A frenetic week for Sutton and Blackburn reaches a climax at Old Trafford when the favourites stake their five-point advantage against the double League champions, four days after Newcastle ended their FA Cup aspirations. From a team determined to show they can live without Cole, Rovers turn to confront opponents who believe their £7m purchase at the January sales can put them back on top.
You would expect Sutton to be delighted that Cole has assumed the burden of "most expensive player". Not so, and the statistics suggest it has never been a problem, his goal in Wednesday's 2-1 defeat making it 20 for a season only just past halfway.
There are more to come, and if the power of positive thought counts for anything a full house at Old Trafford will bear witness to another this weekend. With time to kill yesterday in his new palatial retreat high in the Lancashire hills, Sutton stretched out on his settee dreaming goals. Not the bread-and-butter variety, but spectacular long-rangers.
"I imagine myself slamming the ball into the net from 30 yards, like Alan Shearer does every day in training," Sutton said. "There was a gym I used in Norwich and the owner was into all this positive thinking stuff and said if you wanted to achieve something it helped if you could first see yourself doing it."
He would be just as happy tomorrow, however, with a tap-in. "To me all goals are alike. If you look at every leading striker they all get a high proportion from short range. It's only Matthew Le Tissier who seems to be able to make it a stunner every time. The goals he scored against us at Ewood Park last month were incredible, but it was his dribbling as well that impressed me. It is just a gift of natural talent and I envy people like that."
By lauding others he is being unfair on himself. An average performer at schoolboy level - "I stood out but only because I was 6ft 5in and looked like a stick" - his cool composure in possession, perceptive awareness of team-mates and a consistent capacity to make the most of every scoring opportunity all came together in the last two years at Norwich as he filled out and grew stronger. With added power has come increased pace.
His development into a formidable, all-round attacking force has taken on new momentum following his transfer last summer. He says the training regime at his new club is more punishing than he found at Carrow Road and that has enabled him to work harder in games. He says he needs to just to stay in the team but such modesty ignores not only his own goals but also the many he lays on for Shearer and others.
"My role has changed from what it was at Norwich, where I was the recognised striker. Here Alan is the main man and he tends to operate further up the field than me. I'm working hard but you have to to maintain your place. Here you are literally looking over your shoulder all the time at those waiting to claim your place. There's Mike Newell, who has just recovered from injury and has spent his whole career at the highest level scoring goals, and Kevin Gallacher, who after a broken leg has started playing for the reserves.
"I am satisfied with how things have gone but no more than that. There is still such a long way to go and it will only be at the end of the season that I will look back with any great pleasure. And only then if we have won something."
Not long back he wondered whether he would ever get the move he had set his heart upon, whether he would ever have the chance to win things. "When I was told Norwich were asking £5m I didn't think anyone would be prepared to pay that amount. The speculation had been going on for weeks and weeks and it was getting on my nerves. It reaches a stage where you want to put a sign around your neck saying `I know nothing about Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Benfica or Inter Milan' and I feel for Stan Co llymore at the moment because every time you pick up a paper he's going somewhere or other. Andy Cole was so lucky because nobody latched on to his move at all. Bang, he was gone, just like that.
"People have said that because he has changed hands for a new record fee the pressure is off me but I never felt it in the first place. I can only do my best for Blackburn and if it is not good enough, so be it, I will not fail through lack of effort. They say the eyes of the world are upon you when you come to a big club for so much money, but I don't know the people who are looking at me so I don't care about them. As long as I am doing okay for the management here and the supporters, my family and those close to me, I really don't worry what others think."
He has a peace of mind now that comes from seeing his future settled and secured and from putting distance between a number of unsavoury headlines. It also helps having the facility to lose himself in the countryside surrounding his new home. "Southerners have the view that the north is all factories and smoke but it's a lovely place to live. I can get up into the hills with my dogs and find a lovely emptiness, you don't hear anything and you don't see anybody. I wouldn't say the game is a strain but obviously you are out there in front of a 30,000 crowd and people are wanting you to do well. Up there away from it all I don't have to worry about going through and beating the keeper or about getting my tackles in.
"I lead quite a boring life, really, lots of television, plenty of videos. The thing is there are so many games it is important to get the right amount of rest so I don't often go out. I was never as bad at Norwich as things were painted but I admit I did some silly things. I'm not so naive now and I understand there are always people just waiting to catch me out."
He speaks freely and openly and with little prompting, but a distrust of the media remains and some areas of his life and career are out of bounds. He does not give interviews willingly and there are certain newspapers he is adamant he will not talk to. "Some of the things that were written about me at the start of the season were just ridiculous. After my debut at Southampton it was said that I did not look a £5m player because my shorts were too big. The person who wrote that was prepared just to write off everything I had done for Norwich the previous two seasons. Two days later, after I scored my first goal, the same paper described me as some kind of super-hero. Then they wanted me to do a column every week. I thought it was a wind-up. Money is money but you should never betray your principles."
It is a favourite hobby-horse, as is the unfairness of the criticism that Blackburn are a one-dimensional lump-it-up-the-field team. "I don't find it boring playing in the team and I don't suppose the Blackburn fans find it boring to watch. The facts speak for themselves. We have scored more goals than anyone else and conceded less."
He argues his corner passionately. On the field that same determination makes him a poor loser, but he keeps his emotions under control and he has not missed a game through suspension at any stage of his career. That ice-box temperament will be needed tomorrow for the clash of the titans, the big spenders, the established power against the nouveaux riches, a contest given extra colour and dash by Cole's first appearance in United's red but also because it is Sutton's first appearance at Old Trafford since his move.
United wanted him for their team, just as two summers before they wanted Shearer when he left Southampton, but once again Jack Walker and Kenny Dalglish were holding the crucial cards.
"I don't know what was happening behind the scenes but I only ever spoke to one club, so it never enters my head that I could have been lining up for United tomorrow. I became a Blackburn player, I never nearly became a United player or a player for any other club."
His mind was made up long ago that if his interest in them was reciprocated, then he would join ranks with the Ewood Park millionaires. There were the big bucks, of course, the manager all young finishers can learn from, a partner whom his contemporarieswill tell you is the striker, but also a conviction that the way Blackburn go about their football was best suited for his game.
"People said Alan and I could not play together and I remember someone dubbed us the `Odd Couple'. They claimed we were too alike. I can only speak about Alan's qualities but he's a strong runner, he works the channels well, he scores goals, he holds theball up and he brings players into play. Now if I'm also like that how can it be so bad? Of course one day I would like to play alongside him for England but at the moment I just have to take my place in the queue.
"I think we happen to be doing all right but the thing is at Blackburn that nobody ever gets carried away with themselves. You only have to look at the manager and all his medals to see what real achievement is. I used to watch him as a youngster and youcan't argue with someone who was that good. And it's not necessarily everything that he says, just his presence. He is like a giant in the dressing-room."
The celebrated skills that helped fill Liverpool's trophy cabinet are still in evidence in the Friday five-a-sides. Ray Harford is a big training-ground influence but Dalglish is never far away, ready to dispense advice and help. "He suggests different things that you can try in a game, he doesn't so much order you to do things as give you suggestions, so that when you try it and it comes off you think you've achieved something yourself."
Blackburn have Tim Sherwood back after suspension tomorrow and Sutton says he has been one of their key influences. He has always rated him, ever since they were together at Norwich, although then the relationship was somewhat different. To the apprentice Sutton went the dubious honour of cleaning Sherwood's boots. Together they look to turn a five-point lead into eight and it must be to Rovers' advantage that the title is now the only prize left for them to win.
"We would rather have still been in the Cup but it wasn't to be and we will settle for finishing as champions. We won't be any more fired up because we have just lost for the first time in nine games; we badly want to win every time we go out. I hate losing and I don't tend to speak much after a defeat. Footballers must be murder to live with - every one I know is grumpy.
"The great strength about the Blackburn dressing-room is that we are all very close and get on well. Nothing ever gets out, everyone looks after each other. When we work hard it is for the team and not ourselves."
With that, he was off and away for home and the settee to dream more goals. A week ago it was Nottingham Forest, on Wednesday it was Newcastle and tomorrow it is the champions. Exciting times for a 21-year-old at ease in his life and his work.
Next week comes his wedding to his model girlfriend, Samantha, and yes, before you ask, he thinks that will be a successful partnership too.Reuse content