The troubled shooters on trial

Norman Fox assesses Andy Cole's frustrating efforts to regain his pounds 6m form
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CONTRARY to his composed television countenance, Alex Ferguson has a bit of a temper. In fact, they say he can be downright vicious with players who let him down, but usually only in the privacy of his office. So it was all the more surprising to read in his programme notes recently a reference to Andy Cole's recent "carelessness", meaning that the striker had not struck . . . again. In hindsight, and with more familiar diplomacy, he says it was not a criticism of the player's ability or a hint that perhaps the pounds 6m or so he paid Newcastle United for their popular and prolific goalscorer was money badly spent - just a comment on a particularly "frustrating performance". Tell that to the particularly frustrated United fans who are also still waiting to get their money's worth.

Although Newcastle fans were loath to accept it at the time, Kevin Keegan's deal with United appears to have been good business. Cole had stopped scoring goals, and at Old Trafford there are a good many fans who have yet to forgive him for missing the chance to score at West Ham on the last day of last season. A goal would have given United their third successive Premiership title. If the mistake reflected badly on Cole, it came near to losing Ferguson his hard-won esteem.

Most of the evidence since Cole arrived in January supports the idea that Newcastle saw the best of him. Simply, he has failed to regain his only attribute, putting the ball in the net. The idea was that he would be a natural replacement for the departing Mark Hughes, goal for goal, cheer for cheer. Ferguson, who confesses that he was worried about losing "Sparky" because "the fans loved him so much", clearly believed that having spent so much on Cole, he was entitled to think he had bought the finished product. But when in recent games young players failed to perform as men, the manager not only had words with them but chided Cole and some of the other "senior" players for failing to help make the youngsters' task more comfortable. Cole is not a natural helper.

With the Christmas "High Noon" match against Newcastle approaching and today's awkward game against Liverpool coming after a couple of poor performances, Ferguson needs to see Cole hit the form that used to bring him an average of two goals in every three matches. It would be the height of embarrassment to confirm to the Newcastle fans that they were wrong and their manager right when Keegan stood on the steps outside the ground and told them that he would survive or fall by his decisions over transfers.

Cole's arrival in Manchester last season was followed by the summer departures of Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis. The baffled United fans thought Ferguson should have done more to keep them, but he says: "All three seemed to have lost the ability to dream about future goals for United". That put Cole under pressure; his goals were a priority. Yet even when United have been inspired by Cantona at the front and Ryan Giggs in his new midfield role, Cole has been conspicuous by his inability to fit into the scheme of things.

Keegan is not exactly smug about selling Cole, whom he once described as "the answer to England's dreams" and he is not convinced that pressure is the problem. "When he came to us we were top of the First Division, but he showed great character and scored tremendous goals. He coped with the pressure well enough." But Cole remembers thinking, "I don't want this, I don't want to be a star. I just want to be a footballer." He still has difficulty in coping with public expectancy and says he wanted to stay at Newcastle where, until his last few months, scoring came naturally.

Keegan hints that Cole is only at his best when he has a partner like Peter Beardsley. Although Cole could hardly have a better provider than Cantona, he agrees with Keegan: "Peter did all the work . . . I just stayed in the box and scored the goals. United expected more than that." In fact Newcastle had also wanted him to do more grafting, but as long as he scored goals he was forgiven. Derek Fazackerley, formerly a Newcastle coach, said Cole lacked the aptitude to "work for the team outside the attacking third". All the same, he considered him to be in the same category as Ian Rush as a finisher. Yet, as with so many British players, Cole's first-touch control is unreliable - something noted by Terry Venables.

Mark Hughes senses that Cole's trouble is not that he has forgotten his striker's instinct but that he is out of the scoring routine. "They say that when you miss chances, at least you've got yourself in the right position to see them". He thinks Cole is seeing them but is suffering from what golfers call the "yips".

Cole almost invites comparison with his early days at Arsenal, where George Graham also questioned his attitude. But he recalls a sneaking feeling that this was a player who could eventually do well, "which is why we had a sell-on clause when he went to Bristol City". All Cole's previous clubs have done well out of him (mostly in a manner that is likely to be rendered obsolete by the Bosman case). But, as Ferguson might say, "Tell me about it."