This is the story of a man who scored an unbelievable number of goals during his lengthy career at the top levels of football – and yet was only capped 15 times by England during that time, netting a solitary goal for his country in a World Cup qualifier against Albania.

Here’s a statistic to put his scoring prowess into context: records show that this guy scored 274 goals in a total of 628 career games for 12 different clubs in a professional career that spanned almost 20 years – that’s a strike rate of almost a goal every other game, which I’d venture is favourable to just about any striker who has ever played at the highest levels in England.

So, who am I talking about? Well, none other than Andy Cole, who has been unfortunate to find himself in the media spotlight for personal health reasons in recent years, having suffered kidney failure in June 2014.

An Unhappy Introduction

So, who is Andy Cole? Well, I first came across Cole personally on 21 August 1993 – and it was a much happier occasion for him than it was for me. That day his recently-promoted Newcastle United side were the visitors at Old Trafford, home of the newly-crowned inaugural Premier League Champions. They duly ruined many a punter’s betting slip – and my first trip to Old Trafford for a couple of years – when Cole grabbed what turned out to be a fully deserved equaliser on 70 minutes. The game finished in a 1-1 draw, a youthful Ryan Giggs having given the home side the lead with a sumptuous free-kick just before half-time.

However, that’s getting ahead of ourselves – let’s rewind to the beginning.

In The Beginning

Andy Cole is the son of a Jamaican immigrant who worked in Nottinghamshire coal mines his entire working life. Cole was born in Nottingham during October 1971, and first appeared at Arsenal, for whom he signed straight from school in 1989.

As you’d imagine, making the breakthrough into the first-team at a huge club like the Gunners wasn’t going to be easy. Cole eventually got a substitute appearance against Sheffield United at Highbury on 29th December 1990, but couldn’t make an impact. He also came on against Tottenham Hotspur in the 1991 Charity Shield game at Wembley, but that would be the last time he ever donned an Arsenal first-team shirt.

Fulham (Part 1)

Needing game time, Cole found himself out on loan the following season, at then Third Division Fulham, for whom he managed three goals in 13 appearances. It wasn’t enough to turn any heads at Highbury, and when he found himself still struggling to get anywhere near the Arsenal first-team set-up the following season, it was a relief to go out on loan again, this time to Bristol City. That happened in March 1992.

Rockin’ With The Robins!

It was the start of Cole’s meteoric rise to the top of the game, because at Ashton Gate he hit eight goals in just 12 games, more than enough to persuade the Robins’ chairman to write a cheque for £500,000 to Arsenal to secure his services permanently during the summer. In doing so, he became City’s most expensive purchase ever. It turned out to be money very well spent.

That’s because during his first full season in league football, 1992-93, the lad from Nottingham hit a hugely impressive 12 goals in just 29 Championship games for Bristol City. It was clear he was simply too good to be playing at this lower level, and there were a lot of rumours of interest from Premier League clubs.

From A Robin To A Magpie

For once, the press speculation turned out to be absolutely correct. Cole’s stay at Ashton Gate turned out to be brief, because Kevin Keegan and Newcastle United decided they couldn’t wait until the summer to snap him up – Cole signed for the Magpies for a then-club record transfer fee of £1.75 million in February 1993. These were the days before two fixed transfer windows had been instituted by the Premier League, so players were free to move at any time during the year.

Early Promotion

The Geordies were also a Second Division club at that time but were already top of the table before Cole signed for them, and his goals – an incredible 12 goals in 12 games which included two hat-tricks, one each against Barnsley and Leicester City – helped secure a return to the top flight for the Toon.

What it meant was that, even before kicking a ball in the Premier League, Andy Cole was already a feared hitman; a player being picked out by the English football media as someone to watch closely in the coming season.

Bulging Nets, Everywhere!

Again, the press were proven right. Cole was simply unstoppable. Playing alongside a veteran Newcastle hero in Peter Beardsley, he made scoring goals in the top division look effortless. As well as ruining my day at Old Trafford that August (his goal that day was his first ever at Premier League level), he ruined many more of Newcastle’s opponents’ days as he plundered an incredible 34 goals in just 40 Premier League games.

That strike rate, which rose to 41 goals in total for the season when the cup competitions were included, made Andy Cole the new holder of Newcastle United’s all-time club goalscoring record for a single season, which had been held by the legendary Hughie Gallacher for nearly 70 years.

With the ageing Beardsley enjoying a new lease of life alongside him, Cole’s goals helped steer Keegan’s men to a third-place finish in the league table, which not only qualified them for the following season’s UEFA Cup (and would have seen them into the Champions League these days) but helped the young striker to win that season’s PFA Young Player of the Year award.

Goal King Cole

By now Andy Cole couldn’t have bought a drink in a bar in Newcastle if his life had depended on it. His name was sung constantly during games by the Geordie faithful and adorned kids’ replica shirts all over the North-East – he was as close to a modern-day superhero as it’s possible to get.

Some people at Arsenal were probably sitting very uncomfortably indeed, wondering at just what a huge mistake they’d made in offloading the young lad for a mere £500,000 to Bristol City a couple of years earlier.

When he began the following season of 1994-95 in the same explosive form as before – nine goals in just 18 Premier League games, and a hat-trick against Royal Antwerp in Europe – you just knew that one of the giant clubs across Europe would be getting ready to break out the cheque book in a hunt for his signature.

Fergie Comes Calling

That club, happily for all Red Devils fans, turned out to be Manchester United. Alex Ferguson was acutely aware that his leading striker, the iconic Mark Hughes, was on a downward spiral at the twilight of a glittering career. He had tried to prise the prolific Alan Shearer away from Southampton during the summer of 1993, only to be usurped by Blackburn Rovers, who were being financed by sugar-daddy billionaire owner Jack Walker. Rovers had made Shearer an offer he simply couldn’t refuse, and now United were locked into a title race with the newly-minted Lancashire club, for whom Shearer was banging the goals in, week after week.

On 10 January 1995, United pounced, bringing Cole to Manchester for £6 million plus a makeweight, Northern Ireland international winger Keith Gillespie, who went in the opposite direction. Gillespie was a victim of UEFA’s rule which permitted only three foreign players in any matchday squad for European competitions. At that time the three other home nations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales were ludicrously deemed to be foreign to England by the governing body.

Kung-Fu Capers

Despite fitting like a hand in a glove at Old Trafford almost immediately, Cole – along with everyone else at United – was ultimately to suffer huge disappointment that season. Just weeks after joining the Red Devils – on 25 January 1995 – Cole watched on as talismanic French team-mate Eric Cantona got himself banned from playing for the remainder of that season after reacting violently to disgusting racist provocation from a thug at Crystal Palace.

High Fives, But Trouble Bubbles

Cole had to solider on as the main target-man, and that he did to great effect. He managed 12 goals in just 18 games for United, including becoming the first man to ever score five goals in a single Premier League game as United hammered Ipswich Town 9-0 at Old Trafford on 4 March. However, the defining moments of his – and United’s – season came on the final day at West Ham United, where Cole contrived to miss a couple of very presentable chances. When combined with the heroics from home keeper Ludek Miklosko, this led to the game finishing in a 1-1 draw, allowing Blackburn Rovers to narrowly claim the Premier League title, despite their defeat at Liverpool on the same afternoon.

That disappointment appeared to play on Cole’s mind the following season, as pretty much for the first time ever in his professional career he struggled to find the back of the opposition net regularly. By the time United were well-beaten 3-1 at Leeds United on Christmas Eve, Cole had managed only four goals in four months of football.

All Eyes On Eric As The Trophies Roll In

However, by now Cantona had made a dramatic return from his lengthy playing ban, and he inspired a youthful United side to relentlessly hunt down runaway league leaders Newcastle United during the early months of 1996. When Cole scored in a pulsating 3-2 Manchester Derby victory at Maine Road, United were back on top of the table. It was a position they hadn’t relinquished by the time he got the second goal in the final day 3-0 win at Middlesbrough that secured his first major winners’ medal in football.

Cole followed that up by adding an FA Cup winners’ medal to his stash days later, as he was part of the first ever squad in England to win the coveted Double twice, United beating arch-rivals Liverpool 1-0 at Wembley thanks to a late Cantona volley.

Almost A Rover

You would think that his marvelous goalscoring record would have rendered Cole untouchable at United. In the Football Manager computer simulation series anyone would have had him listed as ‘unavailable for transfer’ from their team. However, Andy’s reality during summer 1996 turned out to be very different.

Ferguson was still desperate to land Alan Shearer, who by now was clearly one of the best strikers in the world, and he believed including Cole as a sweetener in a deal for the Blackburn man would be an offer that Rovers truly couldn’t refuse. Happily for Cole, for once the great Scottish manager was mistaken. Shearer rejected a move to United for the second time when his hometown club of Newcastle United came calling, and Cole instead found himself with a new strike partner at Old Trafford, an unknown Norwegian kid called Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Broken Cole

In the event, Cole never got a chance to form a partnership with the baby-faced Solskjaer during those early months of 1996-97. In a reserve game at Anfield, he was the victim of a brutal assault by the thuggish Neil Ruddock which left him with two broken legs, and a long road to recovery.

His return in late December showed the underlying determination of the man to succeed. I’m quite sure if I’d suffered a double leg break in August, I wouldn’t have been back playing top-level football by December. However, return he did, scoring his first goal of the season in a 4-0 win at Nottingham Forest on Boxing Day.

Important Goals

The season itself was a resounding success domestically for the Red Devils, who lost a total of only five games in the league. Cole became a scorer of important goals, rather than being prolific; his goals against Wimbledon, Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackburn Rovers and in the 3-1 win at Liverpool (a victory which effectively sealed the title for United) were crucial to the team. However, by the end of that stop-start year, he’d only claimed seven goals in all competitions.

When the iconic Cantona announced his immediate retirement from football after the title celebrations had ended, it meant that Cole was now regarded by most pundits as the leading striker at United.

A Fine Line Between Success And Failure

The 1997-98 season couldn’t have gone much better for Cole personally. He had another partner up front in the form of former Forest striker Teddy Sheringham, and even though they didn’t get on too well together off the pitch, on it they were a very decent pairing. Cole helped himself to 11 Premier League goals by Boxing Day, including a first-half hat-trick in a 7-0 trouncing of Barnsley and a couple of strikes in a 3-1 win at Liverpool.

Despite that, try as they might, United simply couldn’t shake the shadow of North London rivals Arsenal throughout the campaign. When their form hit a rocky patch in the New Year, the Gunners saw an opportunity to snatch the league title. A pivotal 0-1 defeat to Arsene Wenger’s men in March weakened United’s resolve, and Cole’s strikes in wins over Blackburn, Crystal Palace and Barnsley were to no avail in the end, as the title slipped out of United’s grasp by a single point.

For Cole, to end up with 25 goals from 45 appearances and yet win no trophies was a bitter blow, made worse by narrowly losing out on winning the PFA Player of the Year award to Arsenal’s brilliant Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp.

Snubbed By Hoddle

Then, to rub salt in his wounds, England manager Glenn Hoddle left Cole out of the squad to represent the nation at the World Cup in France, claiming the United man “needed six or seven chances to score one goal”. It was absolute nonsense but was an observation that Andy’s detractors used against him throughout his career. Leaving Cole at home seemed like a bad decision at the time. Frankly, it looks like an astonishingly poor decision now, as we look back with 20 years of hindsight.

The Arrival of The Calypso Kid

However, he remained upbeat about his United career, and that received a major boost in an unexpected way when Ferguson swooped for Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke during the summer of 1998. Instead of becoming yet another rival for his first-team shirt at Old Trafford, Yorke became an instant best mate for Cole, the two of them seemingly inseparable both around the club and around town.

More to the point, they quickly established an almost telepathic understanding up front, with trickery and one-touch passing very much in evidence. Despite a somewhat indifferent beginning to the campaign, United hit their stride during the autumn months, and that was never shown more clearly than on 25 November, when they paid a visit to face FC Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Barca Bamboozled

In a fiercely competitive Champions League group which also included German giants Bayern Munich, United gave early warning to the rest of Europe of the unstoppable juggernaut they were about to transform into. Yorke and Cole delivered an almost exhibition-like performance of intertwining movement and lethal finishing in front of the stunned Catalonian audience, although the hosts eventually recovered to snatch a 3-3 draw in a thrilling contest.

The Season of a Lifetime

The surprising 2-3 defeat at Middlesbrough six days before Christmas was to be United’s final loss of the season; a truly remarkable statement. Thereafter, Andy Cole was an integral part of a side which dominated nearly every opponent they met. It’s a testament to what a simply brilliant side that Arsenal were back then that United had to beat Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on the final day of the Premier League season to be sure of clinching the championship. On the day a superb lobbed finish from Cole was essential, the winner in a 2-1 victory that boosted the side’s confidence and paved the way for the cup successes that followed.

Andy Cole didn’t score at Wembley as the Reds clinched the Double against his former club Newcastle United with a 2-0 win in the FA Cup Final – he was withdrawn for pal Dwight Yorke after an hour.

He also didn’t score in the Champions League Final, despite starting alongside Yorke, as United became the only English club ever to win the Treble. The personal glory on that historic Barcelona evening was claimed by substitutes Sheringham and Solskjaer (who had replaced Cole after 81 minutes), heroes of the 2-1 injury-time comeback victory over Bayern Munich.

I doubt he gives a damn now. It had been the season of a lifetime. By the time the full-time whistle was blown in the Camp Nou, Cole had claimed at least one of every single winners’ medal of any consequence available in club football, a couple of them on numerous occasions.

The Fab Four

Of course, such a season was never going to be repeated, but going into 1999-2000 Cole was in red-hot form again. Part of a rotation of four fabulous world-class finishers along with Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer, and with the likes of Paul Scholes and David Beckham providing bullets all the time, Cole often couldn’t miss.

His most memorable day of the year arrived at the end of August with the visit of old chums Newcastle to Old Trafford; they must have wished they’d missed their flight down, because Andy destroyed them, claiming four goals in a 5-1 hiding. He followed that up in the next game by grabbing the second goal in a 3-2 win at Liverpool.

There were also double salvos in wins over Watford, Leicester City and Coventry City, leaving the decorated striker with 19 Premier League goals from the 28 games he had featured in as United stormed to another league title, finishing 18 points clear of runners-up Arsenal. During the season he had notched his 100th goal for United against Wimbledon, becoming one of a very small group of players to have achieved that landmark.

Not A Lion, Once Again

The only major disappointment for Cole arrived in the form of a foot injury in the final days before England boss Kevin Keegan named his final 22-man squad for Euro 2000 – yet again, despite sensational form for his club, he was going to miss out on a chance to represent his country.

A series of niggling injuries during the following season restricted Cole’s appearances drastically, but along with Sheringham, Yorke and Solskjaer, he was able to contribute enough goals (nine goals in 19 games) to see United clinch their third Premier League title in a row, finishing 10 points clear of Arsenal.

A Ruud Awakening

However, the arrival of lethal Dutch hitman Ruud van Nistelrooy from PSV Eindhoven during the summer of 2001 spelt the end for the fabulous four, with Sheringham departing on a free transfer to Tottenham Hotspur, despite winning both the PFA and FWA Player of the Year awards that summer.

Cole might have felt he could become an effective partner for the big Dutchman up top, but despite notching four goals in 11 games, it was clear that Sir Alex didn’t agree. The Englishman found himself increasingly consigned to the bench, with Solskjaer often the favoured foil for the explosive van Nistelrooy, who simply couldn’t stop scoring. The writing was on the wall.

Roving A Way At Ewood & Hoddle Avenged

Andy Cole signed for Blackburn Rovers for a fee of £8 million on 29 December 2001. He’d amassed a staggering total of 121 goals in 275 appearances for Manchester United, easily one of the most prolific strikers in the club’s history.

It was little surprise to anyone, probably not even Sir Alex, when Cole continued to find the back of the opposition net on a very regular basis for Rovers. Within months of arriving at Ewood Park he had managed to do something which he hadn’t achieved with United: win a League Cup winners’ medal. To make it even sweeter, he scored the winning goal in the final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium against a Tottenham Hotspur side managed by one Glenn Hoddle, who had cruelly left Andy out of his final World Cup squad four years earlier.

A Partnership Renewed

He finished that first season at Blackburn with 13 goals from only 20 games, helping Rovers to a UEFA Cup spot in the process. When he was reunited with his old sidekick Dwight Yorke, who arrived from Old Trafford during the summer of 2002, it seemed that the good times were far from over for the former United frontmen. Together they propelled Graeme Souness’ Rovers to a sixth-placed league finish in 2002-03, again clinching European football. Cole got a respectable 13 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions, with his mate Yorke sharing an identical record.

Struggling With Souness

However, it was the beginning of the end. The following season Cole again showed his pedigree with a very respectable 11 goals from 37 appearances, but Blackburn Rovers spent most of the season trying to stay out of the relegation squabble just below them, eventually finishing in a dismal 15th position. What was worse, Cole’s personal relationship with Souness floundered, leading him to eventually report the headstrong Scottish manager to the PFA for unfair treatment.

Fulham (Part 2)

A parting of the ways was inevitable. The 32-year-old Cole joined Fulham for an undisclosed fee in July 2004, going on to claim a superb 12 goals in 31 Premier League games as the Cottagers finished in 13th place under boss Chris Coleman, two places better off than Blackburn Rovers.

A Return To Manchester…But The Blue Side

It came as a bit of a shock, then, when Cole decided to leave London and return to the North West, this time to sign for Stuart Pearce at Manchester City during the summer of 2005. Apparently his family hadn’t settled in the capital and wanted a return to the North. Back in the city where he had had so much success in a red shirt, Cole proved a decent signing for the Sky Blues, notching nine goals in 22 Premier League games as a pre-Abu Dhabi-funded City finished in 15th place.

A Wrong Step South

In another twist, Cole retraced his steps south the following summer, to sign for Portsmouth boss Harry Redknapp, despite having supposedly signed a new contract at Manchester City only months earlier. It was a mistake. Pompey had a very decent side under the former West Ham legend, but the ageing Cole struggled to secure a place in it, and he ended a disappointing spell (3 goals from 18 appearances) by signing on loan for Championship side Birmingham City in March 2007, for whom he managed a single goal in five games.

Short spells at Sunderland (eight games, no goals), Burnley (13 games, six goals) and hometown club Nottingham Forest (11 games, no goals) followed before Cole announced his retirement, bringing the curtain down on a simply fabulous career on 11 November 2008.

Health Concerns

Since that date, he has had a couple of short stints coaching young strikers at both Milton Keyes Dons and back at Manchester United, but unfortunately is better known these days for his long-standing battles with a health condition which led to his kidneys failing in June 2014. Despite dialysis, he needed a complete kidney transplant, which he had performed in April 2017 after his nephew agreed to donate a kidney to Andy.

“Hits The Ball, Scores A Goal”

The man is an absolute legend in the eyes of any Manchester United fan who witnessed his extraordinary goalscoring feats for the side between 1995 and 2001. In reality United robbed Newcastle United for his services, because many of his goals were priceless, helping the team to clinch trophies that could easily have been lost to rivals without Cole’s contribution.

I will close by taking this opportunity to pass my best wishes on to Andy for his future health. Over a lengthy, glittering career he has proven himself time and again to be a courageous battler, with supreme self-belief and a never-say-die attitude very much to the fore. Keep fighting, mate, and thanks for all the wonderful memories you gave us for many years – you are an all-time Manchester United legend.