FOOTBALL: The talents that made a talisman

FOOTBALL: Newcastle have lost more than a goal machine with the departu re of Andy Cole to Old Trafford. GuyHodgson reports

Scott Sellars was waiting to board a plane to Bilbao and was spending his time quantifying Andy Cole. After stating the obvious, his goals, he summed it up succinctly: "Without Andy you have to look up," he said. "When he's playing you can hit th e pass blind and know he'll be there."

That was the case until yesterday. The £7m transfer of Cole from Newcastle to Manchester United - a British record - will leave a gap in Tyneside that will extend beyond the passing habits of his former colleagues. The going of a player who was as much atalisman as a striker will be mourned like the passing of a favourite son. Newcastle without Andy Cole: it will seem inconceivable in the North-east.

Cole, 23, was there for Newcastle in a way that almost defied belief. Until his current nine-match run without reward, his strike rate was almost a goal a game, an average nearly without parallel even in times gone by when the currency was cheaper. Sixty-eight goals in less than two seasons, even Alan Shearer, commonly regarded as Britain's best forward, has been eclipsed.

"You used to read about players like Dixie Dean and Jackie Milburn," Kevin Keegan, his erstwhile manager at St James' Park, said, "but as they were before my time they could only be imagined. Andy must be something like they were. If you watch a tape of a game, of five or six chances he's created two or three out of absolutely nothing. He isn't like any other player I've seen. For me he's the country's most exciting player."

Keegan brought Cole from Bristol City in March 1993 to gild Newcastle's promotion drive from the First Division. He scored on his home debut and by the time the championship had been sealed his 12 goals in 11 starts had already suggested the £1.75m fee represented daylight robbery.

Quick and stealthy, Cole did not fit the stereotype of Newcastle No 9s, who were built on the same awesome lines of Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. At 5ft 11in and 11st 2lb he cuts a lean figure although he posseses a strength that neither his frame not his shy off-field persona would imply.

The most obvious difference, however, was his being black. Geordies, like Liverpudlians, were not noted for their racial tolerance but Cole conquered any prejudice by his sheer weight of talent. He was, simply, the cult figure at Newcastle, someone who has altered deeply ingrained and ugly attitudes.

"If you had said 10 years ago," an editorial in a Newcastle fanzine, The Mag, read last season, "that the hero of the Toon Army would be a black lad you would probably have got some pretty strange looks. However the impact that Andy Cole has had on Newcastle is startling. He's educated anybody who is still living in the past . . . anybody who now thinks we would be better off without black players . . . with his devastating pace and his eye for goal."

Those qualities are what have set Cole apart from the start. One of eight children, Cole left his Nottingham home in 1989 to join Arsenal, where his talents were recognised even though he made only two first team appearances as a substitute.

"We used to call him Andy van Cole," David Rocastle, the Chelsea player who was a colleague at Highbury, recalled, "after Marco van Basten. He was a young lad in the reserve team at the time but even then you could see the lad had quality. He is a fine athlete and the fact that some critics say he's lazy is absolute rubbish. You ask Newcastle players how much he does for them.

"The great thing about Andy is that he is prepared to listen to advice and work hard. He's always wanted to learn. He used to come to the likes of myself, Paul Davis and Michael Thomas for advice."

Unfortunately for Cole, there were also too many strikers at Arsenal to glean information from. Blessed with Ian Wright, Alan Smith, Paul Merson and Kevin Campbell, the club had an embarrassment of riches and the least experienced of the quintet was allowed to go. George Graham's valuation of Cole's worth was revealed in the £500,000 fee Bristol City paid and even then Arsenal put a rider on the deal that gave them a share of the sell-on profit.

"It was a blessing in disguise that he left," Rocastle continued. "I suppose he went with a bit of an `I'll show Arsenal' attitude and that fired him up. He had the desire to prove Arsenal wrong."

He has done so vigorously and frequently and such was his success with Newcastle it seemed inconceivable that the player and club would be parted. To an extent that not a single newspaper had linked Cole with Manchester United even though Alex Ferguson'ssearch for an English goal-scorer has been widely chronicled.

Yet there was a strong hint that all was not well last season when Cole was dropped for a Coca-Cola Cup tie at Wimbledon after an argument with his manager because he wanted to stay in London prior to the match. He later told Keegan that he was homesick for the capital although, having just bought a flat in Newcastle, the reports that he had settled in the North-east carry some credence.

There were also indications that Geordie adoration had not extended beyond the man himself and that some of Cole's family had suffered racial abuse while visiting him.

Cole, naturally, railed against that while seeming to bridle at the goldfish bowl existence. "All people want to do around here is talk football, football, football," he told the People last month. "It's 24 hours a day and when they've talked all they can about how we're doing, they start on about Jackie Milburn and Malcolm Macdonald. I can't do that. I have to get away from it."

Whether he will find a release in Greater Manchester which boasts enough interest in football to support eight professional teams is highly doubtful although the compensation of playing for Britain's most glamorous club will be considerable. He has played against his new club twice, and on each occasion he scored.

"If everyone gives him a chance," Keegan said last season, "Andy Cole could be the answer to our dreams in this country. He is certainly the answer to ours at Newcastle."

Yesterday the dream died on Tyneside.

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