With strikers, people expect.
On 22nd January 2016 – the day Devante Cole signed for Fleetwood Town – the then manager, Steven Pressley commented: “Devante has got terrific speed and is an exciting player. I hope he brings goals because we need a number nine we can rely on to score goals.”
Twenty league matches into his first full season (2016/17) and compared to the healthy striking stats of reinvigorated no.10 David Ball, Devante Cole’s figures appear meagre indeed: played 19, goals 0.
Such cold numbers, however, hide a lot.
They ignore the old school way of doing things: Cole’s actual ‘starting XI’ appearances a much more sombre total of nine; his match time – in minutes – well behind that of ten of his teammates. And they flit over the positive fact that he has the most assists at the club.
If there was ever a planned coup in terms of a data provider’s statistics resulting in misinformed judgement then the Press Association’s brutal ‘Appearances’ data – perhaps trimmed down and extracted this way by FTFC – is it; the wielder of a menacing sword charging towards Highbury and Poolfoot Farm in an effort to depose the hip and self-conscious Romeo that is, to many, Devante Cole.
This isn’t to excuse Cole at all. Grave doubts remain over whether he is cut out to lead the line, whether he has the required je ne sais quoi which ultimately separates Tony Yeboah from Tony Cottee and Alan Shearer from Alan Ayckbourn. But underneath the naked wink of a number is usually a bolder statement.
When he arrived at Fleetwood Town, Devante Cole was a shell of a player, the roughest of rough diamonds, a piece of driftwood lapping at the shore.
Although his previous manager, Phil Parkinson at Bradford City, spoke of him in glowing terms, there was either the disappointment from Cole of having to yet again find his way in the world via a fourth lower league club in the space of 17 months (after the grandeur of the Etihad) or general disillusionment with the game.
Fleetwood let go of the mercurial Jamie Proctor and stuffed £75,000 into Bradford’s bank account in order to secure the services of an even more irresolute talent, it could be argued. They swapped the delicious jam of Proctor’s right peg for the perceived grace of Cole’s speed.
In such a transaction was hurt and risk – the realisation that Proctor, no matter what exquisite glimpses we had seen, would never reach the heady heights of 20 goals a season. And the desire – through Cole – to give Fleetwood impetus, drive and momentum.
The initial few months were not good. Fans sensed in Cole the great, footballing crime of indolence. He was seen as work-shy, listless and lackadaisical (or any other L you care to think of) – a man not in tune with the demands of a tiny north-west club with big ambitions. In his strides and failure to close down rickety defences was an ardent lack of regard for the paying public.
To them, he was pampered – the weaning princeling of Newcastle United’s golden son, Andy Cole; an offshoot of proven artistry, yet still, in many respects, in his babygrow.
What Fleetwood initially bought was a temperament that needed sculpting, a young man who even though he’d claimed to be a “different type of player to his father” showed no evidence of placing such chips on the table and wanting to “make a name for himself”. Graft first – putting a full shift in – then the fancy stuff, the Cod Army faithful have always stipulated.
With Cole, suspicion and half-faith from the stands quickly turned into disillusionment. When through on goal, there were numerous gaffes and bloopers. He seemingly did not have the eye of his father, nor the clinical finishes that epitomised Andy’s time at St James’ Park.
Who can carry the weight of a father’s exploits though? And how many alchemists truly reside in a crowd – those patient begetters of developing wonder before them, slowly watching as slight improvements start to unfold?
The two blokes next to me on Row B of the Highbury Stand have already given up on Devante Cole. Normally astute and discerning men have made their judgement and it will take a couple of braces or hat-tricks from the fledgling pupil to potentially turn them around.
It will also take a different type of body language from the 21-year-old, 6’1” striker.
This is perhaps the starkest criticism of all when it comes to evaluating the Alderley Edge-born recruit. Look at Devante as he enters the field of play. There is the touching of the turf and then his making the sign of the cross.
But after that? He swings his arms at the side of him but never fully rotates or windmills them. There is something of the pendulum clock in his expression, as opposed to fairground extravaganza.
He cannot, overnight, transform himself from the slightly inhibited professional novice to the crowd pleaser or man that engages with the fans in the manner of erstwhile employee, Matty Blair.
But the Cod Army devotees expect an inkling of his personality, a glimmer of the real man who tries to score goals for a living.
They require something tangible to take home, a thought to warm before the fire – the slamming of Devante’s arm through the air, perhaps, to indicate passion, indignation and ardour.
They need to know that he is with them, that an inflamed and raucous need sits within.
Up for sale. We are all up for sale to some degree. We must, at times, give bits of ourselves that we’d rather keep private, hold onto, lock in a safe, fling down on the hallway floor as we exit our brick houses each morning.
Success demands some of this potency, some of the free-flowing flair that each man and woman has in abundance. Footballing introverts can compete with the dolled-up extroverts who don’t mind mess and pride and chaos splashed on the floor.
It takes bravery, mettle and an all-too-evident unnatural pluckiness but once through this dark cave, the faces and reckoning of the crowd become easier to digest.
Examining one of the many Andy Cole – now Andrew Cole – goal archives, you get a sense of the pressure heaped upon Devante’s shoulders, the mass of history which exudes nonchalance, virtuosity and earned luck.
The Newcastle United and Manchester United machine that was Andy Cole not only possessed an on-field smiling exuberance, but was also the embodiment of justified greed – that striker quality either revered or resented.
AC’s prowess and familiarity with the goal when in the six and 18-yard box were notorious in the 1990s. His ability to be slick and squirming in equal measure were instrumental in his effectiveness around goal.
His variety could be quite mesmerising; in his locker were two good feet, the ability to hang in the air à la Les Ferdinand, the dexterity of a ballerina, the uncanny knack of taming the ball with his first touch (however awkward this occasionally looked), breathtaking speed and a straight-shot trajectory which was extraordinary.
There were moments of fortune for sure: bobbled shots that found their way into the net; the ball generously ricocheting to him; an array of superb players around him at the height of his career who appreciated his end product (Rob Lee, Scott Sellars, Peter Beardsley, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham).
But in the main, his sudden sprints, his aerial power, his deft headers and reading the flight or soon-to-be grassy position of the ball were combined qualities unlike anything or anyone that had come before.
What of DC though – the direct electrical current, the modern era player yet to reach the dizzying altitude of his father?
On the 23rd August, at the Fans’ Forum – just four league matches into the season – manager Uwe Rösler (sat on the head table with Steve Curwood, Andy Pilley and an understandably nervous-looking ‘signing’ from the Blackpool Gazette in the form of Will Watt) answered a simple question I put to him in relation to Devante Cole: Do you believe that you can hone his skills?
“Devante has turned a corner,” was the nucleus of his response. To the fans with proper eyes, there was a good chunk of validity in this statement. DC was now much hungrier than the drowsy artefact who first arrived at Highbury to the sound of a mini-fanfare.
He was more certain and had taken to probing defences. He hadn’t yet found the football’s sweet spot, but was now getting in useful positions, becoming a team player and taking responsibility.
The only thing he needed now was further confidence (through assists and goals) and the respect of the crowd; knowledge that the 2,500 sets of eyes staring down his every move were with him, in his corner.
There wasn’t going to be the camaraderie of a Nathan Pond or Bobby Grant or Ash Hunter with the hardy Fleetwood fans, yet his prestige was gradually growing – oozing out a better cocktail.
Inside the club it is well known that Cole’s progress is “a big project” of the manager’s; in many ways, if DC fails, then so does UR. Both of their contracts are up in the summer of 2018, yet since taking over the reins at the end of July it has been very noticeable that Rösler has started to piece together the Devante Cole puzzle.
Gone is the clueless meandering of the fashionista. We now, leading into winter, see a striker steeped in awareness of those around him – an almost psychic quality when you see him break forward with limited-visibility to his left and his right.
Fans, with their head in their hands, still mock and howl in despair when Cole blazes over from short range, yet such occasions are less frequent – the groggy afterthought of a former, unschooled player.
Assists have come to the fore in recent weeks – Cole utilising the byline for his left-footed pass to Conor McLaughlin versus Shrewsbury Town in November and indulging in a lovely right-wing flick past Peterborough United no.5 Ryan Tafazolli before teeing up Bobby Grant a month earlier. And let’s not forget the sublime back-heel in August which played in David Ball against Oxford United.
A new Devante Cole is emerging – one capable of pulling multiple defenders away thus opening up useful pockets, one revved up by truly hazardous speed, and one mentally stronger than the unrecognisable Cole Jnr who first set foot in this placid seaside town.
Word from the training ground amongst the goalkeepers is that only the actual no.9, Aaron Amadi-Holloway is capable of burning the gloves of those intrepid stoppers, but power and pace are two very different things. First, you have to get there. Counterattacking-wise, Cole (no.44) is a dream ticket.
“Yet to express himself fully @FTFC,” I posed recently via a Twitter poll – the four options being Jack Sowerby, Jimmy Ryan, Devante Cole and Aaron Amadi-Holloway. 100% voted for Cole, albeit in neglectfully small numbers.
In that comprehensive answer, I like to think, is hope and belief rather than criticism – the undeniable feeling that this lad can do so much more; zip around, taunt and tease, and eventually rip the net out like his father.
His fast-approaching first anniversary at the club promises a lot.