Football: Premiership - The revelation of Dwight Yorke

Manchester United's Caribbean craftsman is proving that even his huge fee was money well spent

WHEN ALEX Ferguson agreed to pay Aston Villa pounds 12.6m for the services of Dwight Yorke at the start of this season, the Manchester United manager's judgement was called into question not for the first time in his career. Probably not for the last time, Ferguson has proved his critics completely wrong.

For several seasons Yorke was regarded as a fine player - unorthodox, clever and with a good record as a goalscorer. But pounds 12.6m? Villa fans who have since expressed their resentment at his departure were probably quietly confident it represented good business for them at the time; United fans were wondering if Fergie was becoming desperate. But surely not even Ferguson could have forecast the impact Yorke has had at Old Trafford. He is the leading scorer in the Premiership, was the leading scorer in their Champions' League campaign and, furthermore, his partnership with the one-time misfit Andy Cole - founded on Yorke's footballing brain, Cole's lightning reflexes and a close personal friendship - has provided United with not just one new player but two and kick-started Cole's stuttering international career.

Yorke has been a revelation, the permanently upturned collar by no means the only line of comparison to be drawn with the seemingly incomparable Eric Cantona. Like Cantona, Yorke took unhesitatingly to the biggest stage in English club football and, like Cantona, he can usually be relied upon to play the right ball at the right time. In fact, just about the only blot on his copybook so far was a missed penalty against Arsenal 10 days ago, but even King Eric missed one of those.

Unlike Cantona, Yorke smiles a lot but he seems to share the same icy coolness that set the Frenchman apart. "I'm not a nervous type of guy," he explained recently at the end of a long afternoon of promotional work at a luxury hotel in the Cheshire stockbroker belt where Yorke, a happy bachelor, has just moved in to a new home. He will have the Fergusons and the Beckhams as near neighbours.

"Sometimes the occasion will hit you full in the face when you walk out for a match, but I won't be shaking in my boots. It's a game of football and that's why we're here. I can switch off easily. I don't know what stress or pressure is, I don't understand these things. I suppose coming from the Caribbean and having a laid-back attitude makes me more relaxed, not worrying about the size of my price tag or anything like that."

Yorke was born into a family of nine children, all brought up in a two- bedroom bungalow in Tobago. "We were very poor - not a lot to look forward to," he said. "Things weren't coming easy at all, I certainly wanted that to change and football was very much what I wanted. There were actually far more talented people than myself in Trinidad and Tobago, but I had a bit more desire.

"Seeing people straying by the wayside made me want to be someone. There were so few opportunities back home that I might have ended up just hanging out, taking in the way of life, getting involved in drugs or whatever. But I chose not to because I wanted to be somebody else."

The rest of his family still live on the island - one brother plays cricket for Trinidad and Tobago and the others are all keen sportsmen - but even though Yorke is now wealthy beyond the imagination of most of his fellow countrymen he has no intention of turning his back on them, despite the fact that his nationality means he will probably never play international football at the very highest level.

"When people talk about foreign players here my name is never mentioned," he said. "Maybe it's because I came here when I was 17 with nothing, and no one knew who I was, just this guy from Trinidad and Tobago. The other foreign players here have usually got some kind of pedigree. But I'm very proud of where I come from.

"It's only now that I really appreciate my country. After living here for 10 years, when I go back I sit there looking at the sunset and glitter on the beach and think: `Wow, I had this for 17 years but I've never seen it the way I'm seeing it now'. It is a beautiful place. There's no traffic, the weather is very good all year round, the crime rate is not as high as some of the other Caribbean countries and the people are very friendly and warm."

Whether they are quite as friendly and warm towards Yorke, rather than envious when he returns this summer for the first time since his lucrative transfer to United, remains to be seen. "It probably will be difficult because my family gets it all the time," he said. "People there are not really aware of how football operates here - some of them will look at the pounds 12.6m, which is the equivalent of 126 million Trinidad dollars, and think that money is mine.

"The ones who are more into sport would know, but despite that people will certainly look at me as a wealthy young man coming back to the Caribbean, especially being at the biggest club now and doing the things I've done for United. It will put me on a certain level. But that won't hamper me. It's where I was brought up and where I'll always go back to. They're my roots. I've got some great friends there and I'm still very proud and happy to be in their company when I go back. It might be a different ball game this summer but that's the last thing on my mind at the moment."

What is on his mind is Manchester United. As a player, Yorke has undoubtedly progressed since moving there and he is happy to acknowledge Ferguson's role in that. "He just wanted me to be myself. He told me: `You know who you're playing for, you're happy, enjoy yourself. If you can't play here you can't play anywhere else'. I think I'm always improving and if I didn't I'd probably pack the game in, but I'm coming to the pinnacle of my career now. My strengths are probably linking the play and running at defenders but my finishing is still not as good as I'd like it to be. I'm not as instinctive as someone like Alan Shearer."

As for his part in Cole's revival, Yorke said: "When you meet someone you get to know certain things. Andy had a lot of injuries and having to deal with everything wasn't easy for him. People gave him stick, but if you look at his goalscoring record there aren't many better. He's shown a lot of character to overcome all that and prove people wrong every day."

Away from football, Yorke admits to having few friends outside the game but is "a keen golfer - when the weather's good and it's not affecting my game. Apart from that, winter for me is putting on the fire and sitting there watching sport on telly. I also like a good afternoon sleep but since I've been at United I haven't had much sleep because there's always something happening."

For Yorke and the rest of the United side, there's certainly something happening at Old Trafford over the next few days. First, the visit of Southampton this afternoon and the quest for another three points in their bid to regain the Premiership title; then, on Wednesday night, the biggest game in Yorke's life: the European Cup quarter-final first leg against Internazionale. How will he approach it?

"In Europe it's all mind work and tactics, people looking at the game differently and there's a key to getting success," he said. "The players don't change, but the mentality changes because there's a certain amount of respect for the other team. You alter your style of play slightly, because what you might be able to get away with in the Premiership, at this level you can't afford to make as many mistakes."

Yorke added: "You can't describe to people the type of feeling I'll get walking out there on March 3rd - Inter Milan, Ronaldo, Baggio, whatever. These are things of boyhood dreams.

"Growing up in - I wouldn't say a ghetto, but in a very low environment - to think one day I'd be here, rubbing shoulders with the likes of these guys. Man, if you can't enjoy those moments and make it a night to remember, knowing you're coming off that pitch having given it everything, then you shouldn't be there." And even though Ronaldo, after all, will probably not be there, you get the impression nothing is going to wipe the broad smile off Yorke's face for a while.

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