From Barefoot in Canaan to Booming in Birmingham

Marlton Miller
Date Published: 
Trinidad Express

Marlon Miller talks to Dwight Yorke the Strike Squad's first professional footballer

"Start spreading the news, he's playing today, I want to see him score again, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke."

That "chart topper", sung to the tune of the Frank Sinatra ballad "New York, New York", reflects the adulation Aston Villa fans feel for one of their favourite sons, who came to them from Canaan, Tobago.

It was a long way to travel for the 25-year-old Yorke, who is from a family of nine children and spent a lot of his youth running barefoot around his tiny island catching crabs to earn pocket money to purchase a pair of football boots.

Seven and a half years later, thanks to his goal-scoring prowess, the striker is one of the best paid players in the English Premier League and can easily afford the finer things in life. That includes a five-bedroom house with three cars - two Mercedes Benz and a BMW - in the garage and a regular round of golf at the exclusive Belfry.

And as a measure of their appreciation of his skill, Villa supporters voted Yorke their Player of the Year for a second successive season at the end of the 1996-97 campaign.

Now, at the start of one of the most hyped English football seasons ever, he has the added distinction of being Aston Villa's longest-serving player.

"It just makes you feel a little bit old actually," Yorke joked about his longevity at the famous Midlands club last week. We were chatting after he had had a workout in the summer sunshine at Villa's training ground at Bodymoor Heath, not far from his luxurious home at Sutton Coldfield, some 15 miles outside Birmingham, England's second largest city and site of Aston Villa's century-old ground, Villa Park.

He had thoroughly enjoyed his highly successful stay, playing for one of the top teams in what is reputed to be the toughest league in the world.

"I have not regretted one moment," he said in his now familiar English accent, "I wouldn't want to be in a better situation."

But he admits to having been tempted to head back to the sunshine and familiar faces in Tobago when he first arrived as a wide-eyed 18-year-old in December of 1989.

"Yeah. I didn't know exactly what I was coming into, I did not know how things were going to work out. And, of course, the weather, the food, the people it was different and it took a little while before I adjusted to it all. I'm pleased I stuck it out. It's just been fantastic, certainly the last three years."

In that time the former Strike Squad forward has become a regular member of Villa's first team and made himself a household name throughout England, where young boys and girls proudly wear Villa replica jerseys with his name and number (10) on the back. His toothy grin appears on almost all Villa memorabilia and is featured on promotions for Birmingham's Sunday Mercury newspaper as well as "Football Football" phone cards.

Despite all this, there is still the odd occasion when he longs for home.

"I'm more mature now and I've been here for some time. But at Christmas, Easter, when the family gets together - not so much for Carnival - when those times come around a little bit of homesickness comes into play. Obviously not anymore, 'cause I've grown out of that now. I don't have those things to fear," he declared, pausing to flash a bright smile at and return a greeting from two of the female employees at Bodymoor Heath where everyone has a friendly word for him.

"I wouldn't give up what I've got now to go back to spend Christmas with my family, although I love my family. This is what I choose to do and I couldn't choose a better job to do really."

Asked what he looks forward to most when the sets foot in Tobago, he responded immediately with a throaty laugh, "My mother's cooking! I try to eat more fish when I get back, because the fish here isn't as fresh as back home. And the Sunday meal, which I absolutely still adore the macaroni and chicken, callaloo, fry rice."

But these days Yorke manages just a few days at home as the football season gets longer and longer and there is hardly any time to sample his mother Grace's cuisine. There's some consolation: over the past two weeks he has had as houseguest his older brother Gary.

"Five years ago you had two to three months, now you're lucky to have three weeks," said Yorke, who likes to go shopping when he has the time, and to play a few rounds of golf off his 12 handicap "when the weather's like this." But he's not complaining about the demands of his current schedule.

"You give me anything else in the world to do and I still wouldn't change," he exclaimed.

That's not really surprising for someone who has been football crazy since he was knee-high to a crab. Football, he admits, always took precedence over his schoolwork and it was only when he got to England that he took the time to "make sure I could read and spell properly. My mum would have preferred I had a proper education, but she's still the proudest woman on Earth." Proud, that is, because of his accomplishments on the pitch.

And his passion for the game has never waned, especially after the former Signal Hill star experienced the thrill of a cup final victory under the twin spires of the world-famous Wembley Stadium, where he scored his most memorable goal in Aston Villa colours.

It was the 1996 Coca-Cola League Cup Final and the lad from Tobago put the finishing touches on an impressive Villa performance with the final item in a 3-0 triumph over Leeds United.

"The Wembley thing, because it's a special occasion and it's every footballer's dream," he recalled. "I mean, to score there as well, it was like "Am I really here? Pinch me" sort of thing. It was fantastic, really."

The Villa fans were in fine voice that day with their ode to "Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke" - the song had actually been recorded and put on sale during the build-up to the final - and after the lap of honour around the hallowed Wembley turf, he himself continued the chanting.

Rob Bishop, football correspondent of the Birmingham post, who has been close to Yorke since he arrived in Birmingham in the middle of winter as a light-weight, home-sick apprentice, remembers going into the Villa dressing-room at Wembley and seeing a stark naked Yorke standing in the middle and singing along with his teammates.

"He'd had some champagne out of the cup and it got to him," said Bishop of Yorke who is not much of a drinker. "It would go quiet and then he would start again, with the others joining in, but after a while they got tired of it and left him by himself."

Yorke's mood that day was a far cry from two years earlier (1994) when Villa had also won the League Cup, but he had played no part in the final. Bishop commented that not being among the substitutes " was a bitter disappointment for him".

That was during the term of former Villa manager Ron Atkinson, who felt that Yorke didn't have the experience to cope with the big occasion. But since the arrival of current boss Brian Little three years ago, Yorke has been an integral and indispensable member of the Villa squad.

"For the last two years, he had been invaluable, priceless. He scored all the goals, 25 in 1995-1996 and 20 last season," said Bishop. "If Dwight didn’t play, Villa struggled. His flair he's such an exciting player, he's always a favourite with the crowd. Brian (Little) thinks the world of him."

Asked to estimate a transfer fee for Yorke if Villa put him up for sale, bishop replied: "Towards 10 million pounds sterling, which is not bad for a player who cost 10 thousand pounds sterling." When ex-Villa and England manager Graham Taylor spotted him in his homeland, Yorke was then a teenaged member of the St Clair Coaching School, the brainchild of current national coach Bertille St Clair, who Yorke considers as his mentor and the most influential person in his life.

"But," Bishop quickly adds, "I don't think Brian Little would want to sell."

Little's assistant, Allan Evans who, like Little, is a former Villa player endorsed that view. He won four caps for Scotland and was a member of Villa's League championship team of 1980-81, which went on to clinch the European Cup the following year.

"Over the last two years he's been very much the main man as far as striking is concerned," said Evans, "We rely on him and his goals speak for themselves."

"I wouldn't do it," he responded with regard to a valuation for Yorke. "It would have to be silly money to get Dwight away from this club. From our point of view we wouldn't want to lose Dwight. But you could never say never."

Speaking as a former defender, Evans claimed he would have been "scared to play against him. When he's on song he frightens people to death! He's got a great touch and he's as strong as an ox."

The 40-year-old Evans also paid tribute to Yorke's attitude, which he attributed to his Caribbean upbringing.

"He's so relaxed and he takes that attitude onto the park. Even in training, Dwight generally enjoys himself and he works hard. He's improved his actual work-rate. There's more to him than just scoring goals. "Which, Evans thinks, may explain his relationship with the Villa fans.

"He's always smiling. He's admired so much by the public and he's a very firm favourite." But the members of the Yorke Fan Club are not just in the stands.

"The players look up to him and they expect him to score. That adds pressure to Dwight. But all we expect of him is that he works hard. That's the main thing."

This season Yorke has been joined in the Villa attack by another prolific goal scorer, Stan "the Man" Collymore, who became the club's most expensive signing when Little paid Liverpool 7 million pounds sterling for him last May.

"Fantastic," said Yorke of his relationship with his new striking partner. "We haven't had any luck yet but it's not far off, we have a long way to go yet."

The pair's failure to find the net has contributed to Villa's awful start to the new season -their worst in 11 years - losing their first two matches, including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Blackburn Rovers in their opening game at Villa Park.

But Yorke was not too worried. "We have a strong squad here and we're capable of turning things around. We're working to put things right and take it from there." (Yesterday, Yorke and Villa had the chance to get off the mark in a tough away game to last season's Premier League runners-up, Newcastle where Shaka Hislop is currently the number three Keeper on the books).

Yorke, who will be 26 on November 3, currently has no plans to go elsewhere after his contract with Villa runs out in another two years after the end of this season.

"You never know in football," he chuckled, "but I'm happy here."

Here at Villa and here in England. Because to the question about moving to Europe, he replied: "At the minute I'm content. England is the place to play." Understandably, what with the recent influx of high-priced foreigners boosting the Premiership's claim to be the best league on the globe.

And he still has many goals to achieve.

"I want to be the Footballer of the Year," is what he puts at the top of the list. And the prestigious FA Cup is "also another one", he adds.

"And also qualify for the World Cup for Trinidad and Tobago," his mind going back to that disastrous day in November 1989 when, before he left for Villa, the national team of which he was a member needed just a draw in the final qualifying match against the United States to move onto the 1990 world Cup finals and instead suffered a heart-breaking 1-0 loss.

Also on that team was his close friend, Portugal-based Russell Latapy. Thinking no doubt of him and of people like Hislop and fellow Premier League pro, Clint Marcelle of Barnsley, he says almost ruefully: "Time is running out; we're getting older now."

"Certainly winning the Premiership," he identified as another item near the top of his wish list. The suggestion that he was being overly ambitious is rejected out of hand. "Why should you not be? Why settle for a little bit when you could have it all?" "Villa, he adds, "has 'got all the potential' to deny the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. "So winning all of these would be nice."

That is the kind of ambitious attitude which has made Dwight Yorke what he is today, one of the deadliest marksmen in international soccer and the toast of his adopted city. It's a far cry from being barefoot in Canaan.