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Any Reds wishing Alex Ferguson had plumped for Nottingham Forest’s Stan Collymore when he went shopping for a new striker in the January 1995 sales were forced to eat their hats over Andy Cole.
An inauspicious start to his Old Trafford career was followed by the most purple of purple patches, in which the Nottingham-born striker banged in a goal every couple of games, a ratio not seen in M16 since the golden age of Denis Law. It was only a matter of time, of course. Form is temporary, class is permanent. Cole had blazed a trail at St James’ Park, scoring an astonishing 68 goals in just 74 matches, including 41 in the 1993/94 league season. Once he was off and running, benefiting from the prompting of Cantona, Giggs and Sharpe, he played like a dream, justifying every penny of his then-record £6.25 million transfer. That first season saw Cole score an astonishing five times in the 9-0 rout of Ipswich Town at Old Trafford – a scoreline that remains an individual and team best in Premiership history. Cole netted 11 league goals on the way to the 1995/96 title, snatched so memorably from the grasp of his old team-mates at Newcastle. Further title success followed in 1996/97, a season disrupted by pneumonia and two broken legs. Though his days appeared numbered with the arrival of Dwight Yorke from Aston Villa for the 1998/99, the truth couldn’t have been more different. Cole and Yorke were dynamite together, scoring 35 goals in the league between them as United stormed unstoppably to the Treble. Yorke’s craft and strength, Cole’s pace and predatory instincts unforgettably combining at Nottingham Forest in February 1999 in an 8-1 win, memorable also for a four-goal substitute cameo from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Though Cole found his United form hard to replicate in an England shirt, there is little doubt he is one of the club’s – and the modern game’s – great strikers. He was still scoring top-flight goals for Manchester City in 2005/06 after spells with Blackburn and Fulham.