The story of the young boy plucked from the beaches of Tobago against his mother’s wishes to join the uncertain world of English football would make a good fairy tale if it wasn’t already true.
Dwight Yorke, who nearly ten years ago made that transition, is fast reaching his peak as a footballer and is clearly loving every minute. Coming from a family of nine, Yorke certainly knows about financial hardships — the story of the young Dwight catching crabs in Tobago to buy football boots is a staple of the “rags” part of his story; since his move to Manchester United, the wealthiest club in the world, in August last year, Yorke could quite easily afford to buy boots for the whole island. His generosity is legendary and his mother Grace still receives a portion of his salary every month.
The other trait that the English fans have learned to love about Yorke is his permanent good nature; his joyful face after each goal shows his pure delight in the game. While many foreign players become unpopular for their arrogance, Yorke still has the humility to admit that “Careers are up and down, people struggle with confidence, you go from one thing to another. It’s the same for everyone, you know? If I hadn’t made it as a footballer, who knows what I’d be doing now!”
Sending money home is an important task for Yorke. “Coming from a poor family, that was my number one priority when the money started coming in, to sort things out, especially for my mother. She went through a lot and we’re very close. She’s sorted now — it doesn’t stop her complaining though! But that’s what mums are for, to have a moan at you.”
Old Trafford, the “Theatre of Dreams”, home of Manchester United, has for many years been a graveyard for strikers. Players of the highest regard join the club in the hope of finishing off the numerous chances that others make, only to fail due to weight of expectation. He may have only joined the club last August but already Yorke is exciting the fans as George Best and Bobby Charlton did many years before, and Eric Cantona did more recently. The Tobagonian is fast reaching the peak of his career and is certainly fulfilling his dreams.
Last year the British media raised doubts about the amount of money Yorke was worth when he left Aston Villa, his club of eight years, for Manchester United. Those in the know — such as his adoring fans in Trinidad and Tobago and those more closely involved in his career — knew otherwise. While Villa, who were well aware of their top striker’s talents, were prepared to hold out for more money, they finally agreed to a fee of £12,600,000. In the English game only Alan Shearer had been transferred for more, and that was due to the new-found wealth of his childhood team Newcastle. Now the figure looks a positive bargain as Yorke continues to strike fear into the hearts of Premiership defenders and has developed an awesome partnership with Andy Cole in attack for Manchester United.
It was Graham Taylor, the former manager of England and no stranger to media attacks, who discovered Yorke on a tour of Trinidad and Tobago with Aston Villa in 1989. Under the tutelage of his mentor, Bertille St Clair, now coach to the national team and a highly regarded figure in the islands, Yorke had postponed his schooling to concentrate on helping Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy. After seeing the young forward in a friendly match, Taylor soon agreed a fee of £120,000 with his club St Clairs, and the 17-year-old was on his way to England.
One person who was not keen on the transition was his mother. Yorke says, “I had to give up school for eight months in 1989-90 because of the World Cup situation. I was only 17 and she was totally against that. The next thing Villa came on tour and wanted to whizz me away to England. I said to her, ‘I can go back to school when I’m 35 but I can’t play football then.’”
Although Trinidad and Tobago narrowly failed to qualify for the World Cup, Yorke and Aston Villa gained from the unlikely meeting. Despite his mother’s initial misgivings, Yorke had seen the success his best friend Brian Lara had enjoyed in cricket. “His achievement inspired me. Whatever I do I can’t compete with him because his records are phenomenal, but seeing what he did, and sooner than expected, has spurred me on to be a more recognisable figure in this country as a football player.”
It wasn’t Yorke’s only offer, though: “I was offered a football scholarship by Harvard University, so if I hadn’t made it in England, I would probably have gone there, although God knows what I would have studied. Accounting probably, I’ve always liked that. I don’t know why, I know it sounds strange. It just appeals to me. Maths was always a favourite of mine at school, figures and that.”
Despite his hopes for a professional career in football, Yorke was extremely modest. “All setbacks do is make you stronger, a little more determined not to let them occur again. What you do is try and pick the positive from that. How can I complain about anything? I haven’t a problem in the world, and you only live this way for so long, certainly in our sport, so you might as well enjoy it. I enjoy every single moment of it.”
In his first few months at Villa, Yorke came to the attention of David Platt, who went on to captain England. “You could see he had frightening potential, even as a teenager,” recalls Platt. “He used to love doing silly tricks. I remember him standing in a bin so he couldn’t move his feet and controlling the ball with just his head. He would balance it, not on his forehead, but on the top of his head and then he would roll it down his forehead, over his face, kiss it and roll it the way back. How he did it, I still don’t know.”
Because he was so young, Taylor resisted the temptation of playing Yorke in such a physically demanding league, and he had to wait until his manager left to coach England before making his first appearance for the club. Dr Josef Venglos, the Slovakian coach, eventually gave Yorke his full debut in 1990, ironically against Manchester United, and his performance brought scathing criticism from the former United manager Tommy Docherty. “If that lad makes a First Division footballer, my name is Mao Tse-Tung” were his exact words.
While Docherty has not yet changed his name, Yorke has certainly made him eat his words. Subsequently it was Venglos, and not Yorke, who failed in English football, and the next man to take the helm at Villa was the larger-than-life Ron Atkinson, otherwise known as Big Ron. Yorke initially found Atkinson’s style of management not to his liking, but eventually the two wildly different characters reached a compromise. “Ron knows how to get the best out of players, but it was difficult for me at first,” says Yorke. “He winds people up and expects you to have a go back at him. Harsh things were said which I took too personally. I’m a player who needs an arm around me saying, ‘Come on Dwight, you can do it’, and he came to realise that.”
Yorke also remembers the time when Villa were on their way to beating Manchester United in the Coca Cola Cup, English football’s most significant tournament after the FA Cup. “We were going down to London and we all went out for a meal to get team spirit going. Ron went on the stage to do karaoke and it was very funny — he did ‘New York, New York, It’s up to you Dwight Yorke’ — and that was really memorable for me.”
Villa also went on to lift the same cup in 1996, but these were the only pieces of silverware he picked up during his time in Birmingham. The game itself was memorable for Yorke. Playing against a Leeds side, managed by Howard Wilkinson, now technical director for the national team, Villa destroyed them 3-0 on a beautiful afternoon at Wembley. The final goal, in the last minute of time, was of course scored by the man himself.
Brian Little was brought in to replace Ron Atkinson. It was not to last, though. After buying Stan Collymore for a club record fee of £7 million, Little had the dilemma of three forwards — Yorke, Savo Milosevic and Collymore — competing for two places. The result was that Yorke was moved back to midfield to accommodate the notoriously erratic Collymore, and Villa spent the majority of last season near the bottom of the table. Little soon resigned and in came Gregory, Yorke’s final Villa manager.
Gregory restored Yorke to his favoured position and was rewarded with the goals that not only kept Villa in the Premier League but also qualified them for the UEFA Cup — second in prestige to the European Cup. Gregory made no secret of his admiration for Yorke, his ability at holding the ball up while waiting for team-mates and his knack for conjuring goals from nothing, but the player soon became dissatisfied that summer while watching the 1998 World Cup in France.
There is no doubt that one of the main reasons for Yorke leaving Villa was to further his ambition. While Villa are a big club by English standards, it became clear that Yorke wanted to test himself at the highest level. Because Manchester United usually finishes the season at the top of the Premier League, the club often qualifies for the European Champions League — the most prestigious tournament in European football and a competition United were desperate to win for only the second time in their history.
Yorke was enthralled by Champions League football: “It’s the best thing ever, man; it’s fantastic, home or away. Provided the manager picks me! That’s why I came to this club. To prove to people, and myself, that I could compete with the best in the world. I’m unlikely to play in a World Cup with Trinidad and Tobago, so playing for United in the Champions League is my World Cup. Playing for Manchester United gives me the opportunity to play alongside — and against — the very best players around. For instance, I played against Lothar Matthaus the other day. There were times I never dreamed I’d share the same pitch with someone like that.”
It was during and after World Cup 1998 in France that United manager Alex Ferguson set his sights on a forward of the highest pedigree. The legendary Argentinian forward Gabriel Batistuta and Patrick Kluivert of Holland were both candidates. When Batistuta decided to stay in Italy with Fiorentina and Kluivert opted for Barcelona, Ferguson set his sights on Yorke. Yorke’s manager John Gregory, however, was not interested in the least, and so began the long process of securing Yorke’s release from Villa. Gregory had only taken over at Villa Park a few months before, and having guided the club away from relegation — greatly helped by Yorke, who scored seven goals in seven games towards the end of the season — was desperate not to lose one of his finest players to the biggest club in the land.
But he was up against Ferguson, one of the shrewdest characters in the game. After the rumours started, Gregory dismissed them as “scurrilous” and said: “There’s no way he’s going anywhere, so the fans should not worry.” Yorke, though, had other thoughts on the matter, and soon the drama was heightened when both Yorke and United wanted to complete the deal as quickly as possible so that he would be eligible for the Champions League.
Risking the wrath of the Villa fans, Yorke issued a statement; “It would be fair to say I still want to go to Manchester United. I have always said the Champions League is the type of stage I want. I spent all summer watching the World Cup, knowing I will never get there with Trinidad and Tobago. That is why I need to play at the highest club level I can. There is no point moving just to play in the Premiership. I can stay here and do that. Opportunities like this only come along once in a lifetime, and I had asked John Gregory and the Villa board for their understanding. I don’t want Villa fans to see me as disloyal. I would ask every supporter to think what they would do if they were offered another job which they would really like to do.”
Despite his best friend Brian Lara’s advice to stay with Villa, Yorke had set his mind on the move. “Many people have warned me about the pressures of playing for United, especially as a striker. Brian, for instance, said I did not need to move to Manchester United to realise my dreams, but this was a call I had to answer. It has been a long, long journey and I do not intend to fail now.”
After a long dispute, Villa finally backed down. At the time the Villa chairman, Doug Ellis, commented, “I know Dwight very well and it became obvious to me that while we could keep him physically, we had lost him mentally.” Gregory was not so gracious in defeat. “I never wanted to sell him and if I’d had a gun I’d have shot him.
And so, finally, Yorke was allowed to join Manchester United for a fee of £12,600,000. Yorke joined other new signings Jaap Stam and the Swedish winger Jesper Blomqvist in a formidable squad already boasting the likes of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Roy Keane.
In the past, strikers have struggled to live with the responsibility of playing for United. The atmosphere at Old Trafford often gets the better of players who have arrived for vast transfer sums, and, as a result, their form suffers. No such problems for the supremely confident Yorke, who took to the club like a duck to water. He made his debut for United in the intimidating atmosphere of West Ham, in London’s East End. Although he failed to score in a drab goalless draw, he did manage two in his next league game for the club, a 4-1 win over Charlton United. Manager Alex Ferguson, renowned for his knack of bringing out the best in players, said at the time, “There are so many different facets to him. He is brave, he has stamina, he can play with both feet and he can beat men. When you add all the parts up, you know he is a very special player. The complete centre-forward.”
It hasn’t been all work and no play for Yorke; his career as a “single man” has sometimes threatened to overshadow his exploits on the field. During his time in the English Midlands, Yorke was so well-loved that he became known as the “King of Birmingham”. He was often seen in the city’s nightclubs and certainly knew how to enjoy himself. A string of women sold their stories to national newspapers, recounting tales of passion with the young, strongly-built footballer. Yorke, though, was, of course, not married, and despite the media interest in his private life, there were rarely stories of a critical nature.
His performances for United in the Champions League have been nothing short of devastating. In qualifying for the Quarter-Finals — no mean feat — United scored a record number of goals, including six past the mighty Spanish champions Barcelona over two games. Yorke had certainly arrived. His partnership with Andy Cole is undoubtedly the finest in the country, made all the more surprising by Cole’s previous difficulties.
The transformation of Cole since Yorke’s arrival has been staggering. Good friends on and off the pitch, they have both been scoring for fun in recent months. “Andy and I bond together both on and off the field, which I think is rare. It’s why we’re doing so well as a pairing. He’s taken personal time out to show me around Manchester, the shops, where to go. I got lost the first time I tried to find The Cliff (United’s training ground). I had to phone Andy to find out how to get there. Even when everyone was saying I was a threat to his place in the team, he was inviting me to his home and family and feeding me there — which helps when you are stuck in a hotel. If it wasn’t for Andy I’d have been in that room pulling my hair out, not that I’ve got much, but I would have been. There’s only so much you can do in a hotel room.”
No such problem now for Yorke, who has just bought his own impressive house in Manchester. It’s a long way from the islands of the Caribbean, but, at least for the time being, it’s home.