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Football: Cole transformed by goals and back in frame for World Cup finals

From scoring goals for fun at Newcastle, Andy Cole became a figure of fun when the goals dried up at Manchester United and the misses increased. But now, as Guy Hodgson saw at Old Trafford yesterday, he is pressing for a place in the England squad.

They used to be almost shame-faced when they shouted "Get your goal King Cole shirts" on Sir Matt Busby Way. Then they did not bother, it provoked too much scorn.

Even yesterday a man in a city centre pub was expressing reservations. "I want to see a him sneak a goal in a really big game," he said loudly "Only then will I be convinced." No Manchester United player has created so much doubt, so many reservations, as Andy Cole.

Every striker lives and dies by his confidence but no one wears it on his sleeve like Cole. Glenn Hoddle noted the other week that it was nice to see a smile on the striker's face again but ever since he moved from Newcastle United in January 1994 problems seemed to be ganging up on him. The worst of them were internal.

Is he good enough? The supporters were wondering, but so was Cole and frequently the inner voice told him "no". David Mellor repeatedly recalls that it was him who missed the chances against West Ham when United failed to win the championship in spring 1995, but no one needed to be reminded of it less than Cole.

His confidence was an error away from being shredded. He could not be substituted because his self-esteem would plummet further. The crowd stayed supportive, but when he missed and missed again against Feyenoord at Old Trafford only five weeks ago and his days at Old Trafford appeared not so much numbered as gone.

Indeed, had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not got injured Cole might have been sold. The Norwegian dropped out, however, and since then Cole has been a man transformed. "The only way he can answer his critics is on the pitch," Gary Pallister said and Cole has over and over again. Eleven times in nine matches.

It is Solskjaer who is on the outside of the team looking in now. His appearance in the starting line-up yesterday was due to Paul Scholes' suspension, his two goals no guarantee that he will force Cole out. The last time a striker had to make way for the Norwegian was Sheringham who stepped down. Cole's pace is the ingredient Alex Ferguson seems unwilling to do without. "Andy's going to be and is a very important player for Manchester United," the manager repeats on every inquiry.

Cole makes mistakes. All players do but they no longer linger with him like a bad smell. The player whose personality had a resilience by-pass now exudes confidence.

It was apparent from his first touch yesterday. The ball came at him at the sort of speed that would have had him tripping over his feet even two months ago yet he flicked it with the back of the heel into Ryan Giggs' path.

The last significant move of the match saw Cole chest the ball down and then imperiously strike the ball from the edge of the area. The shot went wide and the striker buried his head in his hands. This time it was only a scratch on the surface of his ego, not a mortal wound.

In between Cole had twice had the ball in the net, only to be ruled offside each time, and it was his pace that forced Stephane Henchoz to stick out a foot in desperation and concede an own goal, United's third. No longer a liability, he is almost a talisman.

There were two England fringe strikers on the pitch yesterday and their stories were indicative. Cole oozed threat, Chris Sutton could not find an inch of space against Henning Berg and was sent off for two bookable offences.

Jimmy Armfield, the Football Association's technical director was even advocating Cole's place in the World Cup squad next summer. "England have plenty of good strikers," he said, "but no one has Cole's pace."

Sutton or Cole? It was a one-way bet at the start of the season but not now. They can sell their Andy Cole shirts without ridicule these days.