One of the Premier League’s all-time greats, Andy Cole has won 15 trophies, earned 15 England caps and a place in supporters’ hearts. Then kidney disease changed everything. Read his story.
Andy Cole’s name is synonymous with goals. Now he has a new one, and he’s attacking it with the same passion that earned him the title ‘legend’. The former England footballer is the third most prolific striker in Premier League history with 187 goals.
He played for 12 clubs in a glittering 20-year career, but is best known for his time at Manchester United who he helped to an historic treble in 1999, earning 15 international caps along the way.
But in 2015, five years after hanging up his boots, the elite athlete’s world fell apart when he suffered kidney failure. The diagnosis would be the start of a new, even more challenging chapter in the life of one of the game’s greats – this time as a transplant patient.
Andy’s brush with death began when he returned from Vietnam where a virus attacked his kidney. Two years of medication to try to improve its function ended with the bombshell that he could die without a transplant.
He was in denial. On the rare occasions the goals dried up, he’d just worked harder. But with his kidney working at only 7%, the “stubborn” father-of-two finally admitted the game was up and was lucky to find a match in his nephew, to whom he owes “a life-long debt” for donating his kidney.
Even before the transplant operation, the new reality hit hard: "I remember emptying a big bag of medication and just crying and thinking ‘this is what I’ve got to take to survive another day for the rest of my life. I’m not sure I can continue’. I didn’t believe it was going to be this difficult. I thought ‘just do what you did when you played football’. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way.”
The journey from finely tuned athlete to transplant patient dependent on body altering steroids has been an emotional roller coaster ride for the 49-year-old father of two – and his family.
The new normal
After a career surrounded by advisors, Andy was now alone, vulnerable, scared, with no one to ask for advice: “This was the first time I’d experienced anything so life-changing and didn’t know anyone who had been through it, so I didn’t have anyone to turn to for advice.”
After the transplant, he battled depression as he struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the trauma that lay ahead, adding: “No two days are the same and the medication means you’re up and down. It’s a daily process, it’s not easy. I have good days, I have bad days, but I just try my best to work with it as best I can,” he said.
Andy admitted his recovery has taken its toll on his family: “Before, I would watch people who were depressed and suicidal and not really understand. Now I’m in the same position. Depression kicks in, you have suicidal thoughts. The family understand it more than most, but I’ve pushed them to the brink.”
Cole, whose devastating pace and ice-cold finishing were his trademarks, added: “I finally realised my body was never going to be the same and that’s difficult after being a sportsman all your life and being fit. It’s very, very tough. It’s been the toughest battle I’ve ever endured. I hated every minute of it. It’s been really difficult to adjust to. Living as a transplant patient, not knowing what’s around the corner is not easy.”
My kidney family
“Only now, three years after my transplant, am I beginning to come to terms with my new life.”
Talking to people, becoming an ambassador for Kidney Research UK and meeting other sufferers have helped Andy through the early, terrifying days. A visit to the World Transplant Games in Newcastle where he talked to young footballers experiencing the same uncertainty reduced him to tears – and prompted him to act.
In a direct appeal to potential donors, he said: "Hearing the charity’s researchers talk about initiatives starting to make the physical and mental kidney disease journey more bearable, was the spark for the fund.
“Listening to the great research projects the charity is funding was amazing, and that hope has really helped me to come to terms with my condition. The research reassured me that I’m not the only one going through this. I could completely identify with young patients who described their symptoms and how they felt.
“The football family always stick together just like the kidney community, so I’m hoping fans of the game we love and people suffering directly or indirectly from this disease will donate.
“It’s the toughest battle I’ve ever endured, but it’s great to know I can still do something to change things, because I’d swap all my medals and goals tomorrow not to be in this situation.”