Names of the Nineties: Tony Yeboah

Names of the Nineties: Tony Yeboah

Normally, there is silence. That ephemeral, fleeting stillness from the crowd, appearing only for a moment, that says: “what on Earth have I just seen?” The unusual absence of sound that you notice after one of those goals because everyone around you is too busy pulling their hands out of their pockets to place on their heads in disbelief. But, when Tony Yeboah did it for Leeds United against Liverpool in 1995, there was no silence. Instead, an instant noise reflecting instant joy; no time for questions. For Tony Yeboah and Leeds United, those goals were what he did best.

During the mid-1990s, Leeds’ squad was filled to the brim with incredible talent: Gary Speed, Rod Wallace and Gary McAllister were the attacking threat of a team that had only recently won the league but now suffered from the lack of a prolific target-man upfront. A flair player was top of the shopping list for Howard Wilkinson in the January window of 1995: a short foray into the transfer market failed to attract main targets Faustino Asprilla and Ruel Fox. The club would have to settle for their third choice.

A brown checked suit, leather jacket, and an LUFC-branded umbrella covered the Ghanaian from the cold Yorkshire rain as he took his presentation pictures on the sodden surface at Elland Road. The huge leap of faith taken by Leeds was also felt by the striker, with himself admitting it took a while to adapt to his new home, lamenting that the English game didn’t come naturally: “I didn’t feel like I belonged [in England],” Yeboah told the Yorkshire Evening Post. What eventually turned him, Yeboah says, were the fans: “I don’t know how much they knew about me or if they liked me but the way they treated me, the reception I got, was fantastic. It gave me strength. I was motivated. I thought ‘you know what? I’ll make this happen.’” And make it happen he did.

An unanswered hat-trick away to a Monaco side boasting Thierry Henry, Claude Puel and Lilian Thuram would be the first signs of a potential Yorkshire-Ghana relationship and propel the team into the UEFA Cup. The only man that could stop him that night was the security guard at Leeds Bradford airport, as he returned from Monte Carlo: an autograph for the guard’s son the reason, as Yeboah filled out his non-EU citizen paperwork. A star was forming.

The early stages of any stellar evolution always begin with increasing momentum from an initial bout of potential energy, and Yeboah did not lack any of these qualities. Goals against Manchester United and West Ham made the Leeds faithful turn their initial scepticism into pure sound-waves in the stands of England’s assorted football grounds. Then, in a match against Liverpool, chosen to be broadcast on Sky’s fledgeling show ‘Monday Night Football’, Yeboah became a supernova and fired himself into English football folklore.

Original Series  |  Names of the Nineties

That strike came with the match balanced at 0-0. Tony Dorigo’s attempt at a 20-yard chip in the 51st minute met the head of an advancing Rod Wallace on the edge of the box. The winger jumped and placed a header too far back for an unsurprised Yeboah, who had to backtrack to make any attempt of contact on the ball.

The quality that turns a good striker into a great one is instinct; a natural sense of spatial awareness and anticipation that makes the player unknowingly find themselves exactly where the ball will end up, sometimes even a few seconds before it does. As for Yeboah, his run had started even before Wallace had bent his legs to jump.

Impossibly unfair talent met an unfiltered, vulgar power source where a black Puma football boot would become the epicentre. Yeboah’s legs held up his broad frame like columns from a Greek temple, as his perfect balance mirrored postures from a book on the mastery of the art of ballet. The unfortunate ball would have no clue what was about to happen before it did and neither would David James; a leap into thin air his commendable attempt to stop the ferocious loop and dip of the shot after his pendulum of a leg swung, millimetres before the bounce.

An unofficial measurement of the speed of the ball was made: 96 miles per hour, surpassing the Leeds legend Peter Lorimer whose own thunderous shot had long since carried legendary weight in West Yorkshire; now it had company. A wiggle of the index finger was normally Yeboah’s go-to celebration but not this time. He held his two huge arms aloft and ran, an expression of wonder and ecstasy the only natural reflexes that arrived to him, mirrored by every other person in the ground.

A month later, playing at a sunny Selhurst Park against Wimbledon, Yeboah would unknowingly create a problem, a debate that would permeate the pubs of the north until this day, sparked by three simple words: “Liverpool or Wimbledon?”

At 2-1, Leeds United were cruising, the crowd was being treated with an entertaining game. A superb effort from Carlton Palmer was too high into the top corner for Paul Heald to palm away and, with that effort, the spectators could go home knowing they had seen goal of the weekend. The lead would promptly be doubled by Yeboah as he completed a swift passing move with a close-range effort before a corner was unfashionably bundled in by Dean Holdsworth to cut Leeds’ celebrations short. But Yeboah wanted more.

Leeds raced to take the kick-off and the striker struck a shot from the centre-circle with Heald having to jump and push the ball over, inches the difference. Seconds before half-time, Leeds were still searching for more and another goal would round off a neat first-half performance. After a long kick from John Lukic, a failed clearance from Cunningham landed at Yeboah’s feet on the bounce not unlike the Liverpool effort, still fresh in the mind.

He couldn’t, could he? A quick-thinking Yeboah decided to use his huge chest, set the tone and tell the ball where it needed to go; his left knee kept it up in the air before a dummied effort turned away a surely thankful Wimbledon centre-back who attempted a courageous block. The ball hit his knee and bounced twice before Yeboah swung his boot – that same right one – and gave it no other option than to reach maximum velocity in less than a second. Heald’s crossbar was twice the unlucky victim and twice lost paint as the ball crashed over the line like an enraged child had hit the pinball arm too many times, sending it, along with the Leeds players themselves, into a frenzy. He had done it again.

A different beauty that arises from Yeboah’s second favourite goal, a sense of anarchy; this is not supposed to happen on a football field. Eleven play against 11 and most of the time it is fair, so why is Tony Yeboah allowed to do that? Consecutive goal of the month awards would be both a reward and a standalone record for decades until Gareth Bale’s duo of brilliant strikes matched his Ghanaian predecessor nearly 20 years on.

Tony Yeboah definitely eats at the top table of Leeds United folklore and we know what he will order, too: “I had no idea what they were, but I loved them.” Eggs, flour and milk are the ingredients for Yorkshire Puddings, Yeboah’s favourite food he discovered when living in the north. Tony claims they gave him the strength to score his goals, but they probably had more of an influence on his relationship with new manager George Graham, who labelled him a trouble-causer.

For Leeds fans, the disputes with George Graham that ultimately ended Yeboah’s time at Elland Road are not the salient memories. The yellow shirt thrown at the feet of the manager in his last appearance has been forgotten about, forgiven. Yeboah was as loved as he was mercurial; the what-ifs and what could have been dreams still live on and so will his goalscoring record. Twenty-four goals in 47 games speaks for itself and nobody has come close since in replicating either the numbers or footballing personality of the striker.

Nowadays, Yeboah is not the shy, introvert character he was when he first arrived in England: his two Ghanaian hotels, Yegoala, share the same name as his nightclub and his football club. He spends his time tending to the hotels, where you can stay for £77 a night, though there is sadly no discount for Leeds fans. For the fans, it was over before it had begun, but it had undoubtedly been there and Yeboah’s influence is still alive at Elland Road, highlighted in no small fashion by a huge picture of his celebrating expression on the side of the stadium; proof that a short stint needn’t mean it cannot be an immensely memorable one.

By Joe Brennan @j4brennan

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