Well over a decade since he played his final Premier League game, Andy Cole is still third in the list of all-time leading goalscorers. In that time, only one player – Wayne Rooney – has actually managed to overtake his tally of 187 and go ahead in the standings. Few others ever will.
Cole’s rise to the Premier League was whirlwind to say the least. Given his success at other clubs in the years that followed, it is easy to forget that he started out at Arsenal and was still with the Gunners in the summer that immediately preceded the inaugural 1992/93 Premier League season.
At that time, his top flight experience amount to a single substitute appearance a few days after Christmas in 1990. But with slim prospects of becoming a first-team regular, Cole had to take a step down before he got his chance to come back up.
A loan spell at second tier club Bristol City in the final weeks of the 1991/92 campaign was the break the young Nottingham-born striker needed. That became a permanent deal when Arsenal sold him to the Robins in the summer of 1992, while his goals then prompted Newcastle to spend a club record £1.75m fee after little more than half a season in Bristol.
Having been out of the top flight since 1989, the Magpies were on their way to the Premier League and Cole’s goals made their promotion even more spectacular. He scored two hat-tricks by the end of the campaign and finished with 12 goals in 12 games for his new club.
What followed, however, was mind-blowing.
The Newcastle side of the mid-1990s are still revered as great entertainers and Cole was a major reason why they took the Premier League by storm, finishing third in their first top flight season in four years and outscoring even champions Manchester United in the process.
Cole got 34 of Newcastle’s final tally of 82, which remains a Premier League record for most goals by one player in a single season. It has only ever been matched – just once, by Alan Shearer for Blackburn the following season – but never broken.
Already a record signing for Newcastle, Cole was made the most expensive player in British football history in January 1995 when Manchester United agreed a £7m deal to take him to Old Trafford. Within weeks he was the first player to score five goals in a single Premier League game during his new team’s record 9-0 mauling of Ipswich. Frustratingly his debut season with United is equally remembered for missed chances on the final day against West Ham, sending the tile to Blackburn.
The return of Eric Cantona from suspension made the 1995/96 campaign a challenging one for Cole, with chances more limited. However, he still managed 11 Premier League goals – eight of them in the second half of the season – as United spectacularly reeled in runaway leaders Newcastle.
United’s attempt to sign Alan Shearer in 1996 threatened to be the end of Cole at Old Trafford. Instead, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer arrived from Norway. Not only was competition increase, but Cole also suffered two broken legs on the receiving end of a tackle from Liverpool’s Neil Ruddock.
Cole missed the first half of the 1996/97 season and didn’t start a game until February, which he marked with a goal and assist in a 2-1 win over Arsenal at Highbury. He finished the season strongly, proving, as he had done already in 1995/96, that even when not at his best or a regular starter he was capable of scoring important goals. A match-winning performance against Blackburn and a goal in a 3-1 victory against Liverpool at Anfield in consecutive weeks proved crucial in the title race.
By that stage, it seemed as though Cole, 25 as the 1997/98 campaign rolled approached, was constantly having to prove the critics wrong. But with Cantona retired, he got the overdue chance to become the main man at United and duly obliged. His 25 goals in all competitions that season was his most prolific tally since his Newcastle days and marked the start of three consecutive years to end the decade in which he would find the net at least 20 times in each.
Inexplicably, England manager Glenn Hoddle refused to pick Cole for the 1998 World Cup squad. He never got the rub of the green at international level, playing only 15 times for England over a six-year period, mostly as a substitute, and never going to a major tournament despite his club record.
Cole blossomed further in 1998/99 once Dwight Yorke arrived in Manchester. The partnership stirred something in the famously stoic Cole and they forged an almost telepathic understanding on the pitch – as evidenced by Cole’s iconic Champions League goal against Barcelona at Camp Nou.
“Yorke and Cole, just for that Treble season where they were absolutely sensational, the way they would play together. They lit up the whole league, they lit up Europe,” former teammate Gary Neville told Sky Sports in March 2020. During the same programme, ex-Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher also remarked how difficult Cole had been to play against: “Cole was always looking to run in behind. You could never relax in the game.”
He scored the winning goal for United against Tottenham on the final day of the 1998/99 season to secure the first leg of the Treble, plucking the ball out of the sky and lifting over goalkeeper Ian Walker for the decisive victory. Earlier, his composed late finish against Juventus in Turin had booked United’s place in the Champions League final, a first since 1968. Those and others like them were vital contributions without which history as we know it could have been very different.
By the end of the 1998/99 season, Cole could boast an incredible trophy that was the envy of most players in the world. In four full campaign at Manchester United, he had won three Premier League titles, two FA Cups and the Champions League. It became five league titles as the 1990s fed into the 2000s, then six. Already by then one of the most decorate players of his generation.
Source : 90min