Twenty years on from Tony Yeboah’s wonder strike against Liverpool, chief football writer Phil Hay spoke exclusively to the Ghanaian hotshot about ‘that’ goal and his memorable two-year spell at Elland Road.
Twenty years ago this week; Monday Night Football on Sky Sports and one of the Premier League’s seminal moments. Yeboah takes his time in describing it. “It’s a goal not everyone can score,” he says before grasping for a better description. “It’s a goal you could watch 100 times a day and never get tired of.” There are people who probably do.
Yeboah made an heroic impression on Leeds which is something of an irony considering he left without a trace. He says he keeps in touch with friends in Yorkshire but few if any of his former team-mates are in regular contact with him. His two years at Elland Road were short enough and sharp enough to make you wonder if they actually happened.
He runs a hotel in Ghana these days and he’s manning the reception when he answers the phone. The rate at which Yeboah digs out stories about Leeds is enough to prove that he took memories with him when he quit for Hamburg in 1997. “The goals of your life are the goals you remember,” he says. In the space of a month in 1995, Yeboah scored two.
He was in many ways an unlikely sensation, a Ghanaian striker who by his own admission found football in England alien and intimidating. His transfer to Leeds in January 1995 was hastened by a row between him and Eintracht Frankfurt coach Jupp Heynckes and Howard Wilkinson, United’s manager, paid £3.4m for Yeboah without watching him in the flesh.
“I’d never actually seen him play but I watched him a lot on Eurosport,” Wilkinson said a few months after completing the transfer. “I remember thinking ‘Christ, what a player!’” Few in Leeds knew much about him and to look at him, Yeboah was not the archetypal striker: broad shouldered with the muscular physique of a bull.
“I knew German football and I understood it,” Yeboah says. “The style, the way they did things – in England it was totally different. 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.
“But I played for the first time as a substitute against QPR (at Elland Road), just a few minutes before the end of the game. There was no time to do anything but the crowd ... 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.”
Yeboah made it happen. In the second half of the 1994-95 season, he claimed 12 league goals and drove Leeds into the UEFA Cup. When Yeboah scored the club won, without exception. His performance was that of a lethal poacher but his goals, for want of a better phrase, were routine finishes more often than not. “The spectacular ones, the fireworks – they came later,” he jokes.
August 21, 1995. By then, two days into the new Premiership season, Yeboah had already caused a stir with two goals at West Ham United; one a textbook centre-forward’s header and the other a cracking volley from 14 yards. A few hours before United’s game at home to Liverpool, Sky’s trucks rolled into Elland Road for what is now a well-established Monday-night broadcast.
“It was live on Sky so no-one was watching anything else,” Yeboah says. “On a Saturday you had games everywhere but on Monday, Leeds and Liverpool. Nothing else.”
The game was decided by a single goal scored in the 50th minute. The reason Yeboah’s finish that night has been watched more than a million times on YouTube is because the build-up, the strike itself and the celebration are impossible to take in with one attempt. “In that moment, everything just happened,” Yeboah says.
The passes preceding the goal are nothing more than hopeful hits; a long clearance from John Lukic, a scooped ball forward from Tony Dorigo and a header down by Rod Wallace eight or so yards outside Liverpool’s box. “Yeboah with a chance,” says commentator Rob Hawthorne but the chance is all of Yeboah’s making, struck with his body side-on to goal and whipped with the instep of his right boot. Blink and you miss it as David James did before the ball smashed off the underside of his crossbar and into the net.
Liverpool’s goalkeeper was the victim of Yeboah’s brilliance, forever to be pictured ashen-faced and on his knees. “I hate that goal,” James said in a recent Premier League interview. “I spent quite a few weeks afterwards moaning about the fact that I should have saved it. The commentator said about 30 seconds beforehand ‘all this game needs is a goal’ – and then Tony Yeboah turns up and scores.”
Yeboah laughs at this. “He (James) was stretching and stretching as far as he could,” he says. “He did everything he could do but the (placement) was perfect. I don’t think a goalkeeper in the world can save that. I’m not being disrespectful but what would they do? David James couldn’t do anything.
“You ask me what was going through my head when I hit the ball and I can’t answer. It was just something special, a special moment.” One in a million? “Not everyone can score a goal like that. But it wasn’t lucky. In the same situation I could have done that again. Of course I could.”
A smiling Yeboah spun away and celebrated by wagging his finger at the Kop, as if to say “here’s what your money bought.” His goal spawned a million attempts by English teenagers to recreate the volley in playgrounds and public parks. Then, 33 days later, he produced a goal to rival it and arguably better it.
Two decades later the argument rages about which was more supreme: the thunderbolt against Liverpool or the magical ‘chest-down-three-touches-and-bang’ strike in a 4-2 win at Wimbledon on September 23. The Premiership took its own view and eight months down the line his half-volley at Selhurst Park was voted goal of the season. The ferocity of the shot would have challenged Peter Lorimer’s lash for pace. “Even by his standards, breathtakingly brilliant,” yelled commentator Martin Tyler.
Picking between the goals is like grading supermodels but Yeboah can. “I kept the (goal of the season) trophy,” he says. “I’ve got a showcase of trophies from my time at Leeds, Hamburg and with Ghana. That one’s still there. I’m proud of it.”
So was it better than the Liverpool strike? “I don’t think so. Liverpool was the best goal. Why do I think that? Because it was live on television and everyone was watching. It surprised people. Also, I grew up as a Liverpool fan and their team had Rush, Barnes, players I admired.
“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.”
Yeboah makes the point that he scored numerous goals for other clubs and for his country, some of which are well worth watching again. Individually he had no better night for Leeds than the evening in Europe that same September when his hat-trick cut Monaco to shreds.
“What you saw him do in Monaco he did for four years in the Bundesliga,” Wilkinson said afterwards. “Routine’ goals from three yards, wallops from 20 or 30. Right foot or left and headers. The lot.”
Yeboah calls that performance “a dream”. “You don’t know where a night like that comes from,” he says. “After the game you can’t believe it. When we got home from Monaco I sat in my house and thought ‘has that happened?’
“At that time the UEFA Cup was a strong competition. I think as a team, that’s one of the best English performances in Europe, or maybe one of the best Leeds have ever had. The goals, they belonged to me but I was there to score goals. That’s why Leeds took me there in the first place.”
Yeboah used to credit his form and his finishing to the power of Yorkshire puddings. “I had no idea what they were,” he says, “but I loved them. I used to say that it was the Yorkshire puddings that gave me the strength to score goals. It was just fun. My feet scored the goals. And my mind.”
The tragedy of Yeboah’s time at Leeds is that the marriage was so short. He spent less than three years at the club and made fewer than 100 appearances. Yet in a recent rundown of United’s 100 greatest players, Yeboah ranked 11th. “He was right up there,” Eddie Gray says. “Talent-wise he’s one of the best strikers the club’s ever seen.” His popularity at Frankfurt – where Eintracht fans formed a group called Zeugen Yeboahs (Yeboah’s Witnesses) – followed him to Leeds and never left.
His legacy at Elland Road is that of champagne football; the superstar quality the comes through the doors as the blue moon rises. His hotel keeps him busy these days and he plays “a lot of golf. But I don’t forget football. People talk to me about it all the time. And I like to talk to them.”
He has, he admits, a stack of videos and DVDs with footage of his playing career. Including ‘the goals’? “Of course,” he says. So when did he last watch the strike against Liverpool?“Honestly? Last week.”