Football: Cottee approaches the elite 200 club

`Old git' he may be, but the veteran striker remains a potent attacking force for Leicester.

NEW YEAR'S Day, 1983. Maggie and Denis are ensconced in No 10 after victory in the Falklands, Renee and Renato remain in residence at No 1 with "Save Your Love For Me" and a 17-year-old East Ender dons West Ham's No 8 shirt for the first time.

The visitors, Tottenham, are holding their own until Joe Gallagher rises to Geoff Pike's cross. The cry of "Goal!" sticks in 33,000 throats when Ray Clemence tips the ball on to the bar, then explodes into the freezing air as the diminutive debutant heads the rebound into the net.

Tony Cottee returns to Upton Park today with Leicester City and 197 League goals to his name. The soul-boy fringe long since gave way to the slicked- back look, the pace he once allied to strength and suppleness is no longer blistering, and at 33 he accepts that Martin O'Neill is right to look for a younger striker rather than rely on "old gits like me".

Yet the instinct for being "in the right place at the right time", as he defines it, is still serving Cottee well. "It's been said that Mark Hughes is a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer," he says. "I'd like to think the opposite applies to me. In a career total of over 270 I can only think of about 10 fantastic ones. The vast majority have been tap-ins or rebounds."

By claiming five of Leicester's 11 in the Premiership, he has outscored the pounds 10m-rated Emile Heskey. Why, he chuckles, he "only" needs a hat-trick today to chalk up the double century he has targeted as compensation for a medal-free career.

"But that would be fantasy stuff," Cottee muses before recalling a precedent to prove that anything is possible, "the kind of thing that happened on my Everton debut."

Whatever today brings, after a week spent striving to shrug off a thigh strain, he is "100 per cent confident" of reaching the landmark that only five current players have passed. "I'll play until I'm 56 if I have to! Even if I never score for Leicester again and have to drop down to somewhere like Leyton Orient, I'll do it."

The same sense of certainty has been reflected in Cottee's finishing from an early age. "Even at seven I was aware that I had a different talent from other kids. Goalscoring has always been the easy part for me. It's the rest of it I've found hard.

"People say to me now that I've lost a yard, and they're right, but I tell them I'm still quick up here," he says, pointing to his head. "You can't take a young boy on to the training pitch and say: `This is where you've got to stand', because in match situations you have to make split- second decisions and try to anticipate things. With that first goal for West Ham, I didn't stand there thinking `What a great header by Joe' but `I'll go in just in case it comes out off the keeper or the woodwork'."

Having joined his entire extended family in becoming a "massive" Hammers fan in the 1970s, Cottee soon found a role model. Bryan "Pop" Robson, a classic penalty-box predator who could score with either foot or his head, remains his inspiration.

"I remember when Pop got to 200 League goals and thinking `how fantastic'. That became my target and I've slowly crept towards it."

Not that slowly. Cottee's reputation as a serial marksman earned the first of seven England caps two months after his 21st birthday, and when he first left West Ham it was for a British record fee of pounds 2.3m. Despite choosing Everton in preference to Arsenal, where George Graham would soon be awash with silverware, he is adamant the move was not ill-advised.

"I believe that once you've made a decision you can't start regretting it with hindsight. People say: `You'd have won two championships there' or tell me that Arsenal would never have signed Ian Wright. But who can say what would have happened? I could have gone there and got a terrible injury. It's all ifs, buts and maybes.

"I'm always hearing how it went badly for me at Everton but I got 99 goals and was top scorer in five of my six seasons there. I loved the club and our lifestyle in Southport. The only sadness was not winning anything. I joined in '88, a year after they last won the title, and left in '94, a year before they won the FA Cup, which sums up my Goodison career."

Cottee could scarcely have started better on Merseyside, the first of his three against Newcastle arriving after just 34 seconds. There was, he suggests in typically self-mocking mode, only one way it could go after that, although Evertonians still talk fondly of the pair he poached in a 4-4 draw with Liverpool in the FA Cup as an 85th-minute substitute.

When the chance came to go "home" to West Ham, he took it. However, it was a period of transition and Cottee found himself marginalised by Harry Redknapp's foreign recruits. He was leading scorer in both his seasons back in London, but "got the vibes" that he was not wanted and opted for a lucrative stint in Malaysian football.

After nine months he was back, joining Leicester in August last year. "It didn't really work out over there and I probably left the Premiership too early. I also found it hard adjusting to the change in standards and heat there and didn't do myself any favours at first."

A loan spell with Birmingham, where he scored his only lower-division goal, helped Cottee to regain sharpness. In January he collected Leicester's winner at Old Trafford - "my first there in 15 years of trying" - and he has maintained a steady flow ever since.

He can recall "almost every goal" and has scrapbooks of cuttings dating back to primary school to help him. Although agreeing that his goals tend not to be memorable, he regards stealing in front of defenders as a talent equal to, say, spectacular long-range shooting. "I always say that every goal is a great goal," he says.

Not that his own are all nudged in from spitting distance. Cottee nominates an overhead kick against Nottingham Forest in 1987 as his best. And while Leicester's jesters tease him about why he bothers to practise shooting from outside the 18-yard area, he once chipped Sheffield Wednesday's keeper from half as far again.

The length of Cottee's service means that his judgements on colleagues and adversaries carry genuine authority. He has a burgeoning rapport with Heskey, whose potential he terms "awesome", and cites Peter Beardsley, Graeme Sharp and Paul Goddard among his most productive partners. But as the outstanding Renee to his Renato he names Frank McAvennie.

Heading the list of difficult opponents are Alan Hansen, Paul McGrath and Tony Adams; but for their vigilance and the Asian interlude he would have broken the 200 barrier long ago. The same is true of his dislike of taking penalties. It is not that Cottee is daunted by the pressure, simply that he would sooner prosper by living off his wits.

"A penalty is almost not like a goal to me because it's staged. It's basically a free shot. I've heard Alan Shearer say completely the opposite and how it's a great way to get more goals. It probably is, but the few I've scored have never given me the buzz I get if it comes from open play."

All the same, if the referee points to the spot, and the "old git" in Leicester's No 27 top has already popped in a couple, separating him from the ball could prove problematic.

THE 200 CLUB: THE FIVE STILL PLAYING AND SCORING

STEVE BULL

Wolves 252

John Aldridge's retirement left "Bully", 33, as the top scorer in League matches. His first goals came in 1986 for West Brom, but the other 250 were all for his beloved Wolves. September's winner v Bury could be his last due to knee problems, though he promises "a hell of a go" at reaching 300.

IAN RUSH

Wrexham 246

January marks the second anniversary of Rush's last League goal, one of just three he scored for Leeds. The Welshman, 37, has come almost full circle by joining the neighbours of his first club, Chester. All but 17 of his haul came with Liverpool, either side of a seven-goal sabbatical at Juventus.

IAN WRIGHT

West Ham 223

A late starter who did not score his first League goal until a month before his 22nd birthday, Wright went on to amass 89 for Crystal Palace and 128 in fewer matches for Arsenal. Now 35, he broke Cliff Bastin's overall record for the Gunners before joining West Ham, where he already has six this season.

TONY ADCOCK

Colchester 212

A 35-year-old Cockney, "Rooster" Adcock's goals have all come in the lower divisions. At Colchester, whom he left for Manchester City in 1988 in the first of seven moves, he needs five to beat the club record of 130. Last netted on Boxing Day; since freed, reinstated and injured, but now playing again.

PETER BEARDSLEY

Fulham 206

Gary Lineker's selfless England foil, Beardsley also helped himself at Newcastle (107 League goals in two spells), Liverpool and Everton, while failing to register for either Manchester club. At 37, he is back at Second Division level, where he first scored for Carlisle in 1979, and has three for Fulham this season.

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