This piece originally ran on our sister site taleoftwohalves.uk
This is the story of a man who scored an unbelievable number of goals during his lengthy career at the top levels of football – and yet was only capped 15 times by England during that time, netting a solitary goal for his country in a World Cup qualifier against Albania.
Here’s a statistic to put his scoring prowess into context: records show that this guy scored 274 goals in a total of 628 career games for 12 different clubs in a professional career that spanned almost 20 years – that’s a strike rate of almost a goal every other game, which I’d venture is favourable to just about any striker who has ever played at the highest levels in England.
So, who am I talking about? Well, none other than Andy Cole, who has been unfortunate to find himself in the media spotlight for personal health reasons in recent years, having suffered kidney failure in June 2014.
An Unhappy Introduction
So, who is Andy Cole? Well, I first came across Cole personally on 21 August 1993 – and it was a much happier occasion for him than it was for me. That day his recently-promoted Newcastle United side were the visitors at Old Trafford, home of the newly-crowned inaugural Premier League Champions. They duly ruined many a punter’s betting slip – and my first trip to Old Trafford for a couple of years – when Cole grabbed what turned out to be a fully deserved equaliser on 70 minutes. The game finished in a 1-1 draw, a youthful Ryan Giggs having given the home side the lead with a sumptuous free-kick just before half-time.
However, that’s getting ahead of ourselves – let’s rewind to the beginning.
In The Beginning
Andy Cole is the son of a Jamaican immigrant who worked in Nottinghamshire coal mines his entire working life. Cole was born in Nottingham during October 1971, and first appeared at Arsenal, for whom he signed straight from school in 1989.
As you’d imagine, making the breakthrough into the first-team at a huge club like the Gunners wasn’t going to be easy. Cole eventually got a substitute appearance against Sheffield United at Highbury on 29th December 1990, but couldn’t make an impact. He also came on against Tottenham Hotspur in the 1991 Charity Shield game at Wembley, but that would be the last time he ever donned an Arsenal first-team shirt.
Fulham (Part 1)
Needing game time, Cole found himself out on loan the following season, at then Third Division Fulham, for whom he managed three goals in 13 appearances. It wasn’t enough to turn any heads at Highbury, and when he found himself still struggling to get anywhere near the Arsenal first-team set-up the following season, it was a relief to go out on loan again, this time to Bristol City. That happened in March 1992.
Rockin’ With The Robins!
It was the start of Cole’s meteoric rise to the top of the game, because at Ashton Gate he hit eight goals in just 12 games, more than enough to persuade the Robins’ chairman to write a cheque for £500,000 to Arsenal to secure his services permanently during the summer. In doing so, he became City’s most expensive purchase ever. It turned out to be money very well spent.
That’s because during his first full season in league football, 1992-93, the lad from Nottingham hit a hugely impressive 12 goals in just 29 Championship games for Bristol City. It was clear he was simply too good to be playing at this lower level, and there were a lot of rumours of interest from Premier League clubs.
From A Robin To A Magpie
For once, the press speculation turned out to be absolutely correct. Cole’s stay at Ashton Gate turned out to be brief, because Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United decided they couldn’t wait until the summer to snap him up – Cole signed for the Magpies for a then-club record transfer fee of £1.75 million in February 1993. These were the days before two fixed transfer windows had been instituted by the Premier League, so players were free to move at any time during the year.
The Geordies were also a Second Division club at that time but were already top of the table before Cole signed for them, and his goals – an incredible 12 goals in 12 games which included two hat-tricks, one each against Barnsley and Leicester City – helped secure a return to the top flight for the Toon.
What it meant was that, even before kicking a ball in the Premier League, Andy Cole was already a feared hitman; a player being picked out by the English football media as someone to watch closely in the coming season.
Bulging Nets, Everywhere!
Again, the press were proven right. Cole was simply unstoppable. Playing alongside a veteran Newcastle hero in Peter Beardsley, he made scoring goals in the top division look effortless. As well as ruining my day at Old Trafford that August (his goal that day was his first ever at Premier League level), he ruined many more of Newcastle’s opponents’ days as he plundered an incredible 34 goals in just 40 Premier League games.
That strike rate, which rose to 41 goals in total for the season when the cup competitions were included, made Andy Cole the new holder of Newcastle United’s all-time club goalscoring record for a single season, which had been held by the legendary Hughie Gallacher for nearly 70 years.
With the ageing Beardsley enjoying a new lease of life alongside him, Cole’s goals helped steer Keegan’s men to a third-place finish in the league table, which not only qualified them for the following season’s UEFA Cup (and would have seen them into the Champions League these days) but helped the young striker to win that season’s PFA Young Player of the Year award.
Goal King Cole
By now Andy Cole couldn’t have bought a drink in a bar in Newcastle if his life had depended on it. His name was sung constantly during games by the Geordie faithful and adorned kids’ replica shirts all over the North-East – he was as close to a modern-day superhero as it’s possible to get.
Some people at Arsenal were probably sitting very uncomfortably indeed, wondering at just what a huge mistake they’d made in offloading the young lad for a mere £500,000 to Bristol City a couple of years earlier.
When he began the following season of 1994-95 in the same explosive form as before – nine goals in just 18 Premier League games, and a hat-trick against Royal Antwerp in Europe – you just knew that one of the giant clubs across Europe would be getting ready to break out the cheque book in a hunt for his signature.
Fergie Comes Calling
That club, happily for all Red Devils fans, turned out to be Manchester United. Alex Ferguson was acutely aware that his leading striker, the iconic Mark Hughes, was on a downward spiral at the twilight of a glittering career. He had tried to prise the prolific Alan Shearer away from Southampton during the summer of 1993, only to be usurped by Blackburn Rovers, who were being financed by sugar-daddy billionaire owner Jack Walker. Rovers had made Shearer an offer he simply couldn’t refuse, and now United were locked into a title race with the newly-minted Lancashire club, for whom Shearer was banging the goals in, week after week.
On 10 January 1995, United pounced, bringing Cole to Manchester for £6 million plus a makeweight, Northern Ireland international winger Keith Gillespie, who went in the opposite direction. Gillespie was a victim of UEFA’s rule which permitted only three foreign players in any matchday squad for European competitions. At that time the three other home nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were ludicrously deemed to be foreign to England by the governing body.
Despite fitting like a hand in a glove at Old Trafford almost immediately, Cole – along with everyone else at United – was ultimately to suffer huge disappointment that season. Just weeks after joining the Red Devils – on 25 January 1995 – Cole watched on as talismanic French team-mate Eric Cantona got himself banned from playing for the remainder of that season after reacting violently to disgusting racist provocation from a thug at Crystal Palace.
High Fives, But Trouble Bubbles
Cole had to solider on as the main target-man, and that he did to great effect. He managed 12 goals in just 18 games for United, including becoming the first man to ever score five goals in a single Premier League game as United hammered Ipswich Town 9-0 at Old Trafford on 4 March. However, the defining moments of his – and United’s – season came on the final day at West Ham United, where Cole contrived to miss a couple of very presentable chances. When combined with the heroics from home keeper Ludek Miklosko, this led to the game finishing in a 1-1 draw, allowing Blackburn Rovers to narrowly claim the Premier League title, despite their defeat at Liverpool on the same afternoon.
That disappointment appeared to play on Cole’s mind the following season, as pretty much for the first time ever in his professional career he struggled to find the back of the opposition net regularly. By the time United were well-beaten 3-1 at Leeds United on Christmas Eve, Cole had managed only four goals in four months of football.
All Eyes On Eric As The Trophies Roll In
However, by now Cantona had made a dramatic return from his lengthy playing ban, and he inspired a youthful United side to relentlessly hunt down runaway league leaders Newcastle United during the early months of 1996. When Cole scored in a pulsating 3-2 Manchester Derby victory at Maine Road, United were back on top of the table. It was a position they hadn’t relinquished by the time he got the second goal in the final day 3-0 win at Middlesbrough that secured his first major winners’ medal in football.
Cole followed that up by adding an FA Cup winners’ medal to his stash days later, as he was part of the first ever squad in England to win the coveted Double twice, United beating arch-rivals Liverpool 1-0 at Wembley thanks to a late Cantona volley.
Almost A Rover
You would think that his marvellous goalscoring record would have rendered Cole untouchable at United. In the Football Manager computer simulation series anyone would have had him listed as ‘unavailable for transfer’ from their team. However, Andy’s reality during summer 1996 turned out to be very different.
Ferguson was still desperate to land Alan Shearer, who by now was clearly one of the best strikers in the world, and he believed including Cole as a sweetener in a deal for the Blackburn man would be an offer that Rovers truly couldn’t refuse. Happily for Cole, for once the great Scottish manager was mistaken. Shearer rejected a move to United for the second time when his hometown club of Newcastle United came calling, and Cole instead found himself with a new strike partner at Old Trafford, an unknown Norwegian kid called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In the event, Cole never got a chance to form a partnership with the baby-faced Solskjaer during those early months of 1996-97. In a reserve game at Anfield, he was the victim of a brutal assault by the thuggish Neil Ruddock which left him with two broken legs, and a long road to recovery.
His return in late December showed the underlying determination of the man to succeed. I’m quite sure if I’d suffered a double leg break in August, I wouldn’t have been back playing top-level football by December. However, return he did, scoring his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day.
The season itself was a resounding success domestically for the Red Devils, who lost a total of only five games in the league. Cole became a scorer of important goals, rather than being prolific; his goals against Wimbledon, Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers and in the 3-1 win at Liverpool (a victory which effectively sealed the title for United) were crucial to the team. However, by the end of that stop-start year, he’d only claimed seven goals in all competitions.
When the iconic Cantona announced his immediate retirement from football after the title celebrations had ended, it meant that Cole was now regarded by most pundits as the leading striker at United.
The second part will be on reddevilsreport.com tomorrow