Shame of the game that there'll never be another Cottee

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The Independent Football

It is the kind of trick of the imagination that might divert more than a few West Ham and Everton supporters at Upton Park today: what would either of his former sides give to line up with Tony Cottee in their ranks now? What isn't in question is that neither team will field a player with such singular predatory skills as Cottee, who distinguished himself at both clubs by accumulating goals with a ready informality.

The truth, of course, is that the nature of the game has changed. Players such as Cottee – a small, deft, nimble figure whose most blatant gift was that instinct for arriving with sharp precision in those places where opponents were most vulnerable – have become marginalised. A talent of such narrow, if prolific, confines is often now considered with a kind of disdain.

The modern striker is more likely to be rangy, and view the 18-yard box as just another swathe of the pitch to be covered, rather than the place in which to reveal the best of his work. When Cottee broke through at West Ham, he developed a brief but rewarding partnership with Frank McAvennie, and on moving to Everton he dovetailed with Graeme Sharp. But then these relationships can seem quaint when laid against the current enthusiasm for lone attackers.

"There are hardly any [strike] partnerships," Cottee says. "Nowadays they call it three up front, but a lot of the time it's one. When McAvennie and I had our heyday season in 1985-86, I scored 20 League goals and Frank scored 26. I'm all for that, because two players up front is much more of a problem for defenders. It's all a mystery to me now."

Cottee can still reach for the figures of his career as though each strike was a profound memory, because that was how he measured his worth: in the currency of goals. Football was less self-aware when he was in his prime, and so there was little incredulity at his habit of maintaining a scrapbook of every goal he scored during his 18-year career. Yet he still possesses such a clear awareness of each of his 306 strikes that when he recently compiled a DVD of his career goals, he was able to recollect each without returning to his scrapbooks.

Supporters, too, will have favourite recollections of Cottee's incisiveness. He scored on his debut for West Ham, at 17, and for Everton, when he struck a hat-trick. That was summer 1988, when Everton spent £2.05m, making Cottee the British game's record transfer at the same time as Paul Gascoigne joined Spurs from Newcastle for £2m.

Cottee, who will be at Upton Park today, believes both his former sides are on the verge of reclaiming some of their old assurance this season. "For Everton, injuries have taken their toll, the key ones being Phil Jagielka and Mikel Arteta," he says. "When they come back, Everton will climb the table. West Ham have played good stuff at times, without getting results, but it was a wonderful win against Villa and they can start to build on that. They'll finish safely in mid-table."

As a lifelong West Ham fan, and an ambassador at the club, Cottee's heart will be willing a home win today. That is his place in the game now, although he also retains the distinction of being the last player to feature in all four divisions during one season, the final one of his career, when he turned out for Leicester, Norwich, Barnet and Millwall.

"I doubt anybody's going to do it again, with the transfer window," he says. "It's a great quiz question, though not the way I'd have liked to have ended my career."

'Tony Cottee's Career Goals' DVD is available from (£17.99)