Retrospective #16: The wonderful Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke duopoly
Sandwiched in between the utter naivety of the first seven or eight years of your life and the predictable yawn of teenage anxiety, there’s a golden age in childhood. It’s that age when climbing trees, skimming stones and dressing as a one-eyed buccaneer is not only immensely enjoyable, but also immensely important. It’s the magical stuff that Mark Twain writes about, much better than I ever could. Still, I’ll give it a bash.
It’s true that summers last forever during this golden age. Games played with friends, brothers, even enemies, go on long into those warm, hazy nights, really meaning something. Going for a kick about? Making the most crucial last ditch sliding tackle of your little life, more like.
It’s in this period that an interest in football becomes a devotion. For a while mine manifested itself in recording the vital statistics of every Manchester United game on a pad of A4 lined paper. Home side always listed first, teams underlined in red, goalscorers noted with the time of goal coming afterwards in square brackets, that kind of thing.
It felt like I did this for at least a couple of seasons, but when I dug it out recently I discovered I’d actually given up after about twelve games. It was rather tedious, after all, and once I’d missed out a couple of matches by accident the whole neat little project came tumbling down. Looking at my father’s ancient Subbuteo boxes, it appears he’d done a similar thing, only in a slightly more haphazard way. Apparently Nottingham Forest were once a good team, would you believe?
Anyway, one name appeared time and again under the ‘United’ column in my records: A Cole. Thanks to my blissful golden age, I watched football purely for the football. I knew nothing of Cole’s initial difficulty in settling at United, in a team dominated by a certain French striker, I didn’t even know that he’d been Sir Alex’s second choice really, and was even offered in part-exchange for Alan Shearer at one point. All I knew was that he was our best goal scorer, and that he scored all the time.
When Eric Cantona – our best player, if not our best striker – retired, I was gutted like the rest of you. I came into school an innocent, happy child, only to be confronted by these nasty rumours that The King had quit football to become an actor. Ridiculous. Had to be jealous Liverpool fans, right? I checked with my dad later that day: “they’re pulling my leg, right dad?”
Incredibly, they weren’t. Cantona was gone, and a year later a rather uninspiring player was signed to fill his void: Dwight Yorke.
Not being from one of the bigger clubs, I didn’t know much about Yorke, only that apparently he’d scored a few for Villa. He just didn’t look good, though. While Cole wasn’t exactly Mr Interesting, he at least exuded coolness. Yorke, though, had this chubby, leering face. Had to be bad news, he did.
(Seen through the eyes of a child, Ronaldinho (when we had the chance to snatch him) probably looked like a bad option to replace Beckham a few years later. Luckily in the case of Yorke, Fergie pulled off a brilliant transfer this time and I was made to look like a ten-year-old.)
Cole and Yorke struck it off immediately. They must’ve each scored ten overhead kicks in that magical treble-winning season, if not twenty. And those stepover dummies, running onto the inevitable return pass and stroking it with ease into the net! Talk about a strike partnership. I’d never seen such telepathy.
The best thing about these two was that they came as a pair. Alone, a genius like Ryan Giggs or David Beckham could score a vital goal to win a game, but Cole and Yorke needed each other to play well. Far from being a hindrance though, it made them better; they were far greater than the sum of their parts. They worked for each other, they played for each other, they summed up the Old Trafford ethos of teamwork and co-operation.
We all remember that goal against Barcelona, and thankfully it’s one of those that really was that good, golden age or not. It encapsulated the Cole/Yorke relationship in a move of such simplicity and beauty that you won’t see many better at the highest level. We may have scraped through the Champions League group stage as the tournament’s second best runners-up, behind Real Madrid (and highest scorers, 20, of which Cole got 3 and Yorke grabbed 5), but nobody could really complain that we hadn’t deserved it. It’d been a killer of a group anyway: any one of Barca, Bayern Munich or us could’ve gone on to win the thing that year. Little did I know that when we met Bayern in the final for the grudge match, they too were looking to complete a treble. I can still see Samuel Kuffour now, bawling and thumping the floor in anguish. As happy as I was, I’m proud to say I truly felt for the guy, seeing how much it hurt him.
So, there I was, twelve years old; one year left before the golden era would end. We won the title again the following season, and Cole and Yorke continued to make a mockery of Premier League defences, yet in truth I’d already started to notice things that took the gloss off it all – like Mark Bosnich and Quinton Fortune, for example.
What was initially planned as a piece about Cole morphed into one about Yorke, too, but it’s impossible to discuss one without the other – and I won’t even go near the rumours of what they got up to in their private life. After all, pre-pubescent boys don’t want titillation; they just want football. The break-up of the Cole/Yorke magic coincided with the end of my golden era, perhaps even contributed to it. There would still be brilliant goals and fantastic forwards afterwards, but none of them felt the same. Ruud van Nistelrooy seemed to take pleasure in scoring only dull goals, and when Rooney and Ronaldo came along I had the wherewithal to notice that, while they are excellent footballers, they’re pretty despicable human beings.
Call it the golden age, call it nostalgia, but for me there will never be such a formidable strike partnership in English football. On their own, Cole and Yorke were good strikers. Together they were unplayable.
This was written by Jude Ellery. You can find more of him over at Strange bOUnce, the place where sport-inspired (mostly football – wahey!) fiction, satire and verse flourish. Follow him on Twitter, good people.