The striking difference

close-up : Andy Cole. Two years ago Kevin Keegan sold him to United. Now the player is refinding his feet. Ian Ridley reports on a revival
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LIKE the humour of Roy "Chubby" Brown, some things should probably not leave the North-east. The unkind would suggest that Andy Cole is one. It is two years ago this week that he left, amid scenes reminiscent of the past week outside St James' Park when bemused fans again gathered to mourn a loss.

Conspicuous by his absence this time, Kevin Keegan appeared on the stadium's steps on that other January morning to explain that the pounds 7m deal Alex Ferguson had concluded on behalf of Manchester United was good business for Newcastle, and that he must be allowed to manage the club in his own way. Nothing changed for Keegan, except perhaps the latter. But for the man he sold, everything changed.

Cole had been the talk of the Toon, having broken Hughie Gallacher's club record of 41 goals the previous season; 68 in 84 appearances in all. Since arriving at Old Trafford, however, it has been stop, start and stutter; 64 appearances (though eight as a substitute this season) and 26 goals. Injuries have restricted his appearances, during which apparent flaws in his game have been exposed. The impact, comparatively, has been minimal.

This was to have been the season when, fully integrated into the United way, he exploded anew. Half a season of finding his feet; a full season of securing them under the table were behind him. However, a pre-season bout of pneumonia, followed by two broken legs sustained in a reserve- team collision with Liverpool's Neil Ruddock, put Cole's career on hold again.

Now he is back. Last Sunday, Alex Ferguson began with him for the first time this season against Tottenham in the Cup, the manager seeking to bolster his confidence by saying: "He has a big future with this club. He has come back a better player because he has learned by watching the team. Getting him back is like signing him all over again."

Back, too, were the misgivings of last season; ones that saw Terry Venables mouth "no control" to his assistant Don Howe as Cole squandered possession when given his only England appearance so far, as a substitute against Uruguay. Against Spurs, he made a goal for Paul Scholes but then went on to waste a good chance.

Ferguson, as he has always done publicly, will almost certainly keep faith with Cole and begin again with him today against Tottenham, in the Premiership at White Hart Lane. But while the manager may announce that Cole has the potential to outscore Alan Shearer, and that despite everything Cole is now worth pounds 10m, there must be private reservations. Did he not, after all, want Stan Collymore before Cole and in the close- season try for Shearer? Last week, as foreshadowed in these pages a month ago, he was also reported to be interested in Real Madrid's Davor Suker.

It has seemed at times that Eric Cantona has wondered about his partner. One recalls particularly a goalless game last season against Aston Villa when Cole spurned two good chances - "a bobble waiting to happen," said one critic - which had Cantona shrugging his shoulders. The Frenchman also gazed quizzically towards Ferguson when Cole failed to read a pass.

The burden on strikers at Old Trafford has always been extraordinary and most have failed to deliver. In the last 30 years, only one has scored more than 20 League goals in a season; Brian McClair in 1987, and with the aid of five converted penalties. Before him, 20 years previously, it had been George Best. It is a problem Alex Ferguson has addressed expertly in the Nineties, purchasing midfield and wing players with goal-scoring potential to ease the load and spread the scoring necessary to a title- winning team. Clearly, though, he still covets a spearhead, a one goal- every-two-games man.

Alan Brazil recalls the weight he felt at Old Trafford in the mid-1980s. He had been outstanding with Bobby Robson's beautiful Ipswich Town team, slightly less so with Tottenham but still an exciting prospect when Ron Atkinson bought him, at the age of 25 in 1984. "It was a time of Merseyside domination and United were desperate for the title," he recalls. "The competition for places was incredible and even in training you had to be at your best. You always felt you had to impress. I'm normally very laid-back and when it came to a game, bang, I would try to prove my worth. But the pressure was so great on a daily basis that I would be drained even before a game. My first game, against Watford at home, was just horrendous. A terrible 0-0 draw. The fans really turned against me." So far, they have been more supportive of Cole.

"The strain of playing for Manchester United at that time was enormous," Brazil adds. "I used to look at Gordon McQueen who would throw up on the pitch actually before kick-off with nerves and I know how he felt. I used to relish matches away from Old Trafford. My record was actually pretty good - 25 games, 12 goals - but most of the goals were away from home, which is crazy."

Brazil thinks that Cole had the advantage of United having already ended that 26-year quest for the title when he arrived, yet his bearing has been anything but that of the loose, relaxed and intuitive finisher he was at Newcastle. So many goals from that period spring to mind; this observer's favourite a left-footed half-volley from 25 yards in a 4-2 win over Chelsea.

"I was delighted that Kevin Keegan just wanted me to score goals. That's what I am good at. When you are a centre-forward, that's what you are meant to do," Cole told me when we talked before last season's European Cup final in Rome, where he had been flown by his sponsors, Reebok.

There, he showed himself wary but approachable enough, aware of the reputation for having a chip on the shoulder, of being a trouble-maker, which stemmed from his early days at Arsenal. "I'm a quiet person, who gets louder once people get to know me," he explained. "At Arsenal, it was just that I thought I should be in the team."

Rounded footballers with touch, rather than naked goalscorers are expected at Old Trafford, with strikers expected to link the play, as Mark Hughes exemplified. "I have worked on my game a lot, getting into positions to help other players out, and I think I proved last season that I can play," It had hurt a lot, he conceded, when his misses were highlighted. "But I know that I get in the positions to miss them. It's going to all turn round, because I have so much confidence in myself." Now would be a good time, with the European Cup quarter- final against Porto in March.

In this week of fond memories of Kevin Keegan, perhaps Cole will discover a few of his own from the time he was delighting St James' by knocking in goals from all angles, and respond to the visualisation rather than worry about the build-up. Come to think of it, there are a few things - Dire Straits, Stephenson's Rocket - that didn't do too badly after leaving Tyneside.

Six United hit and miss men

Ted McDougall: 1972/73. Cost pounds 200,000 from Bournemouth. 18 appearances, 5 goals. Sold to West Ham for pounds 200,000. Verdict: Only United player apart from Dennis Viollet named after a 'flower'.

Garry Birtles: 1980-82. Cost pounds 1.25m from Nottingham Forest. 64 appearances, 12 goals. Sold back to Forest for pounds 275,000. Verdict: Could only flourish in the Forest.

Alan Brazil: 1984-85. Cost pounds 700,000 from Tottenham. 25 starts plus 17 appearances as sub, 12 goals. Sold to Coventry for pounds 400,000. Verdict: Back trouble may have been a reason.

Peter Davenport: 1985-88. Cost pounds 570,000 from Forest. 83 starts plus 23 appearances as sub, 26 goals. Sold to Middlesbrough for pounds 800,000. Verdict: Too quick for his own good?

Terry Gibson: 1985-87. pounds 400,000 from Coventry. 15 starts plus 12 appearances as sub, one goal. Sold to Wimbledon for pounds 225,000. Verdict: Just not big enough for Old Trafford.

Danny Wallace: 1989-93. pounds 1.1m from Southampton. 52 starts, plus 18 appearances as sub, 11 goals. Sold to Birmingham City for pounds 250,000. Verdict: Neither was he.