BLACKBURN boss Graeme Souness is ready to smash Rovers' transfer record with a big money swoop for England hot-shot Andy Cole.

Ewood chief Souness last night admitted exclusively to the Lancashire Evening Telegraph that he would be interested in signing the former Newcastle United star should he become available.

And a deal could even be done as early as next week after Manchester United supremo Alex Ferguson has privately indicated he could be ready to do business if the price is right.

As I understand it, Rovers are preparing to test United's resolve by tabling an offer in the region of £9 million for the 30-year-old striker in the next few days.

But they face a fight for his services with the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland also thought to be waiting menacingly in the wings.

"Anyone would be interested in a player like Andy Cole and if he's available then that's something we'd consider," revealed Souness.

Desperate for extra fire-power up front, Souness has scoured Europe in his quest for a striker after losing out to Leeds in the race for Robbie Fowler.

However, the Rovers boss has also been closely monitoring developments at Old Trafford for sometime and he has now been alerted to the fact that Cole could be ready to call time on his United career in a bid to salvage his World Cup dream.

The one-time British record buy only recently put pen to paper on a lucrative new deal with the Reds which made him one of the highest paid stars in the Premiership.

But the arrival of Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the summer has seen him slip down the pecking order.

So much so that he's now thought to be willing to leave in a bid to boost his hopes of making Sven Goran Eriksson's squad for Japan.

If Rovers are to lure him to Ewood, though, then Souness will have to break the bank with an offer well in excess of the club record £7.25 million they paid to Southampton for Kevin Davies.

Villa boss John Gregory is also keen on Cole but may have to finance any potential deal by selling Colombian hit-man Juan Pablo Angel. And Sunderland may enter the frame as well, although manager Peter Reid may consider him as too similar in style to Kevin Phillips for a bid.

The player's wage demands could yet scupper any potential move to Rovers, however, although the Ewood board are conscious of the fact the club are facing a possible relegation scrap during the second half of the season unless a top-class striker is recruited.

That point was hammered home in the most emphatic way possible yesterday as Rovers crashed to a third straight defeat at home in the league at the hands of Sunderland.

Niall Quinn did the damage with two goals in the opening 32 minutes and to compound Rovers' misery Craig Short then saw red midway through the second half.

"It was an easy game for them, particularly after we had a player sent off," said Souness.

"We had maybe three chances where we were one on one with the goalkeeper and we didn't even ask him to make a save.

"But, generally speaking, we didn't start right and if you don't start right at this level, then it's very hard to get back into the game.

"We had a couple of chances in the second half where we might have made it 2-1 and if we'd have done that then we might have made a game of it.

"But we didn't and they ran out easy winners in the end."

Now Short faces the prospect of a three game ban but he accepted the referee had little choice but to send him off after his clash with Sunderland substitute Kevin Kyle.

"I did put my arm up and make contact with him which the referee saw so it's not fair to criticise him because they are under instructions to send you off if you raise your arms," said Short, pictured below.

"But I was disappointed with the way he (Kevin Kyle) went down.

"At the end of the day, I was just frustrated and I used too much aggression."