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Cole sends reminder to Eriksson

© Reuters 2002

By Stephen Wood

CARDIFF, Feb 25 (Reuters) - It was said that when Andy Cole started parking a Mini Cooper among the Ferraris and Porsches at Old Trafford that he had gone down in the world.

But reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. The world, in fact, could still be at the striker's feet after his match-winning feat in the English League Cup final on Sunday.

Cole, the Blackburn Rovers player, called on all the experience and know-how garnered in his former life as a Manchester United star to propel his new club to a surprise 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at the Millennium Stadium.

His winning goal - as opportunistic as they come from a man derided in many quarters - ensured the Ewood Park club of a passage into European competition in the UEFA Cup next season.

But more importantly for the 30-year-old, it reinforced his claims for a ticket on a much more exotic adventure - England's World Cup finals campaign in South Korea and Japan later this year.

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson is expected to name his final World Cup squad of 23 players on May 21, but by far the most interesting sub-plot is the race for the five forwards' berths.

Cole, all pace and movement and determination on Sunday, is desperate to fulfil a lifetime's ambition of representing his country at a World Cup and, with his performance in Cardiff, has nudged ahead of his rivals for that fifth and final squad place.

Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Teddy Sheringham - the Spurs captain whose lethargic performance against Blackburn could actually harm his chances - are expected to get the call from Eriksson. But the last place is, not to put too fine a point on it, a free-for-all.

"He is a top man," was Blackburn manager Graeme Souness' assessment of Cole as they celebrated a famous triumph. "He's quality and proven. You ask the defenders who played against him if he should go to the World Cup." Blackburn striker Matt Jansen said: "Cole is a quality player. He's been in (England) squads before and I've no doubt he should be included in the squad come May.

"I don't know whether Mr. Eriksson was here, but I'm sure he will have watched the game and seen Andy's goal." The man himself has always seen his life and career as a "me against the world" battle. But while criticism has followed him everywhere, Cole has scowled and survived. Thrived, even.

Although he was a self-confessed teenage tearaway in his home town of Nottingham in the 1980s, he finally managed to avoid the pitfalls which beset his peers to earn his first professional contract at Arsenal as an 18-year-old. When he was rejected at Highbury in 1991, he came back strong at Bristol City, earning himself a move to Newcastle United, where he made his name with a staggering - and joint premier league record - 34 goals in the 1993-94 season.

When Newcastle sold him to Manchester United in January 1995 for a then-British record transfer fee, they said he would never cut it at the biggest club in the world. His response, during nearly seven years at Old Trafford, was emphatic.

With a goal every 1.7 matches on average, he helped the club to five premier league titles, two FA Cups and one Champions League triumph. His winning goal, against Spurs, in the last game of the 1998-99 premier league season not only secured the championship but the first leg of that unprecedented Treble.

Life at United was no hardship. He was revered by the fans and lavished with all the sports cars, clothes, jewellery and property a modern footballer could want.

But in December, his status at United was undermined with the arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy and craving first team football, he took the gamble of quitting the English champions for one of the most unfashionable clubs in the premier league.

For a few weeks he vanished off the radar. In a friendly against the Netherlands this month, Aston Villa striker Darius Vassell scored on his England debut and was immediately hailed as Eriksson's secret weapon in attack. But Cole has registered with the public consciousness again after Sunday.

It will have given him no end of pleasure, especially as Spurs manager Glenn Hoddle, the man who, as England coach in 1998, openly questioned Cole's ability to convert chances into goals, was on the receiving end.

Cole has matured greatly since his omission from the England World Cup squad four years ago. His own children, as well as his charity work for under-privileged children in Africa, have given him, as he admits, a "perspective". After Sunday's match, he maintained the occasion was about Blackburn, not his personal goals.

But it is hard to disregard an old image of him, aged 18 at Highbury, resplendent in an Arsenal kit after he had signed for the north London club. In it, he makes like a peacock, proud and statuesque and looking like he thinks he will own the place one day.

Despite having scored just once for England, he keeps fighting against the odds to earn recognition. In many ways, he needs an England place to justify himself to himself. If he is called by Eriksson, there will be no more satisfied man.

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