Football: Why Cole is a burning issue: As England prepare to meet America at Wembley on Wednesday, the absence of the man who took goals to Newcastle is striking - Ian Ridley says Venables should find a place for last season's top scorer

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AN international match of questionable vintage against a nation apparently in need of dollars 25,000 before it will unpop its corks may look like little more than England's attempt to sip the last of the summer wine from the World Cup and kick some life into notoriously sluggish September legs before the business of sharing a glass with more relevant European opposition begins.

The match against the United States at Wembley on Wednesday has, however, raised the first important issue of Terry Venables's role as maitre d' to the national team, prompting questions about how he allocates the seating. Why does John Barnes get a table? Does Andy Cole lack some social grace?

The initial reaction to the recall of Barnes was one of bemusement. Here was a player whose previous failure to expand his creative contribution consistently to match his waistline was so entwined with Graham Taylor's management. However, the more one has considered it, and the more his less expansive role with Liverpool develops, the more it has made sense.

Although he may no longer be the mesmeric dribbler and brilliant crosser of his occasional pomp, it is indeed worth seeing if this little John - 12 1/2 stones down from 13 1/2 after a summer of running up the Heswall Hills rather than to the Wirral fast-food joints - can fill a left-sided midfield place. Paul Merson and Dennis Wise have not quite done so. Perhaps Barnes can provide the telling pass in the way Diego Maradona did briefly for Argentina this summer.

It is more the baffling omission of Cole that raises doubts. In his reply to questioning about it in announcing the squad, Venables would not mention anyone by name, saying only instead that he would not throw out caps like confetti and that he was well aware of all the young striking talent.

Yet Cole should surely be more than a bridesmaid in the gathering that also contains the promising Robbie Fowler - who has imaginatively been included in senior training sessions before playing in Tuesday's under-21 match against Portugal at Leicester - Chris Sutton and Stan Collymore, who have more to prove in the months ahead. Cole's record eclipses them all; even those of three strikers included in the 18-man squad, Ian Wright, Les Ferdinand and Teddy Sheringham, as a comparison of their records reveals.

Take Cole v Wright, for example. Other than their respective clubs of Newcastle and Arsenal, the top five defences last season were those of Blackburn, Manchester United, Leeds and - believe it or not - Coventry and Manchester City. Cole scored 10 goals in 10 appearances against them. Wright had none from nine, confirming the impression of his international record of five (four against San Marino) in 18 caps that he is a great goalscorer against all but the best opposition.

Using the same yardstick of the five defences, Ferdinand scored two goals in nine appearances; Sheringham none in two either side of his injury, which earns him the reserve of judgement. In addition, Cole's total of 34 Premiership goals last season as part of his record for Newcastle of 57 in 60 games was the top division's highest total by an Englishman since Jimmy Greaves 30 years ago.

Four goals already this season - even if they were against Leicester City, Coventry and Southampton in a Newcastle opening fixture list that has resembled a Chris Eubank bum- of-the-month tour - have added to his case, as Wright has struggled in an Arsenal side feeding him little.

Football's grapevine was last week at work to try and explain Cole's absence: he had a reputation for being awkward in his early days at Arsenal and George Graham, close friend to Venables, sold him to Bristol City in exasperation. There is, it was also hinted, some character defect in Cole, which surfaced again last season when he absented himself from the Newcastle squad before a match at Wimbledon.

His club manager, Kevin Keegan, had heard it and felt moved to counter after Cole's oustanding display of pace, power and perception in creating all three goals in the 3-1 win at West Ham on Wednesday. 'It saddens me,' he said. 'I have got to tell you that the lad is a gem. He works and he listens. He can still improve and what's more he knows it.'

The man who bought him for Bristol City, Denis Smith, now manager at Oxford United, concurs but adds: ''Possibly George Graham did have trouble with him because Andy thought he should have been in the side. That's normal for people who are strong-minded. Everyone wants that type of player. It still took me three months to get George to sell.'

Cole himself talked last week about his time coming if he kept up his performance and that he would play anywhere for England: 'I have been tarred with a brush but I am good at what I do. I think I am growing up. A lot of people said I was a one-season wonder and that has spurred me on.'

Venables responded briskly to the suggestion that he had been influenced by gossip within the game. 'I don't think there's any basis for that. Why has there got to be any hidden reason for me not picking him? That's just hearsay,' he said.

'I don't think I have ever been concerned about difficult characters before, if you look at my record. All I want is a good football team and I have had difficult characters many times. So why would I change for this, if it's true?'

Venables is indeed too shrewd a character to overlook any player just because of a reputation and even gives the impression of enjoying the challenge of taming a talent, as his fondness for Paul Gascoigne and the willingness to join the queue of managers seeking to get the best out of Barnes demonstrates.

Perhaps, too, he is still in the process of crossing off old names rather than adding new ones. As he himself says of his squad, 'It has started as it ended,' seeing no reason to dispense with such as Wright over a summer without a match. 'I am looking longer-term. I know what I am aiming for.'

The early signs are that Wright's powers may be waning, however - he himself admitted after the San Marino game, before reconsidering, that it was time to step aside for the younger players - and that Cole is developing into more than the fad that was, say, Clive Allen, scorer of 33 league goals in 1986-87 but not the same threat at international level.

With Venables choosing four strikers in his 18-man squad - pointing to him playing, after three matches with withdrawn attackers, a second up front to partner the automatic selection Alan Shearer - it appeared an ideal opportunity to see Cole; at least to see how he integrates himself into an England squad and takes to not being a first choice.

We await next month against Romania, a more meaningful match in the build-up to the European Championship finals two years hence, to see if the big issue is still homeless.