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Football's greatest partnerships: Part 2 - That night in Barcelona

It was sublime, stunning and supreme. And it reached its zenith on that night in Barcelona.

Andy Cole (L), Sir Alex Ferguson and Dwight Yorke – “Treble”

9691 days. That’s how long Sir Alex served as manager of Manchester United. Twenty-six rollercoaster years of ups and downs, with the former significantly overtaking the latter. And it goes without saying that when you’ve had a reign so seminal, it’s only natural that it would be dotted with moments that are etched in the folklore of football. Sir Alex and the Red Devils certainly had a lot of those.

David Beckham’s wonder goal from his own half against Wimbledon in the 96/97 season, propelling him to eternal spotlight. Eric Cantona’s sublime chip followed by that legendary celebration against Sunderland the following season.

Wayne Rooney’s overhead kick out of the blue to knock out the blue neighbours. Even the madcap 5-5 draw against West Bromwich Albion -the first of its kind in the Premier League era – in his 1500th  and final game. What a reign he had. What moments he enjoyed.

Yet, the 1998/99 “Treble” season was an outlier even taking the gold standards of Sir Alex. The incredible solo goal by Ryan Giggs against Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinal. The day of days at the Camp Nou against Bayern Munich where Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took them to the “Promised Land” as Clive Tyldesley so beautifully put it.

However, the game that epitomized the beauty and crystallized the force of that Manchester United team came in the group stage, at the Camp Nou again. They were about to face mighty Barcelona. They need not have worried though. For it was the night of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

The deadly duo couldn’t have had a more disparate journey to the Theatre of Dreams. The Arsenal graduate who later left for pastures anew, Andy Cole was the archetypal young English prodigy turned established professional, a la Michael Owen or Wayne Rooney.

Cole went on to become a gunman of the Toon Army, during his time at Newcastle United, where he formed a formidable strike partnership with Peter Beardsley, who himself was part of an erstwhile magnificent forward duo for the Three Lions along with Gary Lineker.

Also Read: EPL: 5 Best strike partnerships

Awarded the PFA Young Player of the season in the 1993/94 season, Cole was the most expensive British transfer ever midway through the next season, as Manchester United came calling. What followed was a bittersweet journey at an increasingly competitive club which left Cole short on goals and confidence.

Almost being sold in exchange for Alan Shearer before the latter opted to join Newcastle United, Cole slowly rediscovered his form, striking up a decent combo with Teddy Sheringham. However, he would not fully turn on the afterburners until the 1998/99 season, when a slightly built striker from Canaan, Tobago joined him at the Stretford End.

Playing kickabout in a land more famous for its cricket and calypso, Dwight Yorke was spotted by the radar-like vision of the then Aston Villa supremo, Graham Taylor, who immediately took the little known forward to the Old Blighty.

A winger turned centre forward, the Caribbean striker turned up in claret and blue for nine seasons before joining Manchester United, an acrimonious transfer that left a sour taste in the mouths of the Villains who adored their star marksman. All the misgivings that prevailed upon him landing at Carrington evaporated soon though. 

The “Yorke-Cole” partnership was neither planned nor expected in a team, whose roster also boasted of Sheringham as well as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in its attacking lineup. However, Sir Alex saw something in the duo that pundits didn’t and soon enough, the Premier League was set alight with deft touches, slick one-twos and goals galore from United’s telepathic duo.

It was sublime, stunning and supreme. And it reached its zenith on that night in Barcelona.

That goal vs Barcelona – The dummy, the playback, the finish

Facing the likes of Michael Reiziger, Boudewijn Zenden, Luis Figo, an inspired Rivaldo and a certain promising youngster, Xavi Hernandez, United were at best deemed to stand an outside chance of nicking a point away from the Blaugrana. And so it proved, with Sonny Anderson, the prolific Brazilian striker scoring early at an electric Camp Nou.

However, a portent of things to come could be seen early in the offing as a sublime, Zlatan-esque backheel flick from Yorke to the path of Cole was only just diverted away by the Barcelona defence.

They didn’t have to wait much longer however, as a threaded ball from Jesper Blomqvist was collected neatly by the rampaging Yorke who coolly slotted it into the back of the net, in a robotic, no nonsense, “as simple as that” manner. The game had opened up, and the duo who began the game as a good one and ended it as great, had smelled blood. And then, it happened. The clock had struck 53 minutes.  

A harmless, simple pass from the Dutch giant Jaap Stam was dummied with astonishing foresight by Yorke, letting it run through for Cole, who then played an absolutely delightful one-two with the Trinidadian before coolly slotting it home.

Leonardo da Vinci might as well have been talking about this goal of deluxe class when he famously said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. It captured the ethos of the beautiful game to its fullest. Pass and move. Give and go. The tiki-taka army had been tiki-taka’ed in their own backyard. Mesmerizing. Joga Bonito.

That goal for me, was Fergie’s era at its finest. It featured two strikers in their pomp during the (g)olden days of the uncomplicated 4-4-2, strutting their stuff about spectacularly against high-quality opposition. The understanding and chemistry behind that goal has seldom been replicated by two other individuals plying their trade in the game.

And it wasn’t the duo’s last act in the game that laid the foundations of Manchester United’s finest ever season. A sumptuous Beckham cross was opportunistically converted by Yorke, who was lurking at the near post to put the icing on the cake of a remarkable day in the office.

It was a short lived partnership that was at its stratospheric peak only for one season. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke scored a massive 53 goals between them the 1998/99 season – figures considered brilliant before Messi and Ronaldo routinely started blowing them into smithereens.

Scoring against the likes of Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Bayern Munich, the pair struck fear in the hearts of all European backlines. Yorke went on to win the Premier League Player of the Season title, giving fresh impetus to a region where football had traditionally been given the backseat. His contribution to the game cannot be measured in goals alone.

A specialist in strike partnerships, managers of today such as the likes of Claudio Ranieri and Sean Dyche – the proponents of strike partnerships even today –  would be pulling their hair apart (neither of them has much of it anyway) searching for a striker who is lucky enough to be embodied with half the calibre of Andy Cole.

He was a serial winner during his playing days, having won four Premier League titles and a League Cup (with Blackburn Rovers, where he would be reunited with Yorke in the twilight zone of their careers) in addition to the treble, although his stint with the national team regularly failed to deceive, a situation symptomatic of English football’s “always bust, never boom” condition in the international arena.

Yorke and Cole – “You never forget”

The fact that Cole and Yorke enjoyed a not so long partnership should not take anything away from what they achieved together. For the brevity (and quality) of their partnership served as the heart and soul of a United season that has been immortalized in the annals of history.

Photographs and YouTube videos remember Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s goal that made their great Scottish gaffer go “ Football. Bloody hell”. But for the loyal Mancunians who followed their team during the dizzy heights of that historic season, the primary architects of their stairway to seventh heaven will always include Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

Some games in football can write a player’s story in itself. Steven Gerrard wrote it across two finals in Istanbul and Cardiff. Diego Maradona did it with a flourish of the magical paintbrush that his foot was, over a spellbound English team in the 1986 World Cup.

Dwight Eversley Yorke and Andrew Alexander Cole wrote theirs on that night in Barcelona. It was poetry in motion. Needless to say, the duo evoked strong and memorable responses from teammates and adversaries alike. Sample this from the one and only Graeme Souness.

“It was only a matter of time before they (Yorke and Cole) got fit and after that it’s like riding a bike or making love to a beautiful woman; you never forget.” | Graeme Souness 

People ask me why I hold their goal of goals against Barcelona among my list of favourites – a list that includes goals that are much harder to score from a technical standpoint such as Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouettic swivel against Newcastle United or Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s jaw dropping, eye popping overhead kick against England which made Stan Collymore cry with pleasure saying “I want to give you a man hug!”.

The reason is simple. It was beautiful. And after all, a thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

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