If, as Alan Shearer believes, a striker can only be judged on the number of goals he scores how should Andy Cole be weighed in the balance?
Nobody has scored more in European competitions for Manchester United, a club for whom he manages on average one goal every two matches. In one astonishing season he put the ball in the net 41 times for Newcastle. And yet for England he has scored just once and even that, in Tirana in June, was not decisive. Michael Owen, the boy who has always eclipsed him in an England shirt, had already cracked open the Albanian defence when Cole, who had made his international debut when Owen was still studying for his GCSEs, struck.
With Owen injured, Saturday's final World Cup qualifier against Greece, on home ground at Old Trafford, might be a last opportunity. Glenn Hoddle, who dropped him from the 1998 World Cup squad on the grounds that "he takes five chances to score", said at the weekend that Cole would definitely be in his starting line-up on Saturday against a demoralised Greek side fresh from humiliation at the hands of Finland, of all teams.
"People mellow," Cole said of Hoddle. "If Glenn had the opportunity to buy me from Manchester United now, then he might want to do it."
Just as Cole missed out on the last World Cup, so he did not travel to the Low Countries for Euro 2000, snubbed by Kevin Keegan, the man who brought him out of obscurity at Bristol City to create a striking phenomenon at St James' Park. Even Cole believes that the fact that they play together for Liverpool gives Emile Heskey and Robbie Fowler the whip hand when Sven Goran Eriksson chooses Saturday's strikers. How would he react to missing out on a major tournament for a third successive time?
"I would have to sit down and think about it. I never thought I would do what I've done in my career; playing for such a great club as Manchester United. After your career's over, you can sit down and say: 'I regret this or that' but at the moment I just enjoy everything I do. Time is the master as my mum says.
"I had a terrible week domestically and going down to Tottenham on Saturday, playing from the start and ending up winning after being 3-0 down at half-time was superb.
"I'm older now. I'm changed by having two kids and waking up early in the morning. It changed my attitude to football. You realise there's more to life; I love football but to come away from it and see another side [of life] is special. My approach to games is exactly the same – I've had a determination to succeed since I was a kid – but away from it, I'm entirely different."
The poverty of his international record does not prey on his mind. "I've scored plenty of goals for Manchester United, I've scored them in the Champions' League. They are all the same; I just wait for the next one as all good goalscorers do. Had I played against Greece and scored again, all would have been well but it was my own stupidity; I got a silly booking and was suspended."
But for the man who broke Denis Law's record of European Cup goals for United (he has 18), watching this season's Champions' League matches from the bench must be the bitterest of frustrations. "After six years they have reverted to a different system [playing a lone striker] and that's very difficult. The Champions' League games are big matches and I really enjoy playing in Europe." Asked if he has discussed the matter with Ferguson, Cole says yes and flashes a beautiful smile, the sort that means he knew the argument could have only one victor.
"A lot of people look at professional footballers and say: 'They get paid too much and they don't care about not playing'. But I just want to play football and when I don't it hurts like hell." Does it matter which club he is playing for? "If that was the case then I wouldn't be at Manchester United now but I enjoy my football and if I'm not playing I'm not happy.
"It's my job and I want to enjoy my job. And if you are not enjoying it, horrible things come into your head. Dwight Yorke and I are both the same age and coming up to 30. You don't want to say you're delighted to be sitting on the bench."Reuse content