Andrew Cole has done some travelling in the seven years since he left Manchester United – eight clubs to be exact – but there is some immediate evidence that he is feeling right at home at Nottingham Forest, where he will start his 19th season in the game three days from now. "Sit here?" he says, nodding to no less sacred a place than the City Ground's home dugout where a certain man in a green sweatshirt shouted and cursed away his Saturday afternoons for near on two decades.
Brian Clough was, Cole reveals, the man who made a sneaky bid to sign him from Bristol City in 1993, a month or so before Newcastle United came in with the £1.75m offer which was to prove such a defining moment in his life. More poignantly, he was also the manager whose straight-talking persuaded Cole's grandfather, Vincent Lewis, that Forest were a club to be followed and that Andrew – born and brought up in the city – should visit the stadium, to witness his style.
Cole does not recall too much about those games he saw, save for the sight of Clough on the touchline – "You couldn't miss him in his green sweater, could you?" – and the section of the old main stand in which he sat. But he remembers the promise he made to his grandfather as he graduated though Nottingham youth football to one of the Forest feeder teams: "I'll play for Forest one day."
Vincent Lewis did not live to see Cole keep his word, as he will when Forest face Reading at the City Ground on Sunday amid feverish excitement in the city about the side's return to the Championship. But he will be in the mind's eye of the 36-year-old as he embarks on his latest adventure in the game. "My granddad was like Clough in some ways," Cole reflects. "When he spoke, everyone sat up and listened and those kind of things always stay with you. He knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to achieve.
"He liked Clough, too: the way he was; the fact he always spoke his mind. Coming from the Caribbean, as we did, football was not our main sport but it didn't take much to be drawn to Forest."
A positive influence his grandfather might have been, but Cole, on his own admission, had "a few problems" in those formative Nottingham years. His primary school – Douglas, in Radford – was a good one but there were rows with teachers and parents as he grew disruptive. In his biography, Cole charts fires he started in biology and chemistry lessons. "You might say I was a naughty boy," he says. "Authority was there to be challenged. Football and anarchy were my favourite games."
Which is why, after graduating from street kick-abouts with his brother Desmond, now a social worker in the city, to Saturday games with Padstall United and beyond that to Forest's GCS Garages feeder team – Mark Blake, who would play for Aston Villa and Leicester, was a contemporary – he decided to ship out of the city for a place at the Lilleshall Centre of Excellence.
It was after a fledgling career at Arsenal had not worked out – he played one senior game – and Cole found himself in Denis Smith's Bristol City side that he became aware of Clough's interest in bringing him home. The details of that approach have never been terribly clear to him, and he never met Clough to discuss it, but it seems that Forest offered £600,000, just £100,000 more than City had paid Arsenal for him in 1992 – and nowhere near enough. "I found out about it before the game we played on the Saturday," Cole says. "The manager said: 'I'd let you go tomorrow but I can't do that for the money'. I had a little chuckle myself because no-one does business like that. So I went to Newcastle instead."
Yet Forest were still to shape his destiny in ways he could neither have imagined or influenced. It was when Sir Alex Ferguson finally tired of plaguing the Forest manager Frank Clark about Stan Collymore ("He used to ring about once a week," Clark later recalled) that his attentions turned to Cole, then the most successful goalscorer in the land, having hit the net 34 times in the 1993-94 season, the highest top-flight total for seven years – and that without taking penalties.
Anything that follows the exploits of the ensuing six years, which leave Cole as the Premier League's second-highest goalscorer and were topped off by a certain night at the Nou Camp on 26 May 1999, will seem like a stroll down a gentle incline. There is no doubt that a large part of Cole will remain within the corridors of Old Trafford, where he and his son Devante are season-ticket holders. But the Forest challenge, for which he has passed up several more lucrative offers from the Championship and abroad, is different and his return seemingly written in the stars.
The lure of the Trent presented itself when Cole's old Nottingham schoolfriend, Marcel Reid, part of the large group of acquaintances he has kept in the city, asked him 12 months ago if would he sign. It is also believed that the Forest manager, Colin Calderwood, posed a similar question at that time, but it was Cole's mate who got the straight answer. "I told him: 'If Forest get promoted to the Championship, then yes,'" Cole says. "I'm not going to pull the wool over anyone's eyes about that. If Forest hadn't been promoted last season then all this most probably wouldn't have happened. To go two levels down from the Premiership is very difficult."
Forest faltered for a time in League One last season and Cole was beginning to weigh up retirement from the playing side of the game –"I'd say I was 70/30 that I would retire at one stage" – but Forest made it and Calderwood came back to him in June with a one-year contract.
Cole is not on a king's ransom at the City Ground. His salary is understood to be around £10,000 a week and he has arrived on a free to partner Robert Earnshaw – the £2.65m acquisition from relegated Derby – in a season which, after several years languishing in League One, has created more anticipation than Forest have known since dropping out of the top flight nine years ago.
It is undoubtedly a swansong for Cole; his last season he says, and a real chance to prove a thing or two to the people who have questioned his decision never to play for his home-town team. But the move also represents a purposeful stride towards management for a player who has been deeply influenced by the journey of his old United team-mate Paul Ince to a Premier League job and all that means for aspiring black professionals like himself.
Blackburn's appointment of Ince, who has cited Cole on a number of occasions as the kind of individual who might follow his course, is "major," Cole says. "I just hope, god willing, he gets some results and hopefully that would open a few doors for me, Sol Campbell, whoever. He's a pioneer for the rest of us."
Cole, who intends to begin his coaching badges, should not be dependent on Ince's progress to fulfil his own managerial ambitions, of course, but that is just the game and its attitudes. "It was no different with one of my heroes when I was younger, Cyrille Regis. I said to him when I last saw him: 'I looked at you and you've made it easier for me to play at the highest level.'"
Thoughts articulated in a way that Cole the boy, flirting with criminality in Nottingham in the 1980s, would never have dreamt of delivering. That is what football has made him though and he now wants to put something back for a youthful group of Forest players – exciting England youth midfielder Lewis McGugan among them – who stand in the boots he once wore.
"It's about the club being back in the Championship and trying to get back into the Premiership, because that is where they belong," Cole says of what he considers his biggest challenge since he left Old Trafford in 2001. "It doesn't feel like I'm a senior statesman because I'm involved in everything. I'm getting dragged into their banter and thinking 'I've got 12, 13 years on some of these guys.' That's good. I know I have to be a leader now. It helps that I was once on the wrong side of the line. Yes, I like to think I know about both sides and that will help."
Cole fire: From Arsenal discard to United sharpshooter – via one night in Barcelona
Full name Andrew Alexander Cole
Date of birth 15 October 1971
Place of Birth Nottingham
1989-92 Arsenal 1 app (0 goals)
1991 Fulham (loan) 13 (3)
1992-93 Bristol City 41 (20)
1993-95 Newcastle United 70 (55)
1995-2001 Manchester United 195 (93)
2001-04 Blackburn Rovers 83 (27) 2004-05 Fulham 31 (12)
2005-06 Manchester City 22 (9)
2006-07 Portsmouth 18 (3)
2007 Birmingham City (loan) 5 (1)
2007-08 Sunderland 7 (0)
2008 Burnley (loan) 13 (6)
Nottingham Forest 0 (0)
England appearances 15 (1 as sub) Goals 1
First Division Championship 1993;
PFA Young Player of the Year 1994; League Championship 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001;
FA Cup 1996, 1999;
European Cup 1999;
Intercontinental Cup 1999;
Charity Shield 1996, 1997;
League Cup 2002
*With Alan Shearer having scored 261 goals, Cole's total of 187 makes him second in the Premier Leagues list of top goal scorers.
*In 1995 Cole scored five goals in Manchester United's 9-0 Premier League win over Ipswich. The only other player to have scored five in a single Premier League game was Shearer.
*He scored only once for England, in a World Cup qualifier against Albania in March 2001. It was six years after he made his debut.