x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Always club before country

I look back at my England international career with mixed emotions.

Andrew Cole, left, watches Teddy Sheringham during an England training session. The pair, who were Manchester United teammates, never got along.
Andrew Cole, left, watches Teddy Sheringham during an England training session. The pair, who were Manchester United teammates, never got along.

I look back at my England international career with mixed emotions. I played 15 times for the senior side, but also represented England at schoolboy level, Under 18s, Under 21 and B level and it's from those early games that I have my happiest memories. I signed schoolboy forms with Arsenal on my 14th birthday in the front room at home. Weeks later, I left to go to the National Football School for outstanding talent at Lilleshall, where I continued my misspent schooling while playing every day.

A lot of the England schoolboys don't end up making it in football. They think they have made it before they have. We had a Vietnamese boat boy in our year and he was at Tottenham. They were saying he was going to be unbelievable. What happened? Nothing. I have great memories of playing at the youth levels. For the senior England side, my highlight was being picked for the first time. I was scoring a lot of goals playing for Newcastle and playing for the U21s in San Marino. The manager Lawrie McMenemy called me and said, 'Get your gear together son, you're going.' I thought I was in trouble, but he wanted me to move into the hotel where the senior side were because I'd been called up.

"You did what I asked and played like you play club football," said McMenemy, "and now you're moving up." I sat in my new hotel room alone, buzzing off being selected. There was a knock on the door and Tim Flowers, Des Walker and Carlton Palmer invited me to join them, to be part of their group. That was my happiest moment with England, the time when I felt I'd made it. I didn't play for the senior side in San Marino and England didn't qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals so I finally made my debut against Uruguay in 1995. I was the substitute for Teddy Sheringham but as I went to shake his hand, he blanked me. Proper ignored me.

I was making my debut. Maybe I was naive, but I think he should have wished me all the best. I was nervous, as anyone would be. Instead, he walked straight past me. It's not like I told Terry Venables to take Teddy off. I felt humiliated before I'd kicked a ball. So I was devastated when Sheringham signed for United because I couldn't stand him. I hit the crossbar on my debut and if I'd scored my England career would have been totally different. England managers react far more to the public mood than club managers. Darius Vassell scored a great goal on his England debut, which got him to the 2002 World Cup finals. As it was, I never really became a regular and didn't really enjoy just being in the squad on England camps.

I'd be in a hotel away from my family for nine or 10 days, yet you knew on the second day that you were not playing. You never felt that if you trained hard you'd get a chance. The atmosphere was always weird because there were different groups of players. The Manchester United and Liverpool players didn't get on or mix. They ate on separate tables and the atmosphere wasn't conducive to a winning team.

I never fully felt part of it and my first four England call-ups came under four different managers: Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Howard Wilkinson and Kevin Keegan. I was also in competition with a lot of good strikers: Alan Shearer was the best English striker, but there was also Sheringham, Les Ferdinand, Robbie Fowler and Ian Wright. Most of my caps came under my old Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan when I was playing my best football for Manchester United at the end of the 90s, but I think I should have played a lot more. I was scoring goals for Manchester United in the league and the Champions League against the best teams in the world. Playing against Georgia or Albania held no fear for me, yet Keegan's predecessor Hoddle accused me of needing six or seven chances to score a goal. Rubbish. Sir Alex told me to ignore him and that Glenn was talking nonsense. He was right because the issue with Glenn wasn't about chances, it was personal: he didn't like me and I didn't like him.

My club football was always my priority, but I still wanted to play in the 2002 World Cup, that's why I left United for Blackburn. I thought I'd be playing more and would have a better chance. I wasn't selected in the end and was unable to add to my international record of 15 caps and one goal. I always put club football first and still do. I'd rather watch United than England in a friendly or qualifier against a team like Ukraine, who they play tomorrow. It's different during the World Cup finals though, that's the one time when international football becomes really special.