Tony Yeboah’s fleeting brilliance in the Premier League

Tony Yeboah’s fleeting brilliance in the Premier League

If you were a kid growing up in the 1990s, like this author did, you probably reflect on what a glorious decade it was. You romantically reminisce on pop culture icons like Sonic the Hedgehog, the cast from Saved by the Bell, The Simpsons and be extremely grateful that you were too old for the rubbish that permeated in the 2000s.

As a young, football-obsessed child experiencing life in the 1990s, the beautiful game was played every day and in any location with a flat enough surface (even that didn’t prevent us sometimes). Two key memories vividly stick out from this period, both of which coincidentally entered our footballing lexicon at roughly the same time.

“Goaaalaziooo!” could be heard echoing throughout our school playground and undoubtedly in hundreds of schools and housing estates throughout the UK. We all know where that came from, the legendary Channel 4 coverage of Serie A that made Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and George Weah as much household names as Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Alan Shearer.

Despite the fact that everyone, including myself, was unknowingly shouting it wrong, if you scored a goal, wherever you were, you wheeled away screaming it. Even though I found out in the early 2000s that everyone was saying it incorrectly all those years, I’ve still encountered people to this day who, when recalling Football Italia, will say ‘goalazio’.

The other memory that lives long from the 90s is associated with a player. A striker who was so devastating that he was for a very brief period of time the best import in the early Premier League era, a time when the league was brimming with top goal-getters. He’s a player that forever will be associated with outrageous goals, and the mere mention of his name evokes memories of excellence. He is, of course, Tony Yeboah.

In the early 1990s Anthony Yeboah was one of the Bundesliga’s best strikers – packed with everything a lethal striker needs; pace, strength, agility and a truly ferocious shot of the Siniša Mihajlović calibre. A striker who was dangerous anywhere inside and outside the box and could score seemingly every type of goal, nothing was off limits to the barrel-chested Ghanaian.

Yeboah was something of a trailblazer for African footballers in the Bundesliga. He became the first African captain of a German team at a time when there were very few black footballers in the league. He suffered racist taunts from his own fans during his early stint at Eintracht Frankfurt but soon won them over through the only method he knew best – scoring goals, and lots of them.

In his four full seasons for Die Adler he plundered 61 goals – reaching double figures in three consecutive seasons. Yeboah was the top goalscorer in 1992-93 – with an outstanding record of 20 goals in 27 games – and in 1993-94. It was in his fifth season, however, that things started to take a downward turn.

Jupp Heynckes was installed as the new manager in the summer of 1994, replacing caretaker Karl-Heinz Körbel. Heynckes was soon engulfed in a civil war within the club as he singled out Yeboah, Maurizio Gaudino and Jay-Jay Okocha – all of the club’s star players – for a perceived lack of effort. In December 1994, he gave the three – and only them – extra training sessions, which one can imagine went down like a lead balloon. The trio then decided to take action and went on strike, refusing to play the next league game. The writing was on the wall.

Gaudino was sent on loan to Manchester City in January 1995, Okocha was given a stay of execution but ultimately left in the summer of 1996 and Yeboah was sold to Leeds United. Yet even as he was being sold, his goal-to-game ratio was still one in two. Heynckes left Frankfurt himself a few months after Yeboah, seemingly unable to fix the problems within the club.

The Leeds United of 1994-95 was a side drifting in a sea of mediocrity. They had stagnated since winning the last Division One title in 1992 and a large chunk of that original side had since departed. The squad was a mixture of young players graduating from the academy and mainstays from the title-winning side such as John Lukic, Gary McAllister, Gary Speed, Rod Wallace and Tony Dorigo. Yet the team had trouble scoring goals; by January 1995 they had only managed a meagre 29 goals in the league, and this was the crux of their problem.

Howard Wilkinson tried desperately to bring in a big name striker before signing the African, with attempts for Faustino Asprilla and Rubén Sosa amounting to nothing. Wilkinson revealed that he hadn’t actually seen Yeboah play live and had only viewed him playing for Frankfurt via Eurosport, who in those days had coverage of the Bundesliga.

Nobody knew what to expect from the Ghanaian as he arrived in a £3.4 million deal. Very few people had Sky in the mid-90s (personally I only knew one person with it, which was seen as a big deal then). In 1995 we were still in the final throes of the last ‘discovery’ era – before the combination of the internet, Championship Manager and wall-to-wall football coverage made us aware of just about any professional in the game.

Yeboah made his debut in the final minutes of a league match against QPR but admits he wasn’t enthusiastic about the English game: “I wasn’t happy at first, not because I didn’t like Leeds but because English football, the kick and rush, didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t feel like I belonged there.” However, he soon came to terms with his new environment.

Yeboah injected new life into the frugal-scoring Leeds as he catapulted them up the table as they finished the 1994-95 season in fifth place, earning a UEFA Cup slot. He had notched 13 goals in all competitions, including three braces and a hat-trick, whilst winning the adulation of the Leeds faithful. Yet the spectacular would all arrive later. Yeboah was just getting warmed up.

He exploded at the beginning of the 1995-96 season, netting two goals against West Ham at Upton Park – one a truly thunderous volley from just inside the Hammers’ penalty box. The following game, however, would write Yeboah into the annals of English football history.

Leeds’s first home game of the season was against Liverpool, a Monday night game broadcast by Sky. Yeboah grew up in Ghana a Liverpool fan, watching their glorious teams of the late-70s and 80s dominate the domestic and European scene. He was determined to leave his mark.

The game was meandering along until the 50th minute when (we all know what happened next) Yeboah would hit that strike from Rod Wallace’s unlikely knock down, which would elevate him to footballing immortality. His life would never be the same again.

David James, the hapless Liverpool goalkeeper, never forgave Yeboah: “I hate that goal,” James remarked in an interview some time after. “I spent quite a few weeks moaning about the fact that I should have saved it.” No goalkeeper on the planet could have saved it. Just over a month later, Yeboah would equal the Liverpool goal in terms of audacity, only this time he took it a notch higher.

Leeds were winning 2-1 against Wimbledon on a gloriously sunny day at Selhurst Park. The game was approaching half time when a familiar scenario unfolded. The ball was ping-ponging around the periphery of the Wimbledon box after a series of failed attempts by the Dons‘ backline to clear it. Eventually it landed to Yeboah some 30 yards from goal and, after the ball bounced off his chest, he kneed it once, cut the ball inside with his left foot, instinctively pushed it forward with his knee whilst running at the speed of a locomotive train and smashed it with his right foot.

Never one to outdo himself, the ball crashed off the crossbar not once but twice en route to the back of the net. If the Liverpool goal was a thing of stunning beauty, the Wimbledon strike was the opposite; a goal of visceral violence. As Yeboah peeled away running towards the sidelines, the camera, focusing on him, shook, as if vibrating from the after-effects of one of the most vicious of goals. It added to the allure of Yeboah as this striking powerhouse who couldn’t be stopped, and it must be said at that moment in time, no one could. He finished the match with a hat-trick.

It was now that Tony Yeboah transcended into pop culture. Every child, teenager and adult who scored a goal that travelled in via the crossbar termed it ‘a Yeboah’. I knew of people who didn’t follow football but played the game, knowing what ‘a Yeboah’ was. Never has a player been more associated with the crossbar than the Ghanaian.

Asked which goal was better, the man himself maintains that the Liverpool goal was the better of the pair, due in part because it was live on Sky and it was against his boyhood club. “Wimbledon was all about control and if we’re talking technically, that is probably the best goal. But it’s about feeling and emotion as well, no? So it’s Liverpool. That was the one.”

The goals kept flowing, including a spectacular strike against Sheffield Wednesday where he breezed past multiple Owls’ defenders with consummate ease before rifling the ball into the bottom right hand corner from 20 yards. There were further extraordinary goals against Manchester United on Christmas Eve and Birmingham City in the League Cup semi-final – the latter a bicycle kick. Yeboah was on fire.

Just as suddenly as he exploded onto the English scene, Yeboah scored his last goals for Leeds in a 2-1 away win at QPR in March 1996, coincidentally the team he made his debut against 13 months prior. His absence mid-season due to the African Cup of Nations derailed Leeds’ campaign and Yeboah returned injured, missing most of the remainder of the season as they finished a disappointing 13th.

The following season saw Wilkinson sacked after a poor start and replaced by George Graham. The drill sergeant Scot and Yeboah didn’t see eye-to-eye (in many ways it was the Heynckes situation repeated) and after being substituted in a game against Tottenham he threw his jersey on the ground on the way to the dressing room. He never played for Leeds again and was sold to Hamburg in the summer of ‘97.

Yeboah’s first goal for Leeds came in February 1995, his last strike of 32 in all competitions was scored in March ’96. He was amongst the initial wave of foreign stars to grace the new Premier League and, two decades on, it’s arguable that no foreign player burned so bright and faded as quickly as Anthony Yeboah.

Nevertheless, his legacy would last far longer than the man himself, a ‘Yeboah’ goal would still be yelled out by people of all ages across the country throughout the rest of the 90s and, to my generation anyway, a goal that hits off the underside of the crossbar will forever be known as exactly that. Not a bad piece of pop culture to leave behind.

By Emmet Gates @E_I_M_G

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