Q&A: Cole on charity, England and leaving United

Andy Cole is the latest big-name guest on our MUTV Group Chat series and the Manchester United ambassador contributes to another fascinating episode, as he provides an update on a new charitable campaign and reflects on a stellar playing career at Old Trafford.

It was announced last week that the much-loved Treble winner has created a fund to advance research into kidney disease, to transform transplants and help patients with their mental health, after suffering kidney failure himself in 2015. 

In this Q&A, Andy begins by discussing his project and how he is personally handling the ongoing lockdown, before admitting now is the first time he has properly analysed his achievements in football. He even reveals he left United “too soon” in 2001, but has naturally has his reasons…

It’s good to see you Andy! How are you, health-wise?
“Not too bad. Not too bad. I’m just struggling a bit with hayfever now! Forget the other stuff, hayfever’s bothering me now. But yeah, you get used to it.”

We read a pretty unflinching interview in the Guardian last week with Donald McRae. It sounded like certain days you had a really rough time?
“Certain days become a little bit difficult, getting out of bed becomes a problem. But the unfortunate thing is you don’t know when that day’s going to come, so as I’m with you today like this, tomorrow could be a totally different day, or the day after that. So it’s each day as it comes, keep moving forward.”

I’m guessing because of your kidney condition you have to be particularly careful with this virus around?
“Yeah, that’s what they keep saying. But it gets harder. This is week seven and I keep saying six weeks to go. If I get through this week I’ll be OK, that’s what I keep saying.”

Seven weeks of complete lockdown? 
“Yeah, it’s funny. When my mates come round, I speak to them via the balcony or through the front door. I know people have said I’m unsociable at times, but it’s taking liberties now! People keep saying to me you’ve not changed one bit!”

Coley enlightens our MUTV Group ChatVideo

I think a lot of us are finding the lockdown mentally tough, how do you find that side of things?
“For me personally that’s the toughest part. Mentally, you know you can only end up doing the same things every day. And you know you’ve got to do it, no matter how much you put it off you end up doing it. Living by myself through this period as well, that’s hard because you’ve got no-one to talk to in and around the apartment at the moment. That’s been the toughest part. I speak to my mates via Zoom, or on the phone, but that’s totally different. Times like this really make you appreciate being able to go out, go to your mates, or go out for a drink, especially now the sun’s coming out as well. It makes things a little bit harder.”


Have people been rallying round though? Obviously people know it must be difficult for you?
“Yeah, everyone’s been brilliant. I can’t lie about that. Sometimes I get a little bit embarrassed. I’m an individual, I’ve always wanted to do things for myself but I can’t do that anymore. I’ve told everyone I’m absolutely sick and tired of food now. My fridge is a joke! I’ve told them no more food. But like I said everyone’s been brilliant. I can’t thank them enough. After this period, I realise us in general, as people, if we can’t change after this then we’ll never be able to change.”


Do you think a period as bad as this might lead to changes in a lot of things?
“We have to. Ultimately, we’re never going to see something like in this our lifetime again. If this doesn’t bring us closer together as a nation and as people, we’ve got no chance. To see what the NHS is putting themselves through… to see how many people have lost their lives, it’s really disappointing, but just how much hard work people have put in through this period, it’s been absolutely unbelievable. We have to have a good look at ourselves and ask what can we do to help things move forward.”
One of the reasons we wanted to speak to you was you launched the Andy Cole fund in conjunction with Kidney Research UK. Could you just tell us a little bit about that?
“I spoke to Kidney Research some time ago. They wanted me to come onside as an ambassador and I was in two minds. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to do it mentally, because I knew how tough it was. Physically I knew what I was going through, but having the opportunity to speak with them and going up to the Transplant Games in Newcastle at the back end of last year. For me that was unbelievable. To watch so many people with the same illness at me, to still compete at some kind of level… They were preparing to go to the World Cup later this year, playing football .That’s been cancelled now, but I had a chat with them about how we train and that. The common denominator was that we were all going through the same thing. We all ended up crying like little babies. You wake up in the morning not knowing what to expect. But listening to all those guys and all the people there I said to myself if I can help I’d love to do that. I got involved in Kidney Research and we launched a fund on Thursday and I’m really looking forward to putting as much work into it as I can.”


Obviously all we can do while we’re at home is reflect. I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who does reflect on their career…
“I spoke to Dwight Yorke three weeks ago. We did something with Mark Sullivan and I said to them two, this is the only time I’ve reflected on my career. I sat down and thought about it, and thought you’ve ended up doing alright by the way. Take nothing away from my team-mates: I’ve always looked at myself as a team player, but when you’ve had this time to look at what you’ve actually achieved, I’ve done alright. I was speaking to my mate the other day about it and he said ‘are you taking the mick?’ And I said: ‘no I genuinely think I’ve done alright!’ And he started laughing at me! He said: ‘that’s your problem, you never give yourself a pat on the back’. But I’m not that type of guy. I’m always trying to go forward instead of back. In this situation I’ve had the opportunity to look back on what I’ve gone through, in terms of my playing career and the last five years. These last five years, it’s been so horrible, and then I look back further on that and I say through your playing career, you’ve got to look at those positives as well.”


I heard an interview you did with Andy Mitten from United We Stand where you basically said, on reflection, maybe you didn’t enjoy the good times enough as you should?
“Yeah, definitely. Just looking back, reflecting, you won something, you moved on. What are we going to do next season? So yes, looking back I wish I’d enjoyed it and spoke about it a little bit more. But I was so determined to move on to the next season, try my best and try and improve as an individual. I want to become a better person, a better player. So moving on wasn’t a problem for me. I never looked at my trophies, half of my shirts I’ve given to my kids. I’ve always been very focused, so having this time to reflect is a little bit different.”

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When you look back Coley, it was actually 2001 when you left. Did you leave too soon?
“Yeah, I know I left too soon but my relationship with the manager was phenomenal. I always believed I was good enough to play in one major tournament and I was trying to force my way into the World Cup squad that year. I went to see the gaffer and he’d say ‘get out, I’m not talking to you.’ I was saying to the boss ‘I need to move on, I need to play games’ and he would just say I’m not selling you. In the end, I think I pestered him so much, he said ‘I know what you’re like, I know you want to play games and not sit on the bench, so we’ll come to a deal. I’ll move you on but you can stay for as long as you want.’ And when he said that I thought ‘I can stay at Man United for as long as I want, and see my contract out.’ He wasn’t forcing me out the door, which was brilliant. But I needed to play more games than the gaffer was prepared to give me at that stage. I can say now I should have stayed at United to see my career out, but on the flip side I’ve gone away and ended up winning the trophy I didn’t win: The League Cup. I weigh it up both sides now, knowing I could have stayed at Old Trafford, but I went away and managed to win the League Cup. Many years after that Man United won the League Cup a few times but that was the decision I had to make at that time.”


You only won 15 caps. I can’t believe that. Someone of your goalscoring ability, you look back at that and scratch your head…
“I remember when I was at Newcastle, I was absolutely flying. It was ridiculous the goals I was getting. David Davies phoned Kevin Keegan and explained why Terry [Venables] wasn’t putting me in the England squad. Kevin’s invited me to sit down in his office and to listen to the phone call. The shenanigans they were talking about for why I wasn’t getting in the England squad when I was scoring all these goals for Newcastle was a nonsense. So I’ve always said, my England career is going to be tough. When you’re scoring all these goals but the manager doesn’t want to pick you, what else are you supposed to do? And that’s when he came out with the quote: ‘I’m not preparing to give out caps like confetti’. Well, I’m doing my job for Newcastle scoring goals and you’re not going to give me a cap, if it’s like confetti, well I’m going to struggle. And that’s what my England career was like after that, every manager. My best one was probably Howard Wilkinson, because he believed I was good enough to play at that level. I know I was good enough to play at that level, because I was doing it every week for Man United in Champions League football – and we were playing against better teams! It was what it was in the end.”

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You might have seen an interview Matteo Darmian this weekend. He said he thought [Marcus] Rashford had the talent to eventually win the Ballon D’Or and that he could be as good as [Kylian] Mbappe. What do you think about that?
“Anything is possible. Mbappe is young himself, but you can see the difference in levels between them two already. Marcus can close that gap gradually. You never know what’s possible in this game, you’re always improving. Man United are going to get better, Marcus will get better. I think he’s come out and said that’s his preferred position. If that’s the position he wants to play in, he can only improve in that position.”


What about current United, Coley. It was a terrible shame football was brought to a halt when it was, we were in terrific form at that point. But what do you make of United?
“We were. We were doing really well, we started to play some nice football as well. The signings were good as well, they really started to improve us. Everyone started believing in themselves a little more. That’s what I thought and I spoke with Ole a few times about it. We were talking about the confidence is coming back in the team and certain signings have made a massive difference, coming in with a breath of fresh air. All of a sudden that individual comes in and changes things and they start to believe in themselves a bit more. What I enjoyed before the break came around was the way we started playing football. Playing with more freedom, playing like Man United can play. That’s what Man United is about, playing galvanising football, entertaining and trying to score as many goals as possible. That’s what we were doing: scoring goals.”


What about Ighalo? He was a surprising signing but he obviously loves being here. What do you make of him, a slightly different kind of striker to what we had?
“It is. It totally came out the blue. But like you say he has come in and made a big impact. He seems a lovely guy, I’ve spoken to him a few times. He’s told me how happy he is to be at Man United. He’s a big fan, he wants to play his part. But for me personally it’s good Man United have brought in a number nine who actually wants to run in the box and score goals. That’s the appetite you’ve got to give players like [Anthony] Martial and Marcus, who obviously plays on the left. Ultimately when you get into that position you will start scoring your goals. Having someone like Odion come into the team, when he has done, he’s not let anyone down.”

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When we get a former player on the chat we always ask them for their Man United six-a-side team of players they played with. You obviously played with some great players, who would you pick?
“What do you play, rush keeper? In six-a-side, sometimes you’ve got to play rush keeper. Scholesy, Skip [Roy Keane]. Jaap [Stam]. How many’s that? [Three]. Yorkie, Ruud [van Nistelrooy] and Giggsy. I know Yorkie can drop in there. Ruud isn’t dropping in there for anybody!”

Just on that point of Ruud, I think Wayne Rooney wrote Ruud would be really annoyed if he found out Thierry Henry had scored, because he’d be really desperate to win the Golden Boot. Can you associate with that sort of feeling?
“No. I love scoring goals, you know what I mean? As a centre-forward, you love scoring goals, but if I go in and the team has won 5-0 and I’ve not scored, why am I worrying myself? Why should I worry? We’re looking for May. When it’s the end of the season we want to be top of the league or walking out and winning the championship. So for me personally, if we score five and I’ve not scored, I’m not getting on the coach and not talking to anyone. I’m buzzing! I might get another game the week after, because I know the manager can’t change the team!”

What was your best goal for Man United? Maybe the best and the most important?
“I will go for the one against Tottenham at Old Trafford. You know why it’s the most important. As we know, the world goes round and you always come back to your starting point. When we lost the league in 1995, I had the worst summer ever. I was absolutely devastated. I can take all the flak, that didn’t really bother me. The flak was I cost us the championship and all that. But for me personally, I always had this thing driving me that I’d let so many people down, my team-mates and whatever. And I always wanted to get to that point where it was me turning it around. So to get that goal in that game, I think for me that was redemption. Personally and mentally, not just for me but I’d done it for my team-mates who I’d let down four years ago, the punters and whatever. For me personally that was probably my most important one.”

Surely the most important was the one you just rolled in against Juventus? 
“No. You know why? The game was over. We were going through on away goals and I’ve always said to everyone the game was over. We’re 2-2, we’re going through on away goals. Yorkie that evening decided to be a bit greedy by going around the goalkeeper and I said that’s the first time, yeah, in us playing together, that you’ve never tried to slip me in. He went down, and the ref didn’t give a penalty. When I look back, it was pretty close to the post by the way. It was a tight angle. We got through, but the game was over.”

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