FOOTBALL: Golden Cole exposes widening gap

Ian Ridley questions football's ability to spend big money wisely
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THERE'S none so fair as can compare with goal king Cole, it would seem. At £7m he must surely represent a rare talent. And in that lies a sizeable problem for the English game; the talent is indeed so rare that football is in danger of squanderin g its new money on shooting stars.

Alex Ferguson's audacious, Cantona-esque procuring of Andy Cole from Newcastle for Manchester United has added a less-than-cheap thrill to mid- season and, yes, the money is staying in Britain. Cole is, too, in the vanguard of an exciting attacking breedwhich also includes Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton, Matthew Le Tissier, Stan Collymore, Robbie Fowler and Les Ferdinand. Scratch the surface, howev er, and worrying cracks appear. The British transfer record has now been broken twice in the past six months for uncapped strikers, Chris Sutton having gone from Norwich City to Blackburn Rovers for £5m. Then on Friday, Luton Town sold John Hartson to Ar senal for £2.5m. The 19-year-old Welshman was a substitute for the First Division side for much of last season.

The price of promise comes high in this Supermarket Sweep of a transfer game show. And it is because there is such a scarcity of talent, as many managers bemoan, that fees are being driven so high. Finding outstanding midfield players and defenders is even more difficult.

Bust, however, is unlikely to follow boom, in the way it did 15 years ago when Malcolm Allison paid £1.5m of Manchester City's money to Wolves for the England B player Steve Daley. Football now knows its market value to television and is maximising its merchandising and sponsorship potential. In addition, the all-seater stadiums will soon have been paid for.

But the problem arises of how to spend it wisely rather than wantonly, as the elite clubs fear. At Newcastle, Sir John Hall has invested in a centre of excellence for young players, and more should follow the lead. The Premiership's tentative plans to part-fund a new £180m national stadium in Manchester, Birmingham or London, from which it would then share revenue, also seem sound.

"There is a concern that once the Taylor Report is implemented and the bulk of the expenditure is made, that the new-found income from television and sponsorship simply goes in rampant wage and transfer inflation," admits the Premier League's chief exec u tive, Rick Parry. "We are seeking a balance so that a proportion of the income is invested for the good of the game." The Premiership, he added, may be willing to give grants to the Endsleigh League to slow the widening of the gap in standards that threa tens the long-term health of the clubs who develop players for them. It was a poignant part of the week that Gillingham went into receivership at the time of the Cole deal.

It is also no certainty that the Cole money will remain in England. Kevin Keegan may succeed in acquiring the two players he most covets - Le Tissier and Ferdinand - on the basis that managers always admire players who have done well against their own teams (Cole, for example, scored both Newcastle goals against Manchester United in the two 1-1 draws between the clubs last season) - but he already has one eye abroad.

Buying the Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, unhappy in Italy, would send some £7m out of the country and into the account of Internazionale. For all the English game's rude financial health, however, wages would remain a problem. Cole will receive some £8,000 aweek at Old Trafford; Bergkamp's recompense is £30,000.

It is one reason why it might seem strange for Romario to move from Barcelona back to Flamengo for roughly half Cole's price but he will receive more than £1m a year back in Brazil. For Bergkamp, a sponsorship and endorsement package to surpass that which Scottish and Newcastle Breweries once assembled to bring Keegan back to St James' Park as a player would be needed.

It is not beyond Keegan, a man hitherto with a Midas touch, however. In that is the reason why Tyneside's anger last week appeared so quickly to turn to anticipation and the majority reaction is likely to be understanding at today's intriguing Newcastle v Manchester United match, which Cole and the makeweight in the deal, Keith Gillespie, sit out. This is not a similar case to the sales of the former folk heroes Malcolm Macdonald and Paul Gascoigne. Newcastle are now bulls rather than bears in the market.

So what are Manchester United getting for the price of a hospital wing? Cole's predatory instincts are unquestioned, as a record of 68 goals in his last 84 games proves, but he is experiencing the recording artist's difficult-second-album syndrome after his 41 Premiership goals last season. He was goalless in his last nine for Newcastle.

His pace will give United a new outlet for the through ball and despite his reputation as a difficult character, they will find a willing worker, if the curse of the one fat contract that can make a player financially secure for life these days has not blunted his ambition.

"I would put him in the same category as Ian Rush as a finisher," says the Newcastle coach, Derek Fazackerley. "There is also a touch of Jimmy Greaves about him. He is lively, quick, alert and ice cool, brave and stronger than people give him credit for.But he has got to show greater aptitude to work for the team outside the attacking third. That's his major weakness." It is why Terry Venables has so far resisted his claims for England.

This correspondent has revised downwards his opinion of Cole this season, the more so with every comparative display by the all-rounded £3.3m finished article Alan Shearer.

Tonight at a dinner in London the Football Writers' Association celebrates the 80th birthday of Sir Stanley Matthews. Now there was a footballer, my mother always used to say without fail before watching her one match of the year on TV, the FA Cup final.The game, as good as Sir Stanley was to it, may not have been as good to him as to Andy Cole. Then again . . .