Teddy Sheringham and Andy Cole don’t like each other. Anyone with a passing knowledge in English football knows that. In the wake of the Terry-Bridge scandal, the ability of professional footballers to play competently alongside people they disliked was discussed frequently, with the general assumption in some quarters being that footballers should be unaffected, emotionless robots of some kind, unquestionably adept at soldiering on with a stiff upper lip, doing what’s best for the team and a whole host of other things, mainly relayed as military analogies or definitions of what made real men real men (which oddly didn’t include loyalty or a respectable hair cut). In this instance, one party decided they couldn’t actually soldier on with a steely professionalism mainly applicable to life or death combat situations and was thus admonished by some sections of the populace for simply being an actual human being. During this chain of events the Sheringham-Cole conflict was often brought up as an example of such real manliness professionalism, but tellingly without reference to the reasons why the conflict existed in the first place. This was partly because few actually knew precisely, but also mainly because, for the most part, it was incredibly stupid.
I’ve always liked Andy Cole. He struck me as an honest, hard working player, unfairly tarnished by some for a single bad season and a sparse international record. He remains the second most prolific scorer in Premiership history, only inferior to another man he didn’t get on with – hand wheeling lapel wearer and mini-messiah, Alan Shearer – but shorn of some of the respect and reputation such an achievement deserves. He also comes across as an eloquent and thoughtful writer in his newspaper columns and an insightful pundit on television, attempting to actually explain the reasons and intricacies behind what ever striking faux pas were committed in the game, rather than telling us they “literally couldn’t hit the target, literally!”. Teddy Sheringham on the other hand has never struck me as particularly sympathetic character. A long list of liaisons with dim witted, double D-listed fluffy wannabe WAG-types seems to put him in the John Terry camp of real man-ness and anyone with an unwavering 30 year dedication to such a terrible haircut can’t be trusted in my book. And he has beady eyes. I don’t like beady eyes.
This is all completely baseless opinion of course, as I know neither man, and respect both hugely as footballers, but I’d always assumed Andrew had some decent, justifiable reason for not liking Tedward, and that my deeply unfounded prejudices would clearly require me to be firmly in Team-Cole, fervently printing the T-shirts and scrawling illegible messages of support in coloured marker pen on the back of large envelopes to hold up in the crowd.
Until I actually found out what it was all about that is. There were rumblings a while back that it all had to do with a goal at Bolton, maybe a training ground bust up, or even an argument during a pre season friendly, but none were true. When Coley finally revealed the reasons for his animosity towards Sheringham, my reaction was akin to the thousands of people who watched the Large Hadron Collider finally splutter into activity admits growing concerns the world was about to collapse into itself – Is that it?…Really?…No no, really?
For those that don’t know, it all stems from Cole’s England debut in 1995, when handy Andy was brought on to replace steady Teddy with 20 minutes to go of a friendly against Uruguay. As the two converged, there was no handshake. Sheringham blanked him as came off, without so much as a “give ‘em hell old boy!” or a “do it for St George!”. That’s it.
In fairness, he admitted it may seem surprisingly mundane himself, and went on to qualify his state of mind by describing the overwhelming feelings of pride, excitement an nervousness at being called up to represent his country, something that makes me feel all warm and tingly in an age where English footballers seem to treat International football friendless like an annoying, unpaid distraction from playing Playstation or sleeping with people. The fact that they never attempted to iron out this rather trivial crease in their relationship in the 4 years they spent at the same club, instead letting it get all wrinkly and stained, languishing at the bottom of the to wash pile even now, seems rather ridiculous to those on the outside. Surely someone else in that Manchester United side must have tried to tell them how silly it was? But I suppose since it didn’t affect their performances together, no one cared. And Cole’s entitled to his grudge of course, but the thing that struck me most about his admission was this sentence, regarding his feelings immediately after being snubbed on the Wembley touchline;
“Jesus Christ! How many people just saw Teddy Sheringham do that to me?” I was embarrassed. I was confused. And there you have it. From that moment on, I knew Sheringham was not for me.”
I couldn’t help but think that if this is the way he thinks, or thought, and for a player with such striking prowess – a craft inherently built on confidence as much as skill – then what would an Andy Cole who didn’t let such little things get to him have been like? During the season he gained his rather unfair 1 in 5 reputation, how much would his game have improved if he wasn’t wracked by such trivial mental niggles?
I’ve often thought how terrifying it must be to be bearing down on goal, one on one with the keeper, acutely aware of the eyes of 75 thousand people all fixed expectantly on you, ready to erupt or deflate on your success or failure, and always thought how terribly I’d do in such a situation. I’d probably panic, trip over myself, cry, kick someone, and spend the rest of the week angry rocking back and forth in a darkened room with a bottle of scotch and 40 Benson silvers. (Though to be honest, take out the kicking and tripping and that’s generally a normal week as it is).
And if Cole was acutely aware of that as well, then it must surely have affected him to some extent in a similar situation. Maybe that was why he never shone for England? It’s a nice thought to think his reasons for never breaking the International stage are rooted in overwhelming pride at representing his country, but sad to think that if so, maybe he could have been a truly global star had he been more detached. If he’d had the cold dead eyes of killer. A bit like Sheringham’s maybe? It obviously didn’t affect him much for Manchester United, save one season, and to speculate I could lay that at the confidence acclimatization and stability brings. But for England, an unstable and irregular berth combined with the heavy expectations that not just he placed on himself, but was aware of in others, may well have had an adverse affect on his abilities.
He ended his spiel by saying Bridge was entitled to his grudge, as well he might, but it isn’t really comparable. Sheringham’s behavior towards Cole can be understood instantly and unmaliciously without too much trouble. He was simply a bit peeved at being taken off. It’s hardly a rare occurrence for players to throw ludicrous tantrums in such circumstances. So it’s a shame that Cole has held on to this grudge, more for himself than anything else, because it may offer some insight into precisely what Andy Cole’s (all be it limited) failings as a player were. Namely, that he cared too much.