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Sunday 28 May 2006
Dwight Yorke admits it is not just the outside world that struggles to regard him as a leader. He does so himself. "I'm the one everyone looks up to," says the former Manchester United striker who will proudly wear the armband for Trinidad and Tobago in next month's World Cup.
Icon? Undoubtedly. Playboy? Well, that's hardly deniable given his chronicled tabloid exploits. But captain and role model? That's harder to accept. "I've played at the top level and won a lot of things," Yorke explains. "People respect that. I never saw myself as a leader but in this team everyone sees me as a leader and that's why the captaincy was handed to me, because of my experience.
"Of course, I know what it takes to win games and obviously I can score goals. So if there is anyone the team need to turn to for experience and guidance they don't need to look any further. Being the captain I will be arguably the proudest man - at 34 this is pretty much the icing on the cake."
And the cherry too. Indeed, Yorke can hardly believe what is happening right now. The Soca Warriors - as the team from the tiny twin-island republic are known - have finally made it to a World Cup. They came close in 1974 and even closer in 1990, when Yorke was in the team. "I must say I felt that opportunity had gone," Yorke recalls. "Sixteen years ago I was very close when we were edged out by the United States. I was only a kid and it was very hard to accept."
Yorke actually retired from international football in 2002. Twelve months ago it looked, after a desperately unhappy time at Blackburn Rovers and then on to Birmingham City, that he had no future at all in the game. After 17 years in England he took himself off to Australia, to play for Sydney FC for what looked like an easy buck and an even easier life.
"I am sure a lot of people would have thought that would be the last of me," Yorke says. "Then at the same time I came out of retirement for my country. I thought I'd give it one more chance. The last eight months have been unbelievable. Going to Sydney, winning the grand final [the equivalent of the Premiership title] and of course qualifying for the World Cup."
That was achieved through a thrilling qualifying campaign which ended with a turbulent play-off against Bahrain last November. Yorke's influence was crucial, but so too was that of the coach, Leo Beenhakker. "His appointment was a masterstroke," says Yorke. "Beenhakker came in and gave the guys belief and everyone has responded. We have made huge strides, and that's down to the manager and the staff. I don't want to reveal too much, but he has a way of getting through to the players. He knows we have a talented bunch and a very athletic team and it's just having that belief."
Beenhakker, a 62-year-old Dutchman who led his country to the 1990 World Cup and has also coached Real Madrid and Ajax, took over after three games with T & T bottom of their group with one point. He recognised the importance of Yorke, played him behind the main striker and built the team around him.
In the past Yorke, who cost £12.6m and scored 64 goals in 151 games for United, would have reacted to that responsibility by trying to do too much. When he was winning that unique treble, including the European Cup, in 1999, he thought, "I could take that and instil it in the team. I felt we had a very good chance before 2002 [World Cup] but we didn't do too well."
Now they have their opportunity. Last night they faced Wales, in Graz, Austria, as part of their preparations for meeting England in Nüremberg on 15 June, sandwiched between games against Sweden and Paraguay. Yorke knows it is a tough group.
"We are only a country of 1.3 million, but I've played in the best team in Europe and there are times when even though you're the best team it doesn't guarantee the result," he says. "I've seen upsets so many times. What I can guarantee is we will give 100 per cent every time. The manager will get us to play extremely well and make it difficult to beat us. People are expecting us to be whipping boys but we're going to make sure our opponents know they're in a fight."
Yorke assesses the dangers. Sweden are "a tricky customer", providing "as tough a start as you could ask for", while Para-guay "are probably more suited to us because they'll want to play the game. We've been brought up to play the Brazilian way and they're in that category".
As for England, Yorke recently spent six weeks training again with United following the end of the Australian season - he has one year left on his contract - and to maintain his fitness, having patched up his differences with Sir Alex Ferguson. "Gary Neville was marking me in training and it was, 'This is what he's going to do to you' and, 'This is what I am going to do to him'. Rio [Ferdinand] and [Wayne] Rooney too. We will probably be texting and phoning during the World Cup.
"Everyone is expecting us to get beaten, but the one thing I don't want is to be coming off humiliated - five, six, seven-nil. I want us to walk out there and make sure we compete extremely well. And if we do that, who knows?"
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