age? “Nah, not really. I would say I’ve only got this belief really recently, in the last couple of years. One day I just came in from training and thought… “yeah, I can do this.” And now I really feel like I can. I’m ready to go.”
With all the superstar talent he surrounds himself with at City, it’s also good to know there’s room for local lads to make noise amongst some of the biggest ballers in the world. Phil Foden is someone who has had to graft to get in this City side from the ground up, and was very patient for his opportunities there.
His trajectory at City is a clear thing Cole wants to emulate. “Phil’s journey has given everyone else in the academy hope that they go and do what he’s done,” he asserts, “I wouldn’t say he’s given me the belief – as I’ve always had that myself – but it’s good to really see that as a recent benchmark for us lads.”
City also have a lot of good eggs about for the teenager to confide in, too – with almost all of their star talent being under the spotlight from a very young age. Raheem Sterling, a certified game-changer on and off the pitch, is the man Cole confides in most. “Most of the lads are sound to be fair, but Raheem’s been the most influential for sure. He’s someone that doesn’t just help you on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. He’s someone who’s been through a lot at a young age too, so his guidance to me has been good.”
So what sort of advice has Sterling offered to him? “Even if it’s just stuff like telling me to stay out of trouble and telling me to avoid people who are in it for themselves, he always says the right things to me. Off the pitch, he’s just a really sound guy.”
I ask Cole about Raheem’s brand, 1692, and whether he rates the lifestyle lane Raheem’s been carving out for himself, of late: “He needs to send me a little care package from his brand actually, he still hasn’t sent me one of them…”
Despite his down to earth nature, Cole is low-key hyped on signing with the Swoosh and his wardrobe being blessed with a catalogue of clean new pieces. “I’m now recognised by the biggest brand in the world – it’s a great feeling.”
But beyond all the style talk and influx of drip from Niketown today, when it comes to his football, Cole believes he will get the chances under Pep to fully flourish and fulfil his potential in the Premier League – where he is determined to make it as a forward. “I think if the younger players are playing well and if he likes them, I don’t think he will hesitate to put them in a squad,” Cole tells me, “so I’ve just got to carry on taking my chances when I get them.”
Before he puts pen to paper on the contract, Cole asks what side he should pose with the pen with. It turns out his amazing weak foot ability also extends to his hands, after revealing he’s ambidextrous. That steady confidence is clear with his ultimate goals in the game, too. “I’ve still got a lot to achieve with City and a long way to go, but personally, the ultimate aim is to win the Ballon d’Or,” he says without missing a beat when I ask him. Fair enough.
Signing his contract and rounding off the day with the final few shots and questions before he heads back up to Manchester, I ask Cole one last question: what would his advice be to his younger self? I really should’ve known the answer before he even responded.
“Be patient. It’s coming. Prem soon come.”