Football: The numbers cruncher

Ian Ridley says the figures show that Andy Cole is second to very few
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The Independent Online
There have been some unflattering images of Andy Cole in recent seasons. As the ball squirted away from him during an appearance as a substitute for England, Terry Venables was seen to mouth "no control". Last season with Manchester United we were sure the shoulder- shrugging from a frustrated Eric Cantona was directed at him. "A bobble waiting to happen," it was written of him.

Now his touch seems more assured, the runs he has been making frequently in tune with the orchestrations of Cantona's successor Teddy Sheringham. To boot, Cole's defensive work is uncharacteristically diligent. The confidence that has come from a spell free of injuries and the support of a prize collection of talents is proving potent.

Cole returns to Newcastle today with United less the naked goalscorer he was when he plied his trade at St James' Park, more the rounded footballer that Glenn Hoddle will need next summer. After all the ups and downs since his move from Newcastle three years ago, Cole appears to have outstripped his subsequent successor to the No 9 shirt Les Ferdinand in the competition to understudy Alan Shearer, the latest in the Newcastle dynasty, for England. Or perhaps even replace him should Shearer not have healed adequately come June. The friendly against Chile at Wembley on 11 February should tell us more.

It all looked unlikely this time last year when Cole was easing himself back in as a substitute after the latest in a line of injures that have included two broken legs, two operations for shin splints, pneumonia and an abcess. The rehabilitation seemed complete when he scored four goals against Barnsley at the end of October, though even then the doubts persisted: abunch of goals against bad defences bump up his figures; his goals are scored with games won. "You could tell by the players' reactions that they felt the criticism was unfair," the United manager, Alex Ferguson, said. "It was a bit like 'stuff them, we've always liked you and that's the only thing that matters'."

Cole's return so far of 15 goals this season from 16 starts - five in the Champions' League - is close to the ratio of his two seasons at Newcastle when he scored 68 goals in 83 starts, which compares favourably with Shearer's record of 28 goals in 39 appearances; 81 per cent to 71.

At Old Trafford, in addition, Cole is behind only Denis Law in terms of goals per game thanks to a record of 48 scored from 88 starts. His career rate of league goals is 55 per cent compared to Shearer's 56 and Ian Wright's 50. The statistics do not tell of a misfit.

"I've never seen an issue with Cole. There's no controversy as far as I am concerned," Ferguson said. "He's done a terrific job for us. That to me is my criterion. He has scored one goal every two games. That's more than healthy.

"You are always going to get talk with a player who's bought for a lot of money and doesn't score a hat-trick every match. He had a better rate of scoring at Newcastle but playing here is a different ball game. His general game is very good, his work-rate is good.

"If you keep being persistent, the players recognise your efforts and so does the manager. He does more defensive work, more than I thought he could do when I bought him. I bought him for the simple reason teams had started to read us better. I needed that lightning pace around the edge of the box which would worry teams and make them have to decide how to play, whether to come out and leave space behind them."

Cole's main asset is his ability to pounce on to a chance from alongside his marker by stealing half a yard. It is his fortune, too, as it could be for England, to play with David Beckham and Paul Scholes as well as Sheringham, with goals being created from all positions and angles.

As Newcastle fans look wistfully back on the Cole and Keegan years, last season's 5-0 defeat of United at St James' must look dim and distant. What they would give for just a couple of goals today, having watched their team labour to just 12 goals from 10 home games, four fewer than United have scored in just nine away. It will surely rankle that United are carrying a reinvigorated Cole to Newcastle.

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