Football: Creaking Cottee on call

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The Independent Online
Leicester City 2 Wimbledon 1

EVERYONE HAS a Tony Cottee story, even Egil Olsen, who remembered the Premier League's most enduring goalscorer putting three past his Norwegian Under-21s on a dim and distant night in Southampton.

Cottee popped in his 28th and 29th for Leicester on Saturday, prompting the manager, Martin O'Neill, to recall the diminutive striker's arrival at Filbert Street two years ago, in circumstances that were hardly auspicious.

"He had been out in Malaysia and his dad kept ringing my coach, Steve Walford, to say how well he had been doing," O'Neill said. "We were in the Uefa Cup and we needed to register any new players by the end of August and I thought we could get Tony here as cover for the strikers.

"To be honest, I only saw him as a bit-part player, and even he thought his Premiership days were over. But we sent him to Birmingham on loan to get him fit and when he came back he scored the winner against Manchester United. He's never looked back."

Top scorer last season with 16 goals, Cottee already has eight this time. Given that Leicester still have only a creaking Ian Marshall as back-up front-man following the collapse of their move for Sheffield Wednesday's Andy Booth, his contribution has never been more vital. But he is realistic about his future and would welcome the arrival of another forward, even if it were to signal the beginning of his own demise.

"We do need a striker in the squad, there's no two ways about it," he said. "I'm pleased to be doing what I'm doing, but I'm 34 and I can't go on for ever. At my age you are always prone to injury. I've hardly trained in the two weeks since the last game, and I didn't think I'd play today."

How Leicester were grateful that he did as he sank Wimbledon with goals that perfectly illustrated the striker's art. First, Robbie Savage, stretching for a far-post header, turned Emile Heskey's over-hit cross back into the six-yard box and Cottee struck. Then Heskey, making a run on goal after Dean Blackwell's mistake, looked across for help and there was Cottee, again in just the right place.

"I used to say there was no such thing as a natural goalscorer, but Cottee proves that there is," O'Neill enthused. Modestly, Cottee afforded Heskey much of the credit. "Playing alongside him makes my job so much easier," he said.

He forecasts great things for his 21-year-old partner. "In time I'd like to see him and Michael Owen as England's front two, maybe in the 2002 World Cup. I'm always there if he wants advice, although he is his own man and probably doesn't need an old git like me telling him what to do."

Wimbledon led, if only for a minute or so, through Marcus Gayle - ironically a potential Leicester target - and Leicester, without the suspended Matt Elliott, had feared for their defence against John Hartson and company. But neither he nor another round of feuding in the boardroom could spoil this Cottee story.

Goals: Gayle (21) 0-1; Cottee (22) 1-1; Cottee (58) 2-1.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Flowers; Sinclair, Taggart, Walsh; Impey, Savage, Lennon, Oakes, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Arphexad (gk), Gilchrist, Marshall, Wilson, Zagorakis.

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Blackwell (Badir, 87), Hreidarsson, Kimble; Earle, Andersen, Euell; Cort, Hartson, Gayle. Substitutes not used: Davis (gk), Jupp, Andreson, Roberts.

Referee: A Wiley (Walsall).

Man of the match: Cottee.

Attendance: 18,255.