5 March 2010
I would rather sit down and have a cuppa with Neil Ruddock, who broke my leg in two places in 1996, than with Teddy Sheringham, who I’ve pretty much detested for the past 15 years.
When I explain to you why that’s the case, it might provide a small insight into why I think that anyone rushing to emphatic judgement on two of the big football stories of the past week should think again.
The stories I am referring to are the terrible injury sustained by Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey in that challenge with Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross and the decision by Wayne Bridge to make himself unavailable for England, followed by that non-handshake with John Terry.
Let’s tackle that tackle by Shawcross first. Many of you will have seen it several times by now, as I have. The consequences were horrible, not something you’d wish on anyone. Was the challenge late? Yes. Clumsy? Yes. Malicious? No.
Shawcross has an exceptionally clean record for a centre-half and you could tell by his reaction – crying in shock, and not at his red card – that he was as mortified as anyone.
I felt for both players and it goes without saying that I wish Ramsey the swiftest recovery. He is young, determined and shaping up to be some player, and he’ll be back.
I can understand Arsène Wenger being upset at the injury, the third really serious one in recent times for his players. But if he truly thinks Shawcross set out to maim Ramsey then I’m afraid he’s off the mark.
I was angry, more than angry, when Ruddock chopped me down in a reserves match and I was diagnosed afterwards with two ankle fractures that kept me out for months. We disagreed on how it happened. He claimed it was an honest challenge and that I fell badly, while I said late and reckless.
But even in my fury back then, which was also fuelled by frustration at being out of action, I never thought for a moment that Ruddock had maliciously taken me down with the intention of breaking my bones. No professional would do that to another unless there was something awry in their head.
I’ve never known Ruddock well, or at all really, before or since that tackle, but I accept what happened was ultimately part and parcel of football, a contact sport, and one that does produce serious casualties; thankfully, they are rare.
By the way, just to be clear about my introduction: I am not seeking any chat or love-in with Ruddock! But I don’t have the lingering animosity for him I have for Sheringham.
Some of you will know the background to that, but perhaps not the full details. Others might be surprised our rift had such apparently mundane roots. But here’s what happened.
It was early 1995, I had recently signed for Manchester United, and it was my England debut, against Uruguay. I was a sub. I came on for Sheringham (then at Spurs), after about 70 minutes. You’ll need to understand what was in my head at that moment to get even close to comprehending my reaction to what happened next.
I was so nervous it was frightening. This was the culmination of a lifetime of ambition. You hear the cliché, “It means everything to play for my country”. But trust me, it did. Not just for me, but for my family, my parents especially, who had endured all kinds of hardships to give us the chances we had. Becoming a pro had been incredible. Now the magnitude of playing for England was indescribable. The moment has arrived.
I walk on to the pitch, 60,000 or so watching. Sheringham is coming off. I expect a brief handshake, a “Good luck, Coley”, something. I am ready to shake. He snubs me. He actively snubs me, for no reason I was ever aware of then or since. He walks off. I don’t even know the bloke so he can’t have any issue with me. We’re fellow England players, it is my debut and he snubs me.
You know what my immediate thoughts were? “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.
Two years later, in summer 1997, after Eric Cantona left United, Sheringham arrived. We played together for years. We scored a lot of goals. I never spoke a single word to him.
People wonder how on earth we could function like that. Gary Pallister once said to me: “I know you don’t speak to Teddy and he doesn’t speak to you, but at least you play well together.” We did, and I wouldn’t ever cast aspersions on Sheringham’s talent as a top-rate footballer for his clubs and country. I’ve just loathed him personally for 15 years.
Which brings us to Bridge and Terry. I’d guess a lot of people will have seen Bridge giving Terry “the empty hand” and thought, “Well done”. All I can say is I know what it’s like to refuse to shake someone’s hand, and if Bridgey thought that was the right thing to do at that moment for him, then fair enough.
My refusal was to shake the hand of referee Mike Dean when I was a Manchester City player. He had given me all kinds of ridiculous cards in the past and, in my strictly personal and biased view, the guy was a balloon of a ref who shouldn’t be officiating. So I didn’t shake his hand.
As for Bridge’s decision not to play for England, what right has anyone to tell him his own mind? He owes you and me nothing. His decision is down to him. And he could still change it.
Regulars readers will know that last week I mentioned that I’d be going to a Prince’s Trust event on Monday and meeting Prince Charles for the first time. I thought we might have a bit of banter about Manchester United beating Villa the day before in the Carling Cup final, what with me being a United fan and his son William being such a staunch Villa fan. Actually we didn’t chat about the game and I think I’m on pretty safe ground in saying HRH possibly doesn’t follow the game too closely. I explained I’d been a footballer and Prince Charles was very pleasant, just as you’d expect. I’m really pleased to be working as an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust, and thankful that so many footballers, past and present, will be supporting my golf day for the Trust in May. Every penny we raise will be going to help kids get a better shot at life.
PS: After the main item in this column originally appeared in yesterday’s Independent, I couldn’t believe the amount of calls I got about it. I never had any idea I was so newsworthy!
The fee for Andy Cole’s column is donated to Alder Hey hospital and sickle cell anaemia research. He works on charitable projects with the sport and media team at law firm Thomas Eggar
A version of this column has also appeared in The Independent.