Cole finally finds his way back

Jim White considers a striker's plunge from plunderer to plodder and his recent recovery of the status of a pounds 7m player

A year ago, Kevin Keegan stood on the steps of St James' Park explaining to a group of Newcastle supporters that he had not gone mad. The fans had gathered to protest about the sale to Manchester United of Andy Cole, who had scored 68 goals in 84 games for the Magpies. What was the manager doing, the aggrieved wanted to know, particularly that fan who had just proved his devotion to Cole by having his thigh tattooed with the player's image.

Keegan, showing more preparedness to meet the people who pay his wages than most managers, explained he had his reasons, that the pounds 7m package Alex Ferguson had agreed represented an offer he could not turn down, one which would enable him to strengthen the side. Few accepted it at the time, how could off-loading a young player whose goals were the focal point of the team be described as development? Besides, didn't the sale prove that, despite all Sir John Hall's protestations, Newcastle remained a selling club, prepared to off-load their best to other clubs the moment a cheque book was waved?

The Newcastle rumour mill worked overtime to construct explanations for Keegan's actions, most involved a behind-the-scenes falling out of House of Windsor proportions. A year on, Geordies must be convinced Keegan was not spinning a line that afternoon; he replaced Cole with Les Ferdinand and Keith Gillespie, whose form has propelled Newcastle to the top of the Premiership.

Manchester United fans can be less certain that their manager conducted a sound bit of business. Even after 12 months, the questions remain. He has scored 18 goals in 38 games in the red, black, grey or blue shirt of United. But those bald statistics are somewhat misleading, as they include five against Ipswich, and two apiece against Leicester, Manchester City and Coventry. A bit of a Graeme Hick performance - capable of plunder against the weak, but disappearing against the big boys. Until Christmas this season, he had missed more chances than Hull City create in a year. His shots hit bobbles, or goalkeepers' legs, the ball never seemed to fall kindly; many claimed his misses against West Ham in the last game of the season cost United the championship, which underplays the performance of Ludek Miklosko that day.

The theories mooted for apparent decline were many: the most persuasive was that Alex Ferguson, seeking to mould Cole to United's style of play, had tried to turn him into a player he wasn't. At Newcastle he was an instinctive finisher, converting the chances Beardsley made for him; ask him to do any more and he is not equipped. Now Ferguson wanted him to replace Mark Hughes, the best holder-up of play in the country. Worse, with Andrei Kanchelskis gone and Ryan Giggs playing in the centre of midfield, United rarely supplied him with the ball he loves - cut back from the byline to the penalty spot. At times in early December, his confidence ebbing away, Cole's touch was reminiscent of George Best's dismissal of Carlton Palmer ("he can trap the ball further than I can kick it"). His career was widely written off.

Then, the day after Boxing Day, Cole sent a shot of such precision past the Newcastle goalkeeper it seemed you had imagined all the misses. It was the perfect Cole moment: pass to feet, first-time shot, goal. Suddenly, the fans realised a player capable of scoring 41 goals in a season does not become a duffer overnight. Cole had begun a run of four goals in four Premiership games, and the ball had started to arrive as he enjoys it.

Part of the reason is that at last he is playing alongside Eric Cantona. Bought to fire the bullets the Frenchman moulded, Cole spent 10 of his first 12 months at Old Trafford alone in a team whose creative purpose had been mislaid. Now he is growing used to the new Beardsley by his side, Cole's time may have come. If it has, the smile on Alex Ferguson's face will be bright enough to light up the streets of Newcastle.

How Andy Cole measures up

Goals (games) League FA Cup L Cup Euro Other Total

Arsenal 90-91 0 (1) 0 0 0 0 0 (1)

Fulham (loan) 91-92 3 (13) 0 0 0 1 (2) 4 (15)

Bristol C (loan) 91-92 8 (12) 0 0 0 0 8 (12)

Bristol C 92-93 12 (29) 0 (1) 4 (3) 0 1 (6) 17 (39)

Newcastle 92-93 12 (12) 0 0 0 0 12 (12)

Newcastle 93-94 34 (40) 1 (3) 6 (2) 0 0 41 (45)

Newcastle 94-95 9 (18) 0 (1) 2 (5) 4 (3) 0 15 (27)

Man Utd 94-95 12 (17) 0 0 0 0 12 (17)

Man Utd 95-96 (to 9 Jan) 6 (18) 0 (1) 0 (1) 0 (1) 0 6 (21)

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