FOOTBALL: Hughes expected to give way to £7m Cole

FOOTBALL BY GUY HODGSON In a move that had echoes of their audacious purchase of Eric Cantona from Leeds two seasons ago, Manchester United yesterday bought Andy Cole from Newcastle United. The fee, estimated at £7m, is a British record.

Cole, who scored 68 goals in less than two seasons on Tyneside, signed a five-and-half-year contract that will keep him at Old Trafford into the next century. Keith Gillespie, Manchester United's Northern Ireland international winger, went in the opposite direction along with £6m.

The signs are that Cole will take Mark Hughes' place in the United team. Joe Royle, the Everton manager, offered £2.5m for the 31-year-old Welsh international last night, which United are likely to accept. Hughes has been in dispute with the club over a new contract, and will be worth much less when his current deal expires in June. Everton will offer Hughes the three-year deal that United are denying him, and Hughes is having a large house built for himself in Cheshire. Hughes was given the chance to join Newcastle as part of the Cole deal, but declined.

"Andy Cole is ideal for Manchester United," his new manager, Alex Ferguson, said. "He's our type of player. I've been saying that for one-and-a-half years, but never thought we would get a sniff of being able to sign him. This was a last-gasp effort and it's come off."

The deal takes Ferguson's expenditure at Old Trafford to £32m. "You prefer not to spend that much," he said, "but the way the market has gone the last few years it's difficult not to be involved in it. We want to stay at the top and Andy's goals will help us achieve that ambition."

Cole, 23, who has won one England B cap, was as surprised by the move as everybody else. "It was a big shock," he said. "I don't think anyone thought Kevin Keegan would sell me to another English club, particularly to Newcastle's arch rivals, Manchester United, but that's football for you.

"I'm disappointed to be leaving friends in Newcastle and I'd like to thank the people there for making me feel welcome. I didn't ask for a transfer, my consience is clear, but as soon as Mr Keegan accepted the money, it made my mind up for me. It's a brilliant move for me, I'm very excited."

Cole has assumed cult status on Tyneside since his £1.75m move from Bristol City in March 1993. He broke a Newcastle record, which had stood for 60 years, with 41 goals last season and continued in the same vein this term - 14 goals in the first 17 games- before a shin splint injury forced him to rest. He returned with his 15th goal of the season against Ipswich but has since gone an unprecedented nine games without scoring.

The key to the transfer was not just Ferguson's eagerness to sign an English striker with European competitions in mind - he has made several inquiries for Nottingham Forest's Stan Collymore - but Kevin Keegan's admiration for Gillespie. The Newcastle manager said the deal would not have gone through without the Northern Ireland winger.

"Keith Gillespie is a very, very important part of this deal," the Newcastle manager said. "I know all the papers will be talking about Andy Cole but Gillespie is a lad I like very much. I think he could be the most exciting player in this country over the next four or five years. His signing, plus £6m, gives me the chance to make changes at this club, changes that need to be made to keep us going in a forward direction.

"I've got the money to look at any player in the world now, but I won't be forced into corners and I won't be pressurised into buying someone quickly. I think Gillespie can come and, hopefully, not make us miss Cole too much.

"Andy Cole is very, very popular up here, you don't have to tell me that, but I have to look at the whole picture. After four days to think about it, and a lot of soul-searching I decided it was a deal to take this club forward. What happens from now on will be very important for me as a manager."

Howard Wilkinson would endorse that. The Leeds United manager sold Cantona to their great rivals at Old Trafford in November 1992, a move that is commonly considered to be the main reason why Manchester United ended a 26-year wait to win the championship. The Frenchman has gone on to be the most high-profile player in the country, while Leeds have stagnated and supporters have called for Wilkinson's dismissal.

Keegan suffered the first possible backlash yesterday when he was confronted by angry Newcastle fans. "I'm in charge, not you," he said to a group of about 50. "If it doesn't work out I know what the bottom line is. If you want to be manager of Newcastle, apply for the job."

The St James' Park switchboard, meanwhile, was jammed by irate phone calls. David Craggs, chairman of Newcastle's 800-strong London supporters club, summed up the mood: "I'm dumbfounded he's going. I know many people who follow Newcastle are. We are all in a state of shock. It hasn't sunk in yet that Andy Cole has played his last game for the club."

Like Cantona, Cole arrives at Old Trafford with something of a reputation as a moody, unpredictable player. But Ferguson has got the best out of the Frenchman and the presence of Paul Ince, another reformed character, will also help.

Cole's reaction since his goal flow has faltered has certainly been admirable. He had been working even harder in training, admitting: "It's getting harder for me to say that it doesn't bother me not scoring. Although this is the longest I have ever gonewithout a goal, I'm certain there will be a flood of goals."

Manchester United are banking on that, but the two players will not line up against their old clubs in Sunday's Premiership showdown at St James' Park, with Ferguson saying: "We've agreed that that would not be fair on the two players."

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