Lost opportunity as winners stake all

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The Independent Online
EVEN in the context of the bewildering dramas that illuminate life among football's leading Premiership clubs, there was a rare potency in the moment when the eyes of Kevin Keegan and Alex Ferguson met above the handshake that concluded the Andy Cole deal last week. However brief the stare between these strong and gifted managers, it could not have failed to carry the sure and certain acknowledgement that one of them was dropping a bollock of major proportions.

Countless transfers have taken place in the 90 years since Alf Common was sold by Sunderland to Middlesbrough for a £1,000 fee that rattled the values of Edwardian Britain. Most of them have represented risk by one or other of the parties concerned, but

the bulk of the business that punctuates the football season has some sort of imperative, mostly economic, to explain it to a goggling audience.

The Cole transfer was remarkable in that it was prefaced by none of the recognisable signs. Manchester United have long had to battle with an uncontrollable urge to buy anything that moves but they didn't appear to be busting to pounce and if they were they would surely have tried to do so before the third round of the FA Cup so that the new player would not be Cup-tied.

Newcastle were certainly under no pressure to sell. On the contrary, they were in the buying rather than the selling market after the collapse of their championship challenge. Neither was there any pressure from Cole, whose problems with settling in the North-east had long subsided and whose concentration was riveted firmly on to the fact that he hadn't scored for nine games.

If ever there was a transfer deal unlikely to happen, it was this one. Hence the shock it registered. The fact that the deal, which also involved the transfer of the young Irish winger Keith Gillespie to Newcastle, was worth a record £7m assisted the gasp factor but it wasn't the fee that generated the surprise. Every week we stuff more than that into the pockets of a lottery winner, so football's profligacy is losing the power to impress.

The oddity of the deal was contained in the implication that what we were witnessing was a conflict of managerial judgement that hasn't ended with Cole's puzzled signature on a transfer form. Indeed, Cole's first task in his new and awesome role as Britain's most expensive seeker of goals is to stop searching for them today. When his new club play his former club at St James' Park this afternoon, the hottest shot in town will be absent so as not to embarrass Keegan by scoring any goals and also not to embarrass Ferguson by not scoring any.

"We agreed that it would not be fair on the two players to ask them to play," said Ferguson, neglecting to assess how fair it would have been on the managers. It would have been interesting to hear how the players felt about missing the match. Had I bee n either of them, I would have wanted to play.

Neither player had sought the move and might have wanted to prove a point. Cole's nine-game drought was already a burden and is now going to hug his shoulders with increased intensity, adding pressure to his United debut whenever it comes. Better to havedived into the deep end with the chance of giving Manchester a rapid dividend and Keegan a raspberry.

Gillespie, meanwhile, had been minding his own business on the fringe of the first team secure in the comfort of the club's tradition of producing their own talent. United didn't get where they are today by selling their prodigies, especially any coming from Northern Ireland, but under new Uefa rules they have suffered from a surfeit of non- Englishmen this season.

So, when Keegan telephoned 10 days ago to ask about Gillespie's situation, he was surprised to find Ferguson in an accommodating mood. When Ferguson nonchalantly dropped the name of Cole into the conversation, he was equally amazed at the lack of ear-drum reverberation. The deal had begun.

Had Newcastle won last Sunday's Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers and if Cole had featured among the winning goals, Keegan would not have dared to sell his striker with a Cup run in prospect. But they drew, Cole did not play well and, despite the replay still to come, he contacted Ferguson on Monday to advance the negotiations. His only justification for that decision can be that he considers Cole's days as a goal-scoring phenomenon have come to a premature end.

In the matter of Andy Cole, Keegan has a right to be regarded as the expert. It was the Newcastle manager who bought him from Bristol City for £1.75m less than two years ago, a purchase that put his judgement at odds with two other leading managers. Arsenal's George Graham had Cole at Highbury but did not consider him to be the complete item and sold him to the Bristol club. While there, Cole came to the notice of Nottingham Forest's Brian Clough but the old campaigner refused to offer any more than £50

0,000 for him.

Keegan paid over three times that figure and received 68 goals in return from a player who broke a Newcastle scoring record that had stood for 60 years. At 23, Cole is scarcely washed up, but Keegan has happily sold him for a profit of 400 per cent to a manager who is equally convinced that Manchester United have the better of the bargain.

Alex Ferguson has matched his wits in this way on a previous occasion. In 1992 he bought Eric Cantona from a Leeds United who were convinced they'd had the best out of the Frenchman. Cantona has prospered greatly while Leeds have struggled ever since.

By virtue of the money involved, this is a much bigger gamble. I thought the second half of the season would be dominated by Liverpool sneaking up to win the title. Now we can look forward to an even more fascinating scenario: who misjudged Andy Cole?

FOLLOWING our revelation last Sunday about the historic meeting planned between the rugby league chief executive Maurice Lindsay and the rugby union supremo Vernon Pugh, Welsh rugby has been treated to an extraordinary invitation by Lindsay. He told the

Western Mail that he believed the whole of Welsh rugby union should turn to rugby league. "If they did, they would become world champions because of their passion and team spirit," he said. "The whole of the Heineken League would be far more suited to rugby league."

Lindsay thinks the physique of the Welsh players is better equipped for the running and handling qualities demanded by league. And who could disagree that fixtures like Cardiff v Wigan might have more crowd appeal? Cardiff RFU's chief executive Gareth Davies wouldn't argue. He said last week that he might not watch Welsh club rugby himself if he didn't have to.