As a player, he was a striker from 1982 until 2001, notably playing in the top flight of English football for West Ham United, Everton and Leicester City. He was capped seven times by England, and played in the Football League for Birmingham City, Norwich City and Millwall. He also had a spell in Malaysia with Selangor and spent a season as player-manager of Barnet.
He played in the 1989 FA Cup Final defeat to Liverpool, and won the League Cup with Leicester City in 2000. His final career tally was 579 league games and 226 goals (99 of which for Everton). In all competitions, he managed 712 games and 293 goals. He exceeded his ambition to score 200 league goals in his career, but fell just short of his target of 300 goals in all competitions. Still, he was one of the most prolific goalscorers that English football saw during the 1980s and 1990s.
Cottee began his career at West Ham, where he made his first team debut in the First Division against Tottenham Hotspur on 1 January 1983, at the age of 17, scoring in the process. He played a total of eight games in the 1982–83 season, scoring five goals. He established himself in the first team during the 1983–84 season, when still only 18, and scored 15 times in the league. He did even better in 1984–85, when he scored 17 First Division goals. By the age of 20, he had already managed an impressive 37 league goals.
He was a prolific goalscorer especially in his West Ham days, where he was voted the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1986, the year where West Ham finished third (their highest league finish to date) and came just four points away from the title. He scored 20 times in the league during that season, though his strike partner Frank McAvennie did even better with 26 league goals. Still, their 46-goal strike partnership was the most prolific in the league that season.
1986–87 saw Cottee score 23 league goals – which would be the highest of his career. However, Frank McAvennie alongside him could only manage seven league goals that season and this contributed to a downturn in West Ham's form as they finished 15th. Cottee managed a further 13 league goals in 1987–88, but McAvennie had been sold to Celtic early in the season and the failure of manager John Lyall to find an adequate replacement contributed to West Ham disappointing in the league again, finishing 16th. By this time, the 23-year-old Cottee had already managed 212 league games and 92 goals for Hammers.
Cottee briefly became the most expensive player to be signed by a British club when on 2 August 1988 he joined Everton in a £2.2 million deal (a fee eclipsed by Ian Rush's return to Liverpool from Juventus later that month).
He made his Everton debut on 27 August 1988, the opening day of the 1988–89 First Division campaign, in a 4–0 home win over Newcastle United in which he scored a hat-trick. He managed a further 10 league goals that season, though Everton were relatively disappointing in the league as they finished eighth – having been a top four club and twice champions in the previous four seasons. However, they did reach the FA Cup final and were paired with neighbours Liverpool at Wembley on 20 May 1989. It was a close contest but in the end Everton lost 3–2 in extra time. Earlier in the season Cottee and his colleagues and been on the receiving end of another Wembley defeat, this time to Nottingham Forest who beat them 4–3 in the final of the Full Members Cup, but Cottee still managed to get on the scoresheet twice.
Cottee spent his first season at Goodison Park playing alongside Graeme Sharp, but for 1989–90 manager Colin Harvey changed the formation to 4–3–3 and brought in Mike Newell as Everton's third striker. The season began very promisingly for Everton, who went top of the league on 21 October and stayed there until mid November, but their title hopes gradually disintegrated and they finished sixth while the title went to Liverpool. Cottee once again managed 13 league goals in a season.
1990–91 was arguably Everton's worst season in a decade. Manager Colin Harvey was sacked on 31 October 1990 with the Toffees third from bottom in the First Division, and a week later Howard Kendall (who had guided them to two league titles, an FA Cup and a European Cup Winners' Cup in his first spell from 1981 to 1987) was appointed with Harvey returning as his assistant. Everton's form improved under Kendall and they finished ninth, also reaching the FA Cup quarter-finals and ousting Liverpool in the fifth round after two replays; Cottee was Everton's saviour in the first replay on 21 February as he scored a late equaliser which forced a 4–4 draw in Liverpool's last game before the resignation of manager Kenny Dalglish the following day. Cottee managed 10 league goals in the 1990–91 season.
1991–92 was a frustrating season for Cottee and his colleagues. By mid November he had new strike partners in Peter Beardsley and Mo Johnston following the sale of both Graeme Sharp and Mike Newell, and while the new look strikeforce was reasonably productive, the rest of the team struggled to match their standards. Cottee was restricted to eight goals from 24 games through injury, and Everton finished mid table once again. It was the first time since his debut season nine years earlier that he had scored less than 10 league goals in a season.
1992–93 saw Everton participate in the inaugural FA Premier League, and Cottee did better this time, scoring 12 goals.
He managed 16 league goals in 1993–94, but it was a disastrous season for Everton who only narrowly avoided relegation just seven years after being league champions. New manager Mike Walker promised an over haul of the squad and Cottee was linked with a move back to his beloved West Ham.
He returned to West Ham United on 7 September 1994 in a part exchange deal for defender David Burrows plus cash. Everton manager Mike Walker had signed Nigerian Daniel Amokachi fresh from World Cup duty and financed the move by selling Cottee, much to Everton fans' disapproval. He had played 184 league games in six years for the Toffees, scoring 76 goals, but had not won any major trophies. His overall career tally for league goals now stood at 164.
Cottee made his second debut for the Hammers away to Liverpool and was sent off after 54 minutes, although his first season back at Upton Park brought 13 league goals as he helped West Ham fight off relegation and finished 14th in their first season under the management of Harry Redknapp. He had a further 10 goals in 1995–96 as the Hammers finished 10th – their highest finish since 1986 – but he then lost his place in the team to new arrivals Florin Raducioiu and Hugo Porfirio, managing just three games and failing to score in the Premier League before joining Selangor of Malaysia on a free transfer in October 1996. Over two spells at West Ham, he had scored 115 league goals. Added to his goals scored for Everton, he had now managed 187 league goals.
Although Cottee spent less than a year in Malaysia with Selangor, he was still able to win the first major trophy of his career, winning the FAM Cup with the Red Giants, before he returned to England and signed for Football League Cup winners Leicester City for £500,000 in August 1997, where he was presented with his first chance of European football at the age of 32 as Leicester had an ultimately short lived campaign in that season's UEFA Cup. He managed 19 league games and scored four goals as the Foxes finished 10th, and one of those goals came in a shock 1–0 win over title chasing Manchester United at Old Trafford on 31 January 1998. He also had a loan spell at Birmingham City in Division One that season, and in his first taste of second tier football managed to score one goal. In the semi-final of the 1998–99 Football League Cup against Sunderland Cottee scored three goals across the two legs (two in the first and one in the second) to help Leicester win 3-2 on aggregate. However they lost the final to Tottenham Hotspur. In 1999–2000, aged 34, he finally won a major trophy in England as he helped Leicester defeat Tranmere Rovers 2–1 in the Football League Cup final. That season he scored 13 league goals, which remained the most Premier League goals scored by a Leicester player in a single season until the 2015–16 season, when Jamie Vardy surpassed his total. He remained at Filbert Street until 11 September 2000, by which time he had played a total of 85 league games for the Foxes and scored 27 goals. This brought his total career tally to 214 goals in the English top division, making him the 17th highest goal scorer in the history of English top flight football.
In September 2000, Cottee joined Norwich City as player-coach under recently appointed manager Bryan Hamilton, however this did not last long as Cottee struggled to meet the demands placed on him, scoring two goals against Blackpool in the League Cup and Sheffield United in the league.
A week after resigning from Barnet, Cottee signed for Millwall on transfer deadline day. During this season, which was his last as a player, Cottee played for a different team in each of the top four divisions of English football in the same season, a rare achievement last performed by goalkeeper Eric Nixon in 1986–87.
After being released by Norwich on 31 October 2000, he took over as player-manager of Barnet, a team closer to his home in London. After winning his first game with the club 7–0 vs Blackpool, Barnet hit a run of poor form which left them facing relegation from the Football League. Cottee resigned on 16 March 2001, however his replacement, John Still (who left the club just before Cottee's appointment six months earlier), was unable to rescue the team from relegation. However, Cottee did manage an impressive nine goals from 16 Division Three games.
Cottee made his debut for England against Sweden on 10 September 1986 as a substitute and went on to win 7 caps, starting once against Scotland at Hampden Park in the 1989 Rous Cup in a 2-0 win.
Cottee has admitted to diligently maintaining a scrapbook containing press cuttings of every goal he has scored throughout his playing career.
He is now a commentator with Sky Sports and occasional pundit for Malaysian network Astro, appearing on its 2010 World Cup and Premier League studio coverage in Kuala Lumpur.FA Cup:
Full Members Cup
Malaysia FA Cup:
PFA Young Player of the Year: 1985–86