Every top side needs an outstanding forward, a man who leads the line, who holds the ball up for his team mates when necessary, who finds space and links the play and who scores freely at the top level, contributing to the team and taking the pressure associated with the obligations that the role demands. In Andy Cole, United had a rare gem of a player, someone who was excellent in all aspects of the forward role and above all had a mentality, resilience and fortitude in the face of so many denigrators over the course of his career. He talks of the sacrifices he made during his career, including some he regrets such as missing the birth of his eldest child to play a match but this is a by-product of the edge and resolute focus which all top professionals need to succeed in their walk of life. Cole was not someone who welcomed the media spotlight that his talent invited; he was someone who was completely focussed on the game, a single-mindedness that helped him to cement his place as one of the greatest Premier League strikers of all time. Indeed there can be few strikers even amongst that illustrious pantheon who can compare with his aptitude in so many facets of the striking position, in particular his shooting ability off both feet was remarkable and spoke volumes for his special talent. As a United fan privileged enough to watch Cole at his peak, there can be no doubting the striker’s place at the top table, as he won his way into so many hearts with his desire and passion, the honesty and integrity with which he threw himself wholeheartedly into battle for the club to secure us the trophies which we craved.
Andy Cole’s childhood, as for so many footballers, was totally based around football, his love and passion for the game was evident from an early age. His background as is typical of many footballers’ was one of hardship, struggle and strife with money, or the lack of it, prevalent. In 1985, Cole joined the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall, which he himself admits was an extremely tough experience for him as a youth, leaving home at just 14 years old. Cole’s first club was Arsenal, when he signed schoolboy forms for George Graham, the Gunner’s then manager. Cole reflects with a wry smile on his time with Arsenal where he had just a couple of starts that there was a personality clash with him and the boss which doomed his fledgling career with the club. Cole was loaned out during the 91/92 season to initially Fulham and then Bristol City, with a permanent move to the latter cemented by a club record fee. In 1993 on the back of tremendous goal scoring achievements with Bristol City, Andy joined Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. Cole’s price tag again was large for its time, especially for someone still so young but Keegan’s faith was vindicated as he once again scored freely for the North East side. The following season with Newcastle promoted Cole enjoyed the most prolific season, scoring 41 goals in all competitions and winning the Golden Boot, he was simply outstanding. In October 1993, Cole was accused of walking out on Newcastle after once more his fiery temper flared and he was involved in a training session flare up with Keegan. Cole recounts how his stubbornness and pride allowed the situation to develop when Keegan told him that he could leave if he didn’t feel up to it and Cole complied in a fit of self righteous pique. The following week, Cole was brought back into the team and the episode was consigned to history. Cole’s strikes secured Newcastle a 3rd place spot in the Premier League and his efforts were rewarded on a personal level as he secured the PFA Young Player of the Year Award.
In January of 1995, Manchester United broke the British transfer record to bring Cole to the club in a deal worth 7 million pounds. Sir Alex recounts that United at the time, needed someone with the spark and electricity in the box who was two footed which were certainly in Cole’s locker in abundance. The publicity that Cole’s goals brought was unwanted as alluded to previously; he was someone who was economical with his words, who resented the media attention which his career brought from the journalists and there was a degree of animosity between the two parties. This since his career has proved something of an enduring legacy since Cole seems almost the forgotten man, when other great strikers of the era are mentioned there are people with fewer goals and less impact who are more prominently represented consequently. Cole talks about how he enjoyed the diversity and range of personalities in the United dressing room and also how he loved Roy Keane as captain, describing him as phenomenal. On the pitch, though at the end of the season, United needed a win to claim the Premier League but were held to a one all draw with West Ham, a disappointing climax to Cole’s first few months in a United shirt. Cole received the majority of the flack, following the grief at not obtaining the prized crown, having missed a few chances in that match. Nevertheless, Cole, being the tenacious and determined individual that he is, accepted the criticism and determined that this one game would not define his playing career. Indeed, it was around this time that Devante his son was born and adoration of his family shone through in Cole’s motivations as he mentioned lovingly:
“My little boy said it would be nice if I got a hat- trick to celebrate my birthday, so I dedicate my two goals to him”.
His faith was rewarded as United were successful the following season with a League and FA Cup double and then in the 96/97 when they retained the league with Cole contributing a fabulous 25 goals in all competitions. Cole was on an upward trajectory in terms of his development as well, he improved upon how he held the ball up, how he linked up with his team mates and other key facets which make up a striker’s job description. This was helped in no small part by the excellent relationship which he enjoyed with Sir Alex Ferguson, who Cole believes was the only manager he worked with who truly understood what he was about and appreciated him fully. Sir Alex realised Cole was someone who demanded respect and honour when dealt with and they held an accord on this. Cole’s striking partnership with Teddy Sheringham, during the first part of his United career, was strictly professional since there was no love lost on a personal level but it was one that thrived nevertheless. It stemmed from when Sheringham snubbed Cole on the touchline of Wembley on the latter’s England debut, it was a slight that Cole cannot abide given his strict rules on respect especially in such a public forum. The pair’s striking partnership proved fruitful with a combined 54 goals together as a duo. Cole, throughout his career, is perhaps not appreciated enough for his ability to combine in a strike partnership, his selflessness and ability to work cohesively with others was a hallmark of his career. The enmity with Sheringham is so bad that Andy Cole has famously said he would rather meet Neil “Razor” Ruddock again, the uncompromising defender who broke both of his legs than his former striking partner but as always despite journalistic revelations about a poor temperament, Cole proved that on the football field with the serious business of matches and trophies to be won the greater good triumphed, where he was a constant thorn to the opposition. As Robert Laurent summed up perfectly:
“With Andy Cole up front they can score at any time. We’ll be watching him”.
However, in August 1998, Cole was to get a partner whom he got along with famously both personally and professionally as Dwight Yorke signed, the players would strike up an instinctive, telepathic understanding of one another, providing the scoring basis for the greatest season in the club’s history, the Unprecedented Treble. Cole himself puts undoubted emphasis on the off the cuff aspect of their bond, playing what they saw and how they felt as they put defences to the sword on countless occasions with their rapier sharp exchanges and interchanges. Yorke too when interviewed replies that there’s was a natural synergy, not contrived through training regimes or drills. Unlike Sheringham, Yorke can be nothing but complimentary about Cole whom he shared so many magical moments with during a season where they became the most feared strike partnership in Europe. During the Champions League group stages, at the Camp Nou, Yorke and Cole combined to their most memorable degree exchanging passes and leaving the Spanish giants’ defence torn to shreds as Cole finished deftly. This summed up their quickness of thought and action perfectly; it was a goal that was simply majestic in its poise and execution. Cole was to score many important goals during that season, one of which was the winner in an enthralling against all odds victory in Turin, another in the final match of the Premier League when he again scored the decisive goal against Tottenham, a moment Cole describes as euphoric as he chipped Walker to win United the first of their trio of trophies that term. Cole describes his incredible relationship with Yorke thus:
“When we started playing together, it was like meeting a special woman and falling in love. Everything felt right. We never had a cross word.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Cole’s career was how infrequently he was used by England; something which the striker admits never worked out and just wasn’t meant to be. It was Glen Hoddle who’s infamous words that Cole took five chances to score which seemed to mark a death knell on his credentials at international level. As Sir Alex and Cole both articulate the fact that Cole scored goals in Europe at the time, showed that on a continental basis he could be trusted as he had the pedigree at the highest of levels. Much like Scholes though England’s refusal to use the talent which they had at their disposal was United’s gain as the striker continued to find the back of the net with the regularity needed to fire them to the numerous trophies we accumulated during our period of dominance. Sir Alex, like all the best managers, was not one to take notice of what others thought or felt and continued to believe and trust the striker who paid him back handsomely. It was not within Cole to be anything but motivated to prove his doubters wrong; he becomes emotional particularly about the struggles which his father had to combat regarding racism when he moved to the United Kingdom and that desire to succeed when all hoped for your failure made Andrew a chip off the old block.
In the 99-2000 season, Cole was once again United’s top scorer with 19 goals in 28 Premier League matches. Another title followed in the season afterwards, despite an injury plagued year which saw his appearances restricted, he scored 13 goals but it was to be the final full season of his United career, due to the arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and he was sold in December 2001 for 8 million pounds. It had been an incredibly successful stint with Manchester United for Cole where had won an astounding 5 Premier League medals, 2 FA Cups and the UEFA Champions League, he had contributed in no small amount to these successes, his United career ending with 275 United appearances and 121 United goals, putting him 17th on the club’s all time list of record goal scorers. For Cole there are records and numbers which prove he was an accomplished finisher, in the history of the Premier League he has the third most goals in history, and he also boasted 73 assists in the Premier League which puts him right up there with the best in that regard as well. He was an extremely well rounded footballer who was equally accomplished on both feet and possessed an unerring heading ability to boot. He was the blueprint for the striker that was to come later, one who possessed a complete repertoire of talents and not just a predatory finisher and as such deserves the respect and recognition which his talent justifies. Cole regards his time at United with the fondest of memories and he will always deserve recognition for the memories and trophies which his extraordinarily diverse range of goals helped acquire, an underrated and underappreciated legend elsewhere but not in United fans’ hearts. As Sir Alex Ferguson says:
“I’ve been very fortunate having these fantastic strikers but I would say without question he is in the top part of the pantheon of the greatest strikers I’ve ever had- absolutely no doubt about that in my mind”.