By Ryan Ferguson
The ball hung against the dark night sky, propelled by that sweet left foot of Liam Ridehalgh. A sense of frenzied panic spread throughout the stands, as loyal fans begged for a winning goal. Ninety-three minutes had elapsed. Innumerable opportunities had been spurned. North Ferriby United were about to earn a goalless draw against Tranmere Rovers.
Andy Cook had other ideas. Eyeing the delicious cross, he engineered some space amid the semi-professional defence. Twelve yards out, he leapt high to meet the ball. With textbook technique, Cook powered a header towards the top corner of Rory Watson’s goal. The ball travelled a smooth parabola, before landing with aplomb in the blue netting, down beneath a jubilant Kop.
Pandemonium ensued, with nary a thought for the opposition or league. There’s no better feeling than winning a game at the death. As euphoric scenes engulfed the stadium, Cook trundled away in satisfied relief, the architect of it all. His celebration was typically understated: a brief jog, two outstretched arms, a fist pump. There may not have been a calmer person in the building.
It was another fine moment for the man who has quietly been Rovers’ best player this season.
We live in an age of great pretence, where footballers are corporate brands and their actions are directed by an army of PR consultants. Andy Cook wants none of that. In many ways, he’s a throwback to a simpler time, when players would simply show up, work at their craft, give their all and return home again. No boasting. No airbrushing. No ego. Ability alone would do the talking.
Cook doesn’t crave headlines. He doesn’t particularly care about attention, or what others think of him. Tranmere Rovers pay him to play football and score goals, and Cook takes the most direct, unfussy approach to meeting those objectives. Some may prejudge him as unfit or seemingly immobile, but those assements are incorrect. Andy is a consummate professional. Even his name is simple, concise, resourceful. Andy Cook. Eight letters. It’s all you’re getting. Like it or lump it.
The man doesn’t have a preponderance of natural talent. I’m sure he would be the first to admit that. Whenever he takes the field, there are faster players and slimmer players, sharper players and more skilful players. But few work harder than Andy Cook. He’s aware of his own strengths and limitations. He knows that, in order to dominate with his skill set, he must dig deeper than most. That’s what drives him to run tirelessly, chase lost causes and never give up. That’s what makes him our glorious workhorse.
When Cook arrived from Barrow this summer, the name didn’t ring too many bells. Perhaps that says more about our ability to remember players from nondescript National League teams than it does his ability to score goals. Anyhow, upon further inspection, Cook had a really good track record at this level. He notched 24 goals last season, and managed similar totals in previous campaigns. Still, there’s a sense that all new arrivals must really prove themselves at Tranmere. Many of us are still traumatised by the Micky Adams debacle, when a host of inadequate players were parachuted in to aid a survival mission that ended in tears. However, Andy Cook has earned our respect and appreciation. At this rate, our adulation won’t be too far behind, either.
In addition to the great attitude and tremendous work rate, Cook is also a fine goalscorer. We can all marvel at numbers on a Wikipedia page, but it’s fun to watch this man pursue his art in the flesh. He scores many different types of goal, to use an old cliché. From towering headers against Barrow and North Ferriby to composed finishes against Maidstone, Woking and Wrexham; from rocket-propelled firecrackers against Southport and Woking to a cute flick header against Aldershot, the guy just knows what he’s doing. Rather like Steve McNulty at the back, he’s programmed to arrive at the right place when it matters most, regardless of shortcomings in terms of pace and poise. With a clinical eye for goal and a zest for aerial duels, this is a thoroughbred goalscorer, and we should just leave him to it.
Thus far, Cook has scored eight goals in 18 appearances for Tranmere. Only three National League players have managed more this season. Cook is finding the net once every 2.25 matches, which is great. But, as mentioned earlier, that stat probably pales in comparison to his miles run per goal ratio. Every goal he scores is fully deserved, because Cook does the dirty work that often goes overlooked. He barrels across the pitch, applying pressure to defenders in possession. He ploughs through the channels, hustling after long balls. And he does it all with a sense of duty, not a petulant reluctance.
Early in his reign, Micky Mellon has used Cook as a point of reference for Tranmere’s attacks. The manager is still familiarising himself with the squad, and inculcating his philosophy will be an extensive process. However, there is already far more structure and direction, if not quality, to Rovers’ play under him. Cook is a big part of that. Against North Ferriby, there was an obvious gameplan: to bombard the box with crosses for our powerful centre-forward. Mellon mentioned it in his post-match press conference. Tranmere missed numerous headed opportunities, but it eventually paid off with seconds to spare. Hopefully we’ll see more of this in future weeks.
Andy Cook is the archetypal target man, in terms of size, strength and aerial ability. But there’s much more to his game than flying into headlong collisions with opposing defenders. The lad can also play a bit of football. We’ve seen it in a few of his goals, notably against Woking, where he can twist and turn or control a ball beautifully. We’ve also seen it in his partnership with James Norwood, where the duo is capable of some brilliant interplay.
Gary Brabin struggled to accommodate both players, but Mellon may be willing to play them together up front, which should really excite Tranmere fans. Norwood also works incredibly hard, pushing the boundaries and creating his own chances. Together, they could set the tone by defending with appetite from the front. Oh, and they also have the potential to score 50 goals between them. This will be fun to watch once Norwood returns from his suspension.
Of course, Cook is still a National League striker. To present him as a perfect player would be folly. He certainly has weaknesses, like everybody at this level. Nevertheless, he uses that knowledge to streamline his approach, channel his effort and modify his effectiveness. At this stage, we couldn’t really ask for much more from a Rovers player. Cook gives ample effort, commitment and dedication, mixed in with a fair bit of quality. What’s not to love?
In this regard, Andy reminds me of Simon Haworth and Wayne Allison. They didn’t have bags of natural ability, but they worked hard and earned their money. Other clubs didn’t fancy them. They weren’t fashionable. Yet they found a home at Tranmere Rovers, scoring goals and carving a niche in the club’s folklore. Cook is in the process of doing something similar, and our club is all the better for it.