Andrew Cole: 'Play it straight with me, and I'll be straight. No curve balls'

Honesty and respect are buzzwords for a proud miner's son. Jason Burt meets a misunderstood player still driven and still tackling the doubters
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The Independent Online

Andrew Cole can be hard work. He says so himself. He laughs about it. "I can be, at times, I can be," he says. "I admit it. I can be hard work." He's talking about what might happen after the end of his career, one of the most glittering of the Premiership era. Of any era. Maybe he will go into management or coaching - a thought that might raise a few eyebrows. "Management isn't easy," he says. "I've always said that if I met someone like me, the way I am, I wouldn't know how to deal with me, as I don't know how to deal with myself half the time!"

Andrew Cole can be hard work. He says so himself. He laughs about it. "I can be, at times, I can be," he says. "I admit it. I can be hard work." He's talking about what might happen after the end of his career, one of the most glittering of the Premiership era. Of any era. Maybe he will go into management or coaching - a thought that might raise a few eyebrows. "Management isn't easy," he says. "I've always said that if I met someone like me, the way I am, I wouldn't know how to deal with me, as I don't know how to deal with myself half the time!"

It's a joke, a self-deprecating joke - but one with a clear and honest edge. Neither quality is usually associated with football. But then Cole has always played the game without playing the game. It's always been his way, and that - from talking to him - is one refreshingly unsullied by arrogance and imbued with a rock-solid sense of pride. It's easy to say he has been misunderstood but, for a start, Cole smiles. A lot. He is at ease and grateful for the career he has had and still enjoys. "It's been an honour. A total honour," he states. "Who would ever have believed that I would have played at such a high level?" The doubters were always there. "I've had lots of up and downs, from within the game and from journalists saying I'm not good enough," Cole says. "But I've laughed that off and carried on and I'm still going now."

Now he's at Fulham, of course. If not in the twilight of his career, he is certainly, aged 33, not eating up the limelight. "I'm a bit older. I'm not playing at the pinnacle any more," he admits. "So I can enjoy it more. There's maybe not so much pressure. I'm still driven and that takes a lot out of you, out of your family, because I still believe I can win things. It's the way I am. If not then I may as well hang up my boots. I have to play to win, to stay on the edge." That desire has provided Fulham with 12 precious goals and "a team player".

Andrew Alexander Cole's nature was hewn in Nottingham. He constantly uses phrases such as "the way I am as a person" and "the way I've been brought up". He is the second youngest of eight children, and his parents came over from Jamaica in the 1960s. His father, Lincoln, worked as a miner. "I've never taken anything for granted," Cole says. "My dad would never let me do that." Instead there has been "a lot of graft. That's what it's like whoever you want to be. Bill Gates or whoever. Fortune, luck, hard work. It's all rolled into one." Aim for the stars but remain "grounded". "That's helped me," Cole says.

As did his two years at the now-defunct football academy of Lilleshall. "When you leave home at 14," Cole says, "you become a man. You are no longer living with mum and dad. You have to make your own decisions. It wasn't easy. You become homesick. But that's when you have to grit your teeth and get through it. When I was there some kids left because they couldn't handle it." Cole could. The "drive" never flickered. "I had already made my mind up," he says. It helped him cope with the disappointment of not making it at Arsenal. Doubts surfaced. But they were quickly banished, and after a successful spell at Bristol City he burst on to the scene at Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United.

"I jumped at that opportunity," Cole says. "It was a long way to go north, but I wanted to play for a good team and a quality manager." It's an emerging theme. "The way I am as a person, the way I am as a player, I need to respect my manager and be able to sit down with him," Cole says. "If I don't then I have problems." There were no problems at Newcastle. The goals came. In floods. "The goals, the goals," Cole laughs. Sixty-eight in 83 games. The Golden Boot. Phenomenal. "That's all I wanted," Cole says. "Score as many as possible, win games." But, he says, with success came attention. "I've never been media-driven. I've always just wanted to play football and go home. I was happy. But the more you do, the better you become, the better your team does, the bigger the audiences and whatever. The attention. I found that difficult." Going out, he said, became tricky. "You walk down the street, go to the movies. It can be hard. I've always shied away from attention. I find it difficult now even though I've lived with it for so long."

Few interviews are granted. This one was arranged through the company representing him, nva management. The reluctance led to a "perception" of Cole as sullen and petulant. Journalists, he says, want it "here and now". When a player says "no" then "the reaction is, 'That's not very nice'. They want to dictate. You can't do that. But the perception has carried on until today."

Manchester United, the club he supported, were the only side he would have left Newcastle for. When the £7m move came it was sudden. Spookily, Cole was watching United on television when his agent called. He thought it was a joke. It wasn't. "When I went there I was over-awed," Cole admits now. "The players were household names, every single one of them. Big names. My first training session was just like, well, intimidating. These were Champions' League players and I'd only watched that on TV."

Naturally he had to work at acceptance. Everyone does. "It took a while to adjust, I'm not going to lie about it. It took a long time," Cole says. "When I first went there the media coverage was, 'He hasn't scored, he hasn't scored [he actually struck 14 goals in his first 28 games]'. That was it. But the manager was superb, absolutely superb. He just said to me, 'You'll score when you are meant to score'. He said, 'Keep doing what I want you to do'. He didn't say, 'Try x, y, z'. He said, 'I bought you to score goals because I believe in you and you will'. Good manager, very good manager." And, with his drive, passion, directness, the type to get the best out of Cole.

The striker didn't mind the famed "hairdryer" treatment. "I had it a few times," he says. "I look back now and laugh, because whatever we disagreed about, he was a manager who you could have stand-up rows with and afterwards it was forgotten. Come the day after it was all gone. I like that. I like a straight manager. Be straight down the middle with me and I'm like that back. No curve balls."

So when it came time to leave, after 231 appearances, 121 goals and 10 trophies, both men knew. Nevertheless, Cole concedes it was "very difficult". "I was 30 and just wanted to play," he says. "I was in and out. I would play one game and then not in the big games. That's why I made the decision. He was always good with me and said, 'I know what you are like, I know what kind of person you are, you are not a good sub'. He knew I was driven."

At Blackburn Rovers - despite scoring the winning goal in the League Cup final - he found it tough. Cole thought Graeme Souness would be like Alex Ferguson. A plain dealer. "When I got there it couldn't work," Cole says. "I would not be dominated. He tried to belittle me. But you have a working relationship with your boss and you have to be able to voice an opinion." It's not an unreasonable argument, but one football doesn't always accept. "In everyday life, people make their own decisions, they say what they want to say. It's freedom of speech," Cole says. "In football, you come out with that and you're a bad egg. Football is an ego-driven game. Some people are allowed to have opinions and others aren't."

Cole feels it is changing. Managers are approachable, players more able to speak. Does it mean he would like to start out again? "If I knew I could achieve what I achieved, then yes," he laughs. There aren't even any regrets over a stalled international career - 15 appearances, one goal and a host of unconvinced managers. "Don't forget I played for the best," he says of Ferguson. "So there you go... Are they trying to tell me I'm not good enough? That's maybe their opinion, but I've shown that I've done it in Europe. Don't be questioning me, saying I'm not good enough. Give me the opportunity and, over time, I'll get goals."

Nineteen for United in European competition, a campaign that peaked with the Treble-winning 1999 team. Even now Cole says it's "impossible" to describe his feelings. "I can't comprehend how a team achieved so much," he says. Even when the young pros at Fulham ask, "I've never been a person who wants to sit and talk about what I've achieved. It's never been my style. I find it a bit embarrassing." Maybe it will be easier when he does, eventually, retire.

"I'm not scared of that," says Cole, Fulham's stand-in captain in the absence of his good friend Lee Clark. "I want to retire when the time is right." Maybe he will just wake one morning and decide. "I'm my worst critic," Cole says. "I'm just trying to get the best out of myself. I don't need anyone else to tell me. I know. It's why I'm playing. I know what I'm trying to do."

It helps that he is working for another "genuine man" in Fulham's Chris Coleman who commands that "respect". Cole has earned it too.

Biography

Andrew Alexander Cole

Born: 15 October 1971 in Nottingham.

International career: 15 England caps.

Club career: Arsenal 1989 to 1992 (as a trainee, went on loan to Fulham from September 1991 to March 1992, 18 matches). Signed by Bristol City for £50,000 in March 1992 (49 matches, 25 goals). Joined Newcastle United for £1.75m in March 1993 (83 matches, 68 goals). Joined Manchester United for £6m in January 1995 (231 matches, 121 goals). Joined Blackburn Rovers in December 2001. (79 matches, 37 goals). Moved to Fulham on a free transfer in July 2004 (35 matches to date, 12 goals).

Other: parents arrived in England from Jamaica in 1960s.

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