Odd couple get even

Coca-Cola Cup final: As Brian Little aims for a Wembley victory a Leeds legend relives triumphs and disasters past
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The Independent Online
DWIGHT YORKE apparently likes to stand in a dustbin at training, keeping the ball up with his head more than 200 times and taking a fiver off gullible gamblers. Savo Milosevic, his striking partner whom Aston Villa bought for pounds 3.5m on the strength of a video of him, once turned from a TV interview into an iron door and needed 12 stitches in a head wound.

English football's most exotic striking partnership have often been seen as an odd couple, dismissed as a bit of a joke even. Yorke? Nice skills, might come good now and then but not for the twice-weekly hurly- burly of the English game. Milosevic? A highlight hoping to happen but mostly could not hit a cow's backside with a banjo.

In fact, the Serbo-Tobagan alliance deserves to be taken seriously outside Villa Park by more people than Howard Wilkinson, whose Leeds United take on Villa in the Coca-Cola Cup final at Wembley today.

With Brian Little's perseverance and prodding, Yorke and Milosevic -the first representatives of their respective countries to play in a Wembley Cup final - have prospered to the extent that they deserve to be compared with the more celebrated attacking pairs in Britain. One has applied consistency to his audacity for a personal best return of 22 goals from 41 appearances, the other has rounded off the rough edges of his game to add to a smooth left foot, even if his goal tally of 12 from 40 games is mediocre.

"I always thought there was a complement there," said Little, who places great emphasis on blend. He was a talented striker whose two goals against Everton gave Villa the League Cup in 1977 and who might have won more than one England cap but for injury, his assistant Allan Evans is a defender. "We have a partnership of a 24-year-old and a 22-year-old which we think most clubs in this country would be looking for. We think they can win us a lot of games of football."

If Yorke's fulfilment of potential after six years at Villa Park has been heartening, the progress of Milosevic has been charming. There is a charisma to him that has survived long fallow periods this season, with supporters forgiving him because of his pluck, along with the genuine pained look that accompanies failures and his infectious joy at successes. His trademark bandana - orginally worn to cover the 12-stitch gash sustained in an international match for Yugoslavia - sells well at the Villa Village shop.

Milosevic arrived having averaged 25 goals a season with Partizan Belgrade and promising as many for Villa. However, he did not score his first home goal until mid-December - part of a hat-trick against Coventry City. There have been times when he has looked so short of confidence in front of goal that a compassionate man might have hoped that the ball would avoid him.

"I thought I would score much more but for now it is OK," he said. "The English game is the hardest, more than any other in the world, so maybe it's not so bad a start." By hardest, he must mean physically and indeed his bravery and temperament have been questioned from opening day when he departed the match against Manchester United on a stretcher after a seemingly innocuous challenge.

"Some people suggested he needed a little period out of the team but I don't believe that's how you get better," Little said. "He's got better by being in the team and believing in himself. He does things now which are outstanding, though he still does things where you think `aah, move the ball'.

"He's not the quickest in the world but he's got good skills. So when he stops the ball he's not then going to get away from people. We have had to scream `move the ball, move the ball'. Early on, he found that if he showed defenders the ball they would take it and him as well. Now he does it a little further away from them and moves the ball on.

"He has good vision, good awareness. He is a good passer and gets better at heading. I don't think he had ever flicked on a ball in his life before but he responded to the fact that people got angry with him not jumping by saying to himself: `Right, I've got to do this.' "

Because of his "European mannerism", Little says, defenders duly tested his temperament and the manager believes he has come through. On the United incident, he added that Villa were too quick to substitute: it was the first day of the system, now seemingly ignored, whereby stretchers were automatically taken on to the pitch, and Villa thought the injury, which occurred just before half-time, worse than it was.

Since the New Year, Little believes, Milosevic has probably been Villa's most consistent player, contributing much unsung work in supplying the prolific Yorke. The tag of Missalotevic was coined but "internally we were enjoying it because the big fellow was providing for Dwight".

"I have spoken to people in Yugoslavia and they tell me when he scores he comes into his own. He's probably had more chances this season than most strikers and if he continues like that next season, he could well be one of the top scorers. He believes he can be. He has a desire to be seen as special."

If some stick has worked with Milosevic, it has been mostly carrot with Yorke. "He has unbelievable ability and can do all sorts of things with a football," Little said. "What I have tried to put into him is how important it is to work. Without the work, so many talented players have had a label. It's `if only', or `when he's on form . . .' I've told him to stay away from all that." It is probably appropriate that they perform the old Frank Sinatra standard at Villa Park these days with the words: "It's up to you, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke."

"Dwight holds people off well, his size belies his strength," Little added. "What he has is a bit of everything, there's nothing he can't do. He's more right- footed than left but hasn't got a weak foot, has good touch, is a great header and can run. But he has to concentrate on producing week in, week out. He grew up in Tobago, which is just the most laid-back place, and every day I just have to push him along."

Yorke describes himself as unpredictable by English standards - and the chipped penalty against Sheffield United in the FA Cup bears him out. As a boy, he loved to watch Hoddle and Waddle for Tottenham, but tried to play like a Brazilian.

"I've had to make adjustments," he said. "In my first couple of seasons here, people said I wanted too much time on the ball. That was because I was brought up that way, taking time to play with that slow build-up. Now I'm finding it easier because I've had long enough to adjust to the faster tempo of the English game." Milosevic, he added, has encountered the same problem and will be better for it next season.

For the moment he is quite content to enjoy the Serbian service that has helped him to his tally of 22 goals so far this season. If everything goes to plan this afternoon at Wembley, they could be singing: "It's Cup to you, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke."

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