If you look past the ostentatious Eric Cantona, the bullish Ruud Van Nistelrooy, the explosive Wayne Rooney, and the exhilarating Cristiano Ronaldo, you’ll find Andy Cole among Manchester United’s elite frontmen of the Premier League era. The Englishman had a bit of all those already mentioned, with an extra prolific touch and a commitment to teamwork that set the Red Devils apart from most teams in Europe during his tenure there.
Cole first wore the red of Arsenal as a teenager but swapped it for a similar shade at Ashton Gate, after failing to break into the first team at Highbury. An initial loan spell was made permanent, by Robins manager Denis Smith, before a move to the North East beckoned for one of the hottest properties in the football league.
The £1.75 million fee was the highest in Newcastle United’s history and put the pressure on Cole to help fire them towards the newly-formed Premier League. His 12 goals in the First Division certainly contributed to a successful promotion push under Kevin Keegan. The tally, which included hat-tricks against Barnsley and Leicester, culminated in the opening strike against Grimsby that set them on their way to securing their place in England’s top tier.
The rise up the English football pyramid didn’t stop in the following year, with the addition of Peter Beardsley back to the Magpies’ forward line yielding plenty of goals. Although already at one of the country’s most prestigious clubs, Cole got his first taste of the big time in the form of a trip to Old Trafford, to face the inaugural Premier League champions. Cole sent a warning shot flashing past Peter Schmeichel’s far post in the first few minutes and caught the attention of Alex Ferguson in the home dugout. Ryan Giggs’ free-kick put the hosts ahead but their central defensive partnership of Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were still having problems with the 22-year-old up front for Newcastle.
Cole stole past Pallister as a cross came in but could only divert the ball wide of Schmeichel’s left-hand post. After a momentary shift over to the right wing, Cole ran Denis Irwin ragged before smashing a ball across goal that ended up inches away from Lee Clark. Minutes later, Bruce turned around in horror to see Cole receive the ball in behind the United defence and poke past Schmeichel to net Newcastle’s first Premier League goal.
That point at the Theatre of Dreams provided Keegan and his side with a platform and benchmark to follow for the rest of the campaign. Cole’s incredible 34 league goals earned him the Golden Boot and Newcastle a third-place finish and a UEFA Cup spot. His perfect partnership with Beardsley upfront also aided Cole’s title as the Premier League assist king, topping that table as well as the scoring chart with 13 assists. Only Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has done that since, during the 1998/99 season, with Leeds.
A productive start to the following campaign saw Ferguson return to St James’s Park and take Cole back to Manchester with him, for a record fee for a British player. After missing out on Alan Shearer, this time to Blackburn, for the second time in three years, Cole joined a squad that included Cantona, Brian McClair, Andrei Kanchelskis, Mark Hughes and Dion Dublin as its firepower. As a result of this orderly-formed queue to take the two spots up front for Fergie, chances for United’s latest signing were limited.
Almost half of his league tally for the second half of the Premier League season came in one game at Old Trafford in March. Cole’s third and fourth league goals for the Red Devils came before half-time against Ipswich, before his third and fourth of the match arrived after the break. He became the first player to notch five times in one game during the relatively short Premier League era; only Shearer, Jermain Defoe, Dimitar Berbatov and Sergio Agüero have achieved such a feat since.
Shearer’s Blackburn pipped United to the title on the final day of the campaign while cup-tied Cole watched from the stands as his teammates were beaten by Everton in the FA Cup final at Wembley. However, exactly 12 months later, Cole had both league and cup medals round his neck. He ran into difficulties when finding the net in autumn and winter, before becoming an integral part in United’s trophy-laden run-in.
A goal in the FA Cup semi-final win against Chelsea was followed by another on the final day of the Premier League season, as United were victorious against Middlesbrough. Cole had netted against his former side in December, just at the point where some of the Old Trafford crowd were beginning to doubt his worth. He repaid their eventual faith and played his way into the FA Cup final line-up to face Liverpool, as Cantona’s late winner banished the demons they’d brought out on the same stage the year before.
Suddenly, Cantona handed over his keys to the Theatre of Dreams and bowed out into retirement. An unknown Norwegian frontman was brought over to fill the void and took his chance to impress from a starting berth when Cole broke both legs in a reserves game at Anfield against Liverpool. Ole Gunnar Solskjær went from risky acquisition to a revelation as, going into the final months of the campaign, his goals helped put United in pole position for the title.
Cole’s return to fitness bore extra fruit for Ferguson’s side and eased the weight on Solskjaer’s slight shoulders. David Seaman could do nothing but watch Cole stride round him and open the scoring at Highbury after he’d latched on to one of Gary Neville’s long balls in behind. A crucial three points against Arsène Wenger’s men was backed up with three more at Anfield, in April. At the scene of his, injury inflicted by Neil Ruddock in the summer, Cole put in the visitors’ third after Gary Pallister had headed past David James twice.
Another league triumph was forgotten in May 1998 when Wenger’s revolutionary ways had spurred Arsenal to the title. Everyone’s numbers were down at Old Trafford, with no one in the squad managing more than Cole’s tally of 15 league goals for the season. To add insult to injury, Cole was overlooked by Glenn Hoddle for England’s World Cup squad and would continue to have a, some may call it, edgy relationship with his country’s national team.
However, he struck up a special connection with Ferguson’s summer signing the following year. Dwight Yorke arrived from Aston Villa to high hopes but no-one could have expected how quickly he would settle in the North West and cement himself and his colleagues in the history of the club forever.
While league goals didn’t fall Cole’s way as frequently as they had done in the past, his newfound understanding with his Trinidadian teammate formed an irresistible tendency to combine in tandem. The strike partnership didn’t just yield extraordinary numbers in front of goal, they excited and thrilled United fans across the globe with their sensational combinations.
One of those intuitive link-ups came at the Stadio Delle Alpi, in the Champions League semi-finals, as Yorke converted from Cole’s cross to haul United back on level aggregate terms with Juventus. A tense second half threw up tie-winning chances for either side but, with the clock ticking down, it looked like United might just pull it off. The nerves and nail-biting prospect of a final Juve push were released when Cole ran on and tapped into an empty net after Yorke looked to have been brought down by Juve ‘keeper Angelo Peruzzi.
A third away goal meant it was goodnight for the Old Lady and a date with Bayern Munich at Camp Nou in the final. Cole, who had scored there against Barcelona in the group stages, was replaced by Solskjaer in the 81st minute after a night of toil and frustration against the German giants, and, well, you know the rest.
So it was that a decade that had started unsurely at Arsenal ended with him holding that big-eared cup in Barcelona; the defining moment of a career that was blighted, crucially not beaten, but eventually bettered by injuries, setbacks and a conveyor belt of contemporary goalscoring competitors. Andy Cole may not be the first name on every United’s fan’s lips when you say goalscorer, but, as the truth of his legacy shows, he more than deserves to be.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08