City break works wonders for Cole

Manchester City's former England striker heads to Old Trafford today to play against United, the club where he enjoyed his greatest achievements. He talks to Andy Hunter about what keeps him motivated and how, in Stuart Pearce, he has a manager with whom mutual respect is not a problem 'Coley has that edge that, if he did get booed at Old Trafford, he would love it'
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Glenn Hoddle and Graeme Souness would no doubt contest the self-assessment of the 33-year-old, both having endured long-running and public disputes with the striker during their time as his manager (Souness when he was at Blackburn and Hoddle when he was in charge of England), although reassurance and the sense of appreciation that he has often been denied throughout a career that has generated five Premiership titles and one European Cup is likely to arrive from the Old Trafford public this afternoon. A sky blue day with no dark clouds is the fervent wish of the now Manchester City forward.

"I would be surprised if I got any stick when I go back to Old Trafford on Saturday, though maybe if I score and we win it will be different," he confidently predicts. A cheeky back-heel à la Denis Law aside, he leaves you in no doubt he will be proved right.

The City manager, Stuart Pearce, remarked that he only needed to look into Cole's eyes during the half-hour meeting at which he persuaded him to cross the Manchester divide for evidence that the striker's hunger and passion had not been doused by two frustrating seasons at Blackburn and Fulham. What they discussed for the other 29 minutes is anyone's guess.

Sitting in a mock-leather chair in the media lounge at Manchester City's Carrington training complex, where Pearce yesterday delivered the final instructions to his players before today's derby meeting with United, Cole, though relaxed, amiable and genuine, emits a gaze so intense it scorches the back of your skull as he talks of the move that has already rekindled his enthusiasm for the game and a start that, with two successive match-winning goals that have elevated City to second in the Premiership, has eased any lingering apprehension he felt about the most delicate switch he could possibly have made.

Cole is not the first player to have swapped sides but is the most decorated, and agonised over the decision more than most would have done.

"The fact I had played for United and had such a good time there was on my mind when I considered City's offer, I cannot lie," he admits. "When you've been at a club for so long and you have achieved so much with that club, I mean I achieved things at United that I never believed I would, then you close it and move on and end up at their rivals then of course it crosses your mind. But I am a professional footballer, simple as that. I had a great time at United but that came to an end and now this is a new chapter.

"Personally, I consider it an honour to have played for both clubs in my career. Some Manchester United fans might not see it that way and some Manchester City fans might not see it that way but it really is an honour for me to have played for two great clubs.

"A lot has been made about me coming here and you would think I am the only player ever to have made the switch. Denis Law did it, Brian Kidd did it, and a lot of people seem to forget that both Shaun Goater and Jon Macken played for United early in their careers, but because I had so much success with United and was there for the most successful period in the club's history people seem a lot more apprehensive about my move.

"I honestly don't think I'll have any problem from the United fans though and I've had no problems from the City fans. The vast majority of people have wished me well. A lot of United fans have come up to me in the street and wished me well even though I'm now playing for their enemy and I've had a lot of City fans wishing me all the best and asking me to score against United. That's football. Virtually everyone I've spoken to has wished me well, so I must be doing something right."

The lure of a club of City's stature, however erratic that might be, does not explain the motivation behind Cole's decision to swap red for blue. The striker readily accepted the glorious highs would fade once he left Old Trafford for Blackburn in 2001, although there was still a Worthington Cup final-winning goal to come with Rovers, but he could never have envisaged how close he came to falling out of love with the game following two seasons of professional and personal torment.

His final year at Ewood Park was dogged by a feud with Souness, against whom he lodged an official complaint of victimisation with the Professional Footballers' Association in March of last year, while his one and only season at Fulham proved too much for a proud family man whose wife and children remained at home in the North-West.

Cole says: "I think I wasted two years of my career, fighting with a manager I didn't really respect or whatever, and they were two really important years. I wasted them. That is disappointing for me because I really just want to enjoy my football. For me, the biggest thing about coming here was to enjoy football again. There was a worry that I wouldn't get a move to another big club.

"Blackburn had made all of the running to take me back and there was no mention of City, then there was a lot for me to weigh up having played for the red half. I am the type of person who doesn't want to upset people but I thought to myself; this is my job. I discussed it with my wife and decided it was the right thing to do.

"I've signed for a year and if this is the only year I play for this club then I want to make sure I enjoy it. I've started doing that and long may it continue, although I'm long enough in the tooth to know it could all change next week.

"What has happened in the last two years has spurred me on even more. I enjoyed my time at Fulham, really enjoyed it to be honest, but for family reasons and commitments I knew I had to get back to the North-West. When you are far apart from your family problems start to arise but once I got home to the North-West I said to myself that no matter how long this lasts, one year, two years, I will enjoy my football.

"I don't want people to think I haven't enjoyed my career, I have, but I feel as though I have lost two years, well, wasted two years, and I just want to enjoy how many years I have left."

Despite the warmth of the reception reserved for Cole on his return to Manchester and the indications his City contract will be extended by another year he remains to be convinced that affection is widespread. His obvious insecurity stems from criticism that has plagued him throughout his career, particularly in relation to the art of finishing which, for all the doubts of, for example, Hoddle, who cruelly claimed that he needed seven chances to score one goal, has yielded 270 goals in 566 games. Or, for the benefit of the former England manager, 1,890 chances.

Yet, in Pearce, Cole has found a manager who both surprises and reassures him, and one with the perception to understand a personality that has baffled many others. "Coley could only have got that extra edge by leaving Fulham for this club," insists Pearce. "To come to Manchester United's rivals has given him that added drive. He has that edge in his personality that, if he did get booed at Old Trafford, he would love it."

Cole, laughing at the description, admits: "I think he summed me up to a tee there." He adds: "Throughout the majority of my career there has always been someone saying I'm not good enough at this or that so I've always been driven, although I've always had great receptions when I've gone back in the past and though I'm going back with City this time I think it will be the same. I don't think I could have left Fulham for a club that was just looking to kick on, I would have found that very difficult. There was a lot of talk about Blackburn but that never materialised, and no disrespect to Blackburn, but this is a bigger club and it will be trying to achieve bigger things over the next few years.

"I am still driven by the same desires that drove me as a kid. I have matured as a person and as a player but my desire has always been the same: for my team to do well. I am realistic enough to know that my team is not going to win the championship this season but I am driven by the thought of us getting to a cup final and having a decent run in the league.

"As a centre-forward I am personally driven by goals and I am delighted if I reach my target, but first and foremost the priority has to be the team and helping them to a good league position and a cup final."

Pearce has placed in Cole a level of responsibility that reflects his development from the raw teenager who left Arsenal for Bristol City in 1992 irritated by his lack of first-team opportunities into the dedicated professional he is today. He has been asked to help nurture the younger members of the City squad and is, in many respects, the new lieutenant for a manager in his first full season in the Premiership and who also has little time for fools.

A fortnight ago the pair were locked in what appeared a symbolic embrace when Cole scored the winner against Portsmouth that confirmed a new-found resilience exists at City and also that they enter today's derby looking down on their city rivals. The striker headed straight for his manager once an exquisite, trademark turn and shot beat Sander Westerveld, in what many observers took as a thank you for Pearce's show of faith, although the truth is more prosaic.

"I told my wife afterwards that it was the first time in my career when I didn't know what to do once I'd scored, then I saw the manager and just decided to run over there," he reveals.

There is, however, a healthy relationship between the former Premiership rivals.

"The manager has been very good with me," confides Cole. "He's shown me respect. I've shown him respect. He's played against me. I've played against him. He's my manager and I respect him as a manager because he has never talked down to me at any stage: we always talk on a level. He speaks to every player on a level and I think that's how modern managers should be. You can't be talking down to people just because you are the manager, and he is very, very good in that respect.

"He has surprised me as a manager to be honest. I played against him many times and thought 'Oh, Jesus, I wouldn't fancy this every week' but he is totally different off the pitch to how he was on it.

"It's strange. I expected a more dominant person but he's not that way inclined. I am beginning to learn more and more about what he is about as a manager now and it's good. I also think it is very nice of him to ask me to try to help the younger players, too, which has come more naturally to me the older I've got.

"When I met the manager he told me exactly what he wanted to do with the club and what he wanted from me. He never guaranteed me a starting place, said I would have to fight for one like everyone else, but I wanted to hear that and how much he wanted me here. Then it was decision time. Did I want to come because I had played for Manchester United? I knew it would upset a few people but then, everyone upsets people at some point in life. I just wanted to play football at a higher level at a big club and I thought this opportunity might not come around next season if I said no, so I took it with both hands."