Football: Ferguson's laughing cavaliers

Yorke and Cole enter the San Siro as possibly the best strike force in United's history. By Phil Shaw

IT WAS the goal which confirmed the primacy of the partnership between Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole and killed off any lingering hopes the likes of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham may have harboured. The moment when, as David Beckham's other half might have put it, two became one hell of a duo.

The scene was the Nou Camp Stadium in November, early in the second half of a frenetic Champions' League fixture. After the shock of conceding a first-minute goal to Barcelona, Manchester United had recovered to equalise through Yorke. Probing the left side of the home defence, Roy Keane rolled a pass inside towards the Tobagan 25 yards from goal... whereupon Cole takes up the story.

"Dwight dummied it and as soon as he let the ball run I knew that he wouldn't stand still, that he'd make a run. So I thought I'd play a one- two. Dwight could either go on himself or knock it back to me. Fortunately for me, he knocked it back." Unfortunately for Ruud Hesp, Barca's Dutch goalkeeper, Cole knocked it past him.

The scorer's analysis talks of what he "thought" he would do. However, the most striking aspect of the build-up was the apparent lack of deliberation and the part played by intuition, or "telepathy" as Wilf McGuinness, the former United player and manager, characterises it. When Yorke stepped over the ball he knew instinctively that Cole was behind him and moved instantaneously for the pass which was duly played.

Cole, in turn, anticipated precisely where to run for the reciprocal pass from Yorke. In a matter of seconds the ball nestled in the Catalan net, prompting Alan Hansen to hail the goal as "a masterpiece".

Since that game, which finished 3-3, the understanding that was blossoming between United's front two has burgeoned, perhaps even beyond Alex Ferguson's expectations. Beckham, whose crosses enabled Yorke to give United a 2-0 first-leg lead over Internazionale in their European Cup quarter- final, says the pair's perpetual motion make his job easy.

Going into the second leg in Milan tonight, Yorke has amassed 26 goals and Cole 21. The latter's brace in Saturday's win at the club who sold him for pounds 7m, Newcastle, means it is already the most prolific partnership of the Ferguson era, overtaking the mark set by Eric Cantona and Mark Hughes in 1993-94. Yet what really sets apart the double act which could bring the Treble to Old Trafford is the transparent pleasure Yorke and Cole take in making goals for each other.

In his mind's eye McGuinness, a former Busby Babe and England player, can still see Tommy Taylor in tandem with Dennis Viollet before Munich. He worked with Best, Law, Charlton and Kidd, and admired the link between Hughes and Brian McClair. But he has no hesitation in hailing Yorke and Cole as Old Trafford's best attacking partnership "by a mile".

"The funny thing is that they're basically similar players," he says. "They're not the classic pairing of a strong spearhead and a foil who feeds off him. They're both fast, darting strikers whose biggest asset is movement off the ball and sharpness in the goal area.

"They've both got quick feet. They're both good at shielding the ball, with surprising upper-body strength. Both turn well, and they're better in the air than you'd expect for their size."

The fact that they are also bosom pals - Yorke rang Cole when he could not find the training ground on his first day and they immediately hit it off - has enhanced their relationship on the pitch, according to McGuinness. "It shouldn't matter if you don't get on with a certain team-mate. But if two players are good buddies, they look for each other. I certainly did with Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman, but then we were all friends in that side."

Now covering the club as a broadcaster, a role which took him to Barcelona and will also find him in Milan, McGuinness has noticed how Yorke and Cole are always first to congratulate each other after a goal. While pointing out that Cole's link with Cantona was not exactly unproductive, he acknowledges that there was no comparable rapport.

"These two play for each other," he says. "Strikers normally have to be selfish, or at least single-minded, but they love helping each other. And the way it's going, if one hits the bar, the other sticks in the rebound."

Their friendship is such that the other players reputedly tease them about how often they pass to one another. They train together a lot - the harder they practise, the more telepathic they get, to paraphrase a famous maxim about luck in golf - as well as hanging out with each other.

The simplistic explanation is that the empathy stems from the fact that both are black and therefore natural "soul brothers". Yet Cole is a Nottingham boy who spent much of his adolescence in London after joining Arsenal, whereas Yorke used to keep his family in the West Indies above the poverty line by catching crabs and selling them to hotels. Culturally, their backgrounds could scarcely be more contrasting.

Whatever the reason, the bond has brought Cole out of his shell. Graham Taylor, who took Yorke to England as a teenager after spotting him on an Aston Villa tour, once remarked that it would be nice to see Cole smile. Yorke, of course, could grin for England (were he not committed to Trinidad & Tobago), and his influence may account for his partner's less surly demeanour of late.

In playing terms, the pairing has surprised those who expected Yorke to provide for Cole but not vice versa. The former tends to drift into deeper positions and to go wide more, but it is also noticeable how often he is the beneficiary of Cole's new-found selflessness, most recently at Chelsea in the FA Cup.

Yorke is the more complete performer. The audaciously chipped goal over Ed de Goey at Stamford Bridge was no one-off; he had the confidence and the skill to dink a similar shot over David Seaman from the penalty spot for Villa against Arsenal last season. Now that he is playing for a side who tend to dominate possession, we are seeing the full range of his attacking talents.

"I could understand why the club were so keen to get him," McGuinness says, "even though John Gregory got them to pay more than the going rate! But he looks a snip now, if you can say that about someone who cost pounds 12.6m; a classic United player. He was a very good player at Villa - now he looks a great player."

Alan Hansen, echoing Glenn Hoddle's caveat that Cole needs too many chances to score, believes there is still a question mark over him against top- class opposition. McGuinness argues that is no longer the case: "Andy hasn't really had a chance to prove himself with England, but at European level he's blossoming due to this partnership. That goal in Spain was a perfect example."

In the San Siro, Cole could be asked to operate as a lone striker, with Yorke and the wide players taking more withdrawn roles. Inter, doubtless reinforced by Ronaldo, are sure to throw men forward.

"United are going to have to work hard when the Italians come at them, though that's when the gaps should appear," says McGuinness. "It was crucial that Inter didn't get an away goal. With Yorke and Cole, you're always confident that United will score, whoever or wherever they play."

THE FERGUSON YEARS:

A STRIKING IMPROVEMENT

1986-87

Peter Davenport 16, Norman Whiteside 10, Frank Stapleton 9.

1987-88

Brian McClair 31, Bryan Robson 11, Gordon Strachan 9.

1988-89

Mark Hughes 16, Brian McClair 16, Bryan Robson 8.

1989-90

Mark Hughes 15, Mark Robins 10, Brian McClair 8.

1990-91

Mark Hughes 21, Brian McClair 21, Steve Bruce 18.

1991-92

Brian McClair 24, Mark Hughes 14, Andre Kanchelskis 8.

1992-93

Mark Hughes 16, Ryan Giggs 11, Brian McClair 9, Eric Cantona 9.

1993-94

Eric Cantona 25, Mark Hughes 20, Ryan Giggs 17.

1994-95

Andre Kanchelskis 15, Eric Cantona 13, Andy Cole 12, Mark Hughes 12.

1995-96

Eric Cantona 19, Paul Scholes 14, Andy Cole 13.

1996-97

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 19, Eric Cantona 15, David Beckham 11.

1997-98

Andy Cole 26, Teddy Sheringham 14, David Beckham 11.

1998-99

Dwight Yorke 26, Andy Cole 21, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 15 (so far).

*English clubs banned from Europe 1986-87 to 1989-90 inclusive

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