Football: Cole wins the applause

An instinctive alliance has helped Manchester United's pounds 7m striker to bury the ghosts of four years ago. By Guy Hodgson
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PUT YOURSELF in Andy Cole's position last Sunday. You have not touched the ball yet but you are running at full pelt. A pass from Gary Neville is coming over your shoulder, defenders are at your side and the goalkeeper is advancing. Never mind you and me, a lot of Premiership strikers would make a hash of it.

So, the suspicion persisted, would Cole. Instead he stretched his long, right leg into the sky, had another touch to steady himself and calmly, slowly lobbed the ball over Tottenham's Ian Walker. In that moment the Premiership, his third and Manchester United's fifth is seven years, was won.

Spin back four years and the image goes 180 degrees. He could have won the championship for United and was blocked that May afternoon by the body of West Ham's Ludek Miklosko and inhibitions created partly by the pounds 7m transfer tag that had brought him to Old Trafford only four months before.

Blackburn celebrated 200 miles away while Cole's was the sad face that said near miss and shouted far worse six days later when he cut a confidence- shattered figure in United's FA Cup final defeat by Everton. The double was won that unhappy spring, a double of desperate Old Trafford disappointment.

All manner of rumour circulated concerning his reception in the United dressing-room in this period, but if his fellow players soon forgot, the critics did not. The sage of Six-O-Six has persistently used the West Ham match as Exhibit A when he wondered whether Cole was good enough, and even the erstwhile England coach, Glenn Hoddle, needed persuading the goals-per-chances ratio was good enough.

He does not score in big games? The facts argue otherwise. The two he got at Newcastle in March eased his side through an away game that had been projected as a stumble; the equaliser at Leeds last month proved to be the difference between United and Arsenal; the third in Turin; the winner on Sunday with his first touch and 2min 36sec after he came on as a substitute. Cole has struck 24 times this season and seven of those were his side's first in matches.

His reputation has undergone a revision this last nine months, partly because he and Dwight Yorke quite obviously hit it off, which bemuses Cole because he scored more goals than anyone in the Premiership last season without proper England or public recognition. "It's taken a long time hasn't it?" he said. "This season I'm being appreciated but I thought I was doing it last year too. The difference is that Dwight's come in, we've got a partnership that's worked really well, and impressions have changed."

They have, even at Old Trafford, where it appeared he would be the one who slipped out of the team after Yorke's pounds 12.5m arrival from Aston Villa. They played one game, again firing blanks against West Ham on 22 August, and then were not in harness until October when a goal apiece at Southampton launched a partnership that has rattled in 53 goals.

"I wasn't worried," Cole, 27, said. "I've been out of the team a couple of times and always got back in so it's never really bothered me." On Yorke, he added: "The partnership's worked wonders and is getting stronger if anything. The way we play together is instinctive. We both know where we're going, we both know what we're looking for."

"Just because Dwight and I have done well it doesn't mean the other players haven't. It's a team thing and it's a joy to play in this one."

So much emphasis has been put on United's striking axis that Cole's return to the England squad has been attributed to it, as well as a smile returning to his face. He disputes both pointing out that he still had to score the goals to regain international recognition and that people's perceptions are wrong.

"Dwight has helped but I've had to put the ball in the net. I'm a laid -back character, too," he said, a slight grin emphasising the point. "People get the wrong impression of me because I don't give myself up to the media. People say I'm sullen but in many ways I'm like Dwight. It's my culture. We come from the same background."

The appointment of Kevin Keegan as England manager has had a beneficial effect, too. He bought and sold Cole when he was at Newcastle without losing regard for his skills, and it is one of the paradoxes of today's FA Cup final that the No 9 in red made his name and number in black and white on Tyneside.

Of course, given the striking riches at Alex Ferguson's disposal there is the possibility Cole will be rested with an eye on the European Cup final on Wednesday, although he will resist that notion. "I want to play in the final," he said. "Definitely. It's against my former club and you always want to play against your former club. The romance of the FA Cup is something special and I don't want to be missing out on that."

Not that Cole is swooning at the romance of it all. The FA Cup has been the third most coveted jewel in United's potential triple crown, but whereas most of Old Trafford craves the European Cup his personal choice was the Premiership.

"For me it had to be the League," he said listing his priorities. "You go through 38 games, the ups and downs, and to prove you're the best team in England is the most important thing. The cup games are a bonus, the European Cup is a very big bonus, but you have to win your domestic title first."

His priority was accomplished against Tottenham last weekend and the bonuses lie ahead: Newcastle at Wembley today and Bayern Munich in Barcelona in the European Cup final on Wednesday. "As a lot of the boys were saying before the Spurs game, we've got three cup finals and I know we're more than capable of winning all three. I don't see why we can't beat Bayern. They're a very tall team and they play like the English, the Germans always work hard. It'll be a physical game but I thought we handled them well in the Champions' League games and we should have won both to be honest."

A goal to grace his best season? "I don't care who scores," replied. "If we nick a 1-0 and Peter Schmeichel gets the goal I won't be fussed. It's the European Cup, something the club has looked forward to for a long, long time. After watching for so many years and thinking `one day I'd love to be in the European final' it's going to be a special day."

You suspect it will be more so for the doubts of four years ago. Cole is no longer the man who cost United the championship but the one who clinched it in 1999 and if he gets the winning goal next Wednesday he will enter the lists of distinction at Old Trafford. Not bad for a player whose worth has been part of a debate from the moment he joined United.

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