Andrew Cole: the defining Manchester United years

Andrew Cole: the defining Manchester United years

Football songs seemed to reach a peak in the 1990s. At the start of the decade came Italia 90, which spoilt us with Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma and World in Motion by New Order, complete with a rap from John Barnes. Comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel teamed up with The Lightning Seeds for two versions of Three Lions in 1996 and 1998, and we were regularly treated to FA Cup final songs, a tradition that sadly seems to be long gone.

Andrew Cole, the former Newcastle, Manchester United and England striker, released a song of his own towards the end of the decade. Outstanding was a rap record whose video contained all the hallmarks of 90s rap song from across the pond, including a nightclub scene, scantily clad females and convertible cars. The song failed to live up to its name but Cole’s career certainly was outstanding.

Andrew Alexander Cole, born in Nottingham in October 1971, began his career at Arsenal before a loan spell at Fulham and a season with Bristol City. However, it was with Newcastle United that he really made his name, spearheading Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling attacking side that captured the hearts of many neutrals. Cole joined the Toon from Bristol City in February 1993, managing 12 goals including two hat-tricks to take his overall tally for the season to 24. Cole’s goals helped Newcastle cruise to the Division One title and earn a place in the sophomore season of the burgeoning Premier League.

Cole took to the top flight like the proverbial duck to water, scoring an incredible 34 goals in 41 league appearances as the newly-promoted Magpies finished third in the league, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in the process. Cole also managed seven goals in the domestic cups to take his total to 41. To put his goal scoring achievement into perspective, you have to go back to 1966/67 to find a striker topping 34 goals in the league, when Ron Davies of Southampton managed the feat. Alan Shearer matched the record the following season but since then few players have even come close.

Cole was a striker to be feared at the top level, although he didn’t do it all alone at St James’ Park. He struck up an almost telepathic partnership with Peter Beardsley, who scored 24 goals of his own in 1993/94 as well as providing the ammunition for many of Cole’s goals.

Proving their debut season in the Premier League was no fluke, Newcastle took the start of the 1994/95 season by storm, winning their first six games. By January Cole had bagged 15 goals in 27 games across all competitions, including four in the UEFA Cup. Unsurprisingly, the hitman had caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

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The canny Scot wanted to replace Mark Hughes with a younger, more dynamic striker with pace and the ability to work in tight spaces. This was important given that teams, especially at Old Trafford, tended to sit deep and narrow the pitch. Cole fit the bill perfectly and a British record-breaking £6 million – plus Keith Gillespie – offer was negotiated between the two clubs.

The Toon faithful were devastated and, credit to him, Keegan met them on the St James’ Park steps to argue his point and explain his decision. Cole had fallen out with Keegan and their relationship was seemingly beyond repair, hastening his exit from the club that he had served so well.

Without their star man, Newcastle’s form dropped off, although they still finished in a respectable sixth position. The fans would be soon sated with the exciting signings of the likes of David Ginola, Les Ferdinand and, later, Alan Shearer.

Cole scored his first goal for Manchester United on 4 February in a 1-0 home win over Aston Villa. He also scored five goals in the 9-0 rout of Ipswich, braces at Coventry and Leicester, and a goal at Maine Road in the Manchester derby. Going into the final game of the season Cole was on 12 in 17 for United, and 27 in total for the season. The final fixture of the 1994/95 season, however, would define Manchester United’s season and perhaps Cole’s entire career, leaving him with an unfortunate tag he would struggle to shake despite later achievements.

United went into the clash at Upton Park two points behind leaders Blackburn, who were travelling to Anfield to face Liverpool. United needed their fierce rivals to do them a favour, and Liverpool showed their professionalism by sticking to their side of the bargain with a 2-1 victory. However, United endured a torrid day, only managing a 1-1 draw with West Ham United.

The Hammers took the lead only for Brian McClair to draw the visitors level. Needing an extra goal to seal the championship, United laid siege to West Ham’s goal for the majority of the second half, only to be thwarted on several occasions by the woodwork and inspired goalkeeper Luděk Mikloško. Cole missed guilt-edge chances and was blamed by some quarters for United’s failure to retain the title.

Read  |  Mark Hughes: the introvert who saved Alex Ferguson’s job

Despite the disappointment of missing out on a league medal for United, and the stigma that the West Ham game left him with, the 1994/95 season wasn’t a complete failure for Cole on a personal level. In March, during a home friendly against Uruguay, he would make his international debut for England.

Despite his prolific record and success with United, Cole’s international career never really took off. He retired with a solitary goal in 15 caps, possibly explained by the competition he faced during his peak in the 1990s. Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand, Teddy Sheringham and Ian Wright, to name but a few, were all vying for the same number nine shirt.

Glenn Hoddle, who managed the national team between 1996 and 1999, clearly wasn’t a fan of Cole and lazily continued to peddle the myth that he was a wasteful striker. Hoddle, not shy of ridiculous outbursts, including the one that cost him the England job, said that Cole needed five chances to score a goal. In not selecting him for the 1998 World Cup, Hoddle incensed Cole, remarking: “There has not been enough time since the World Cup finals for Cole to sort out that aspect of his game.” Cole was also unfortunate to miss the European Championships of 2000 – when he was arguably at his peak – with injury.

Clearly suffering from a lack of confidence following the Upton Park episode, Cole struggled to find his feet during 1995/96 season, managing only one goal in the first seven games. The talismanic Eric Cantona – famously banned for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan in January – returned from his suspension in time for the home tie against Liverpool in October, although the Frenchman and Cole struck up an uneasy partnership and never really seemed to click.

Cole did, however, come up with the goods at a crucial stage of the season. On 27 December, Newcastle visited Old Trafford on a freezing Manchester evening. The visiting Toon Army, showing no signs of missing their former hero Cole, were a mammoth 10 points clear going into the game. A six-pointer if ever there was one, United had to win, knowing a Newcastle victory could gift-wrap the title for them before the festive period was over.

After just six minutes, a trademark rampaging Ryan Giggs run was finished with a sublime pass into the feet of Cole, who struck first time with the inside of his right foot from the edge of the penalty box. It was pure precision. The second goal showed another, often unappreciated, side of his game. An overhit David Beckham corner drifted out to the touchline but a dogged Cole sprinted to retrieve the ball, before unselfishly feeding Phil Neville. Neville crossed the ball towards Roy Keane, who struck the ball past Pavel Srníček and wrapped up the points for United.

Cole’s form was good during the winter months of January and February, earning him Premier League and FA Cup medals as Manchester United completed the prestigious domestic double. Cole’s goal and overall performance against old club Newcastle in December was a vital turning point in United’s season. Much more than a goal-getter, Cole was becoming a complete player in Manchester.

Read  |  Eric Cantona: a life of loneliness and love

Two games, of varying magnitude, defined Cole’s 1996/97 season. In early October, the forward was part of a reserve side that travelled to Anfield to play Liverpool. Proving that fixtures between the two sides are never friendly, Cole had both of his legs broken by Neil Ruddock. The portly defender initially claimed he went for the ball and that Cole dived, although years later, in bad taste, he joked that he had only meant to break one, not both, of his legs. The injury would resign Cole to somewhat of a bit=part player throughout the rest of the season, and his goal return of seven in all competitions proved to be one of the lowest of his professional career.

In April 1997, United led second-place Liverpool by two points with only a handful of fixtures remaining on the league calendar. United led 2-1 at half-time as two Gary Pallister goals cancelled out John Barnes’ effort – bizarrely all three were headers from corners. After 63 minutes a superb piece of skill from Gary Neville on the right-hand side was followed by a typically precise cross. David James thrust himself into no-mans-land and missed the ball, which kindly fell onto Cole’s head. United won the game 3-1 and the title race was all but over, with the Red Devils retaining the trophy.

Cantona surprisingly retired at the end of the season and was replaced by Teddy Sheringham. Cole had infamously fallen out with Sheringham in March 1995, after replacing him when coming on for his England debut. Cole claims Sheringham snubbed him, and the two never saw eye-to-eye after that.

Despite the animosity, the pair forged a decent partnership, scoring 39 goals between them during the 1997/98 season. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough for United to win their third consecutive title, but on a personal level, Cole finished the season with 25 goals, making him the leading scorer in all competitions. He finished behind Dennis Bergkamp in the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award although it wasn’t enough for him to earn a place in Hoddle’s World Cup squad.

United’s failure to win the title unsurprisingly elicited a strong response from manager Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of the 1998/99 season. A flurry of big names, such as Patrick Kluivert, Gabriel Batistuta, and Marcelo Salas, were linked but in the end it was Dwight Yorke who arrived from Aston Villa for a fee just shy of £13 million.

It initially appeared that Yorke would be partnered with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as the two started together in three of the first four games following Yorke’s arrival. In early October Cole seized his chance, scoring away at Southampton, and never looked back. The two forged an unbreakable bond on and off the pitch, scoring a combined 53 goals in all competitions as United swept to an unprecedented treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League. Cole scored crucial goals throughout the season, including efforts in the deciding league game at home to Tottenham and the winner away to Juventus in the Champions League semi-final.

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Perhaps the most memorable goal, and a perfect example of the synergy between Cole and Yorke, came in the Camp Nou in a thrilling 3-3 draw against Barcelona in the Champions League group stages. Roy Keane fed the ball into Dwight Yorke inside the Barcelona half. Yorke, almost telepathically, let the ball run through his legs before sprinting into space. Cole, receiving the dummy, then fed the ball into Yorke who returned it first-time to his strike partner. Cole took one touch before sublimely slotting the ball low to the goalkeeper’s right from 15 yards. United had been crushed at the Camp Nou four years previous but this fearless attacking side would not be cowed in the Catalan capital.

In the 1999/00 season, Cole and Yorke continued their rich vein of form, combining to score 46 goals in all competitions as United won the league by a staggering 18 points. In 2000/01 United cantered to the league again, besting Arsenal by 10 points. However the influence of the famed duo was beginning to wane, with both Sheringham and Solskjaer making more appearances. Their combined goal tally was 25, almost half that of the previous campaign.

Given his waning influence and the arrival of prolific Dutch marksman Ruud van Nistelrooy, it was no surprise when Cole left United during the 2001/02 season. Striking opportunities in the big games, particularly away in Europe, were limited as Ferguson elected to play a 4-5-1 formation, using another new signing, Juan Sebastián Verón, in midfield.

In December 2001 Cole departed, with Blackburn his destination. It was great business for United, who had Cole’s best years and even managed to sell him on for a profit, with Rovers paying £8 million. Sir Alex Ferguson had wanted to Cole to stay but, proud as ever, the striker wanted to be playing football rather than “stealing a wage” from the bench.

Cole’s signing had a rejuvenating effect on the previously struggling Rovers side, who were three points outside the relegation zone – with only seven wins in 20 – upon his arrival. On 24 February 2002, just over eight weeks after Cole joined, Rovers contested the League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium.

With the scores levelled at 1-1, Cole pounced in the penalty area to steer the ball cleverly past Neil Sullivan. What made it sweeter was that old foe Teddy Sheringham was captaining a Spurs side managed by Glenn Hoddle. In the league Cole crucially scored in each of the last five league games, as Rovers claimed 10 points from 15 to finish well clear of relegation.

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Cole was joined at Blackburn by Dwight Yorke in time for the 2002/03 season and the pair reignited their old partnership as Blackburn finished sixth in the league, qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the second successive season. Cole helped himself to a respectable 13 goals in 43 during that season, although the subsequent campaign wasn’t to be as successful.

In 2003/04, Rovers struggled at the foot of the table, with Cole managing 11 goals in 37 appearances. Not for the first time in his career, he had a falling out with the manager, and his relationship with Graeme Souness went the same way as his relations with former boss Keegan. In the summer of 2004 Cole headed south to join Fulham, a club he’d previously played for on loan during the formative years of his stellar career.

Cole enjoyed a successful season at Craven Cottage, showing he could still find the net with 13 goals. However, he returned to the north-west for the 2005/06 season to join Manchester City. Despite only managing 23 appearances Cole still managed double figures, scoring 10 goals. It was apparent that his career was winding down, and he never really settled during spells with Portsmouth, Birmingham, Sunderland, Burnley and finally hometown club Nottingham Forest. In 2009, three years after leaving City, Cole retired from professional football.

In June 2014, whilst employed as a club ambassador for Manchester United, Cole contracted an airborne virus which caused kidney failure. The fit and proud man saw his weight balloon and his appearance become bloated. However, thanks to his brave and generous nephew Alexander, who donated a kidney, Cole underwent an operation and is now on the long road to recovery.

Throughout his career, Cole has been accused of many things. Often appearing sullen, stubborn and prickly, he’s fallen out with the likes of Kevin Keegan, Teddy Sheringham, Glenn Hoddle and Graeme Souness to name but a few. However those closest to him will point to his dry sense of humour, and Cole has a good relationship with Roy Keane, which few others enjoy.

Despite being accused by Hoddle of needing too many chances to score, Cole scored almost 300 goals in a career and is only behind Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney in the Premier League’s goalscoring charts. The Englishman’s goals helped his teams win every domestic trophy available – ironically and poetically completing the set against Glenn Hoddle’s Spurs – as well as the Champions League.

Not only was Cole a great goalscorer, he was the scorer of important goals. He worked tirelessly and was popular with his teammates. In a year in which Wayne Rooney broke Manchester United’s goalscoring record by surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton, it’s only right to honour another one of the club’s top marksmen.

By Dan Williamson

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