Why Andy Cole was a master marksman
Younger fans may not appreciate just how good Andy Cole was, and how much of a bolt out of the blue his arrival was from Newcastle United.
The deadly centre-forward was definitely under-rated, outside of Old Trafford, and had to deal with a disproportionate amount of criticism in his career.
Only Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney have scored more than his 187 goals in the Premier League, so we could just leave it there.
However, maybe there was a snobbery based on the fact he was deemed not good enough by Arsenal, who loaned him out to Fulham and then Bristol City. Yet his form at Ashton Gate was sensational, one of the first loans I remember where somebody was clearly playing below their level, and, although joining them permanently, it was not long before Newcastle United were splashing out a club-record fee for his services.
Okay, so he could score regularly in the equivalent of the Championship as the Magpies won the division in 1992/93, but could he hack it in the top flight? Well, his first Premier League goal came at Old Trafford, against United in a 1-1 draw, and he never looked back. In total, he hit the net 34 times in the league in that 1993/94 campaign.
Were the doubters silenced? Not really. He hit a hat-trick against Liverpool but they were laid on a plate by the creative genius of Peter Beardsley and, despite Cole being voted Young Player of the Year, there appeared to be a theory that he was merely poaching goals from close range after his strike-partner had done all the approach work.
It was nonsense, of course, but a barren spell in the winter of 1994 again had people questioning his talent.
So Coley was actually on a nine-game scoreless run after a shin-splints operation when a transfer from out of nowhere took him to Old Trafford for a record £6 million plus Keith Gillespie and prompted manager Kevin Keegan to defend the sale to angry Magpies supporters at St James' Park.
It was decided neither player would feature in the upcoming fixture between the two clubs and Alex Ferguson's comment that: "I'd have preferred not to pay so much," perhaps garnered more publicity than his absolute conviction in the player's ability. "Andy Cole is ideal for Manchester United," said the Reds boss. "He's our type of player."
A debut followed at home to Blackburn Rovers, live on TV, and I remember being absolutely fascinated as to how he would fit in. Maybe the mind plays tricks but I recall him literally streaking through on goal in the first minute and standing agog as I thought - he's going to do this all the time! Unfortunately, he screwed his finish wide and that seemed to be a lasting first impression for some.
His very next game was ever so slightly overshadowed by Eric Cantona getting sent off at Crystal Palace and attacking Eagles fan Matthew Simmons. Eric had scored the winner, late on, in that Blackburn clash, and maybe this was just his way of diverting the attention away from his expensive strike-partner. Whatever, Coley stepped up in the Frenchman's absence at first, bagging his first United goal to beat Aston Villa, showing expert marksmanship inside the box, and netted next time out too, in the Manchester derby.
Nobody was questioning his pedigree when he soon hit five in an astonishing 9-0 annihilation of Ipswich Town. This move was working out really well.
What could go wrong? Well, Blackburn picked themselves up after that Old Trafford defeat and three goalless draws for the Reds (against Tottenham, Leeds United and Chelsea), plus a costly defeat at Liverpool, left Kenny Dalglish's Rovers in pole position to lift the title. Cole had scored in the penultimate game of the Premier League season, against Southampton, to help at least ensure there was a chance on the last day.
All this was swiftly forgotten when, despite Liverpool beating Blackburn at Anfield, United camped in West Ham's penalty box but could only draw 1-1. Ludek Miklosko was inspired and denied Cole in one-on-ones on at least two, if not more, occasions and watching those closing stages back even now will induce stress-related dreams for weeks for any Reds of a certain age.
Unfairly, Andy seemed to pay the penalty for the most traumatic of season finales, and he struggle to convince at the start of the 1995/96 season, only to emerge as pretty important in assisting in clinching the Double, with Cantona again attracting most of the attention, this time for the altogether more positive impact on the field. I remember reading the player ratings after the 1996 FA Cup final and one tabloid suggested Cole's performance in a pretty poor game indicated that it would probably be his last in the red shirt.
How wrong that snide comment was to be. Even despite breaking his legs in the following season, he finished it on a real high and scored at Liverpool in a 3-1 win that virtually clinched another title. Now installed in the no.9 shirt, he would go from strength to strength. It's probably easier to just rattle off his stats (25 goals in 45 games in 1997/98, 24 in 50 in 1998/99 and 22 in 45 in 1999/2000).
Pretty much a classic one-goal-in-every-two-games striker, forming the partnership of dreams with Dwight Yorke in that Treble-winning campaign of 1998/99, and scoring the title-winning goal in that term, soon coming after the bench against Tottenham Hotspur at a jubilant Old Trafford.
His last couple of years with the Reds still produced plenty of goals and Sir Alex was reluctant to sell him before finally sanctioning a transfer to Blackburn at the end of 2001.
For a man who never took penalties, his goal record was simply amazing and he continued finding the net at a variety of other clubs, including Fulham and Manchester City. Yet he probably still has to put up with people sniping about his incredible career.
So why is this? Well, his England record was disappointing - he only scored once for his country. Coupled with this, manager Glenn Hoddle made a comment that Cole was the sort of striker who only scored one in five chances, which might even be true of any centre-forward. For some reason, this stuck. Any cab conversation around the time about the merits of the United hitman would inevitably include this theory regurgitated by the driver.
Anybody who felt he was not that good outside of the penalty box simply had not watched him. For what it's worth, I honestly think he improved more than any other footballer I've seen during his time at Old Trafford (and I've seen my fair share). He honed his agility to smash acrobatic goals Mark Hughes would have been proud of and learned to become so much more of a team player than when he first arrived.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there was this overriding impression that Cole projected a moody attitude and yet, sincerely, from the first time I met him when joining United, at the reception of the Aon Training Centre, I have found him the polar opposite. Warm and friendly, genuinely one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet.
It made me question why he even had that reputation in the first place as it was not as if I remember him sulking his way through post-match interviews. It remains a bit of a mystery, as does the fact that anybody could ever question the ability of one of the Premier League's greatest strikers. Maybe the lesson is simply to never trust what is said or written about players - judge with your own eyes.
If you want to hear from the man himself, spend some time listening to our latest UTD Podcast as he talks through many of these points. He might have at least some of the answers.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.