Yeboah cool for the kill

Simon O'Hagan meets the Ghanaian striker who is raising hopes at Elland Road
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The Independent Online
THE second that it proverbially takes to score a goal lasts longer with some players than others. Tony Yeboah is one of those for whom time seems to expand wondrously when the ball arrives at his feet. Tony Dorigo, Yeboah's Leeds United team-mate, is often an awe-struck witness to what happens next.

"I'm usually more excited than he is," he says. "I want to shout, 'Shoot! Shoot!' But he's incredible. He just relaxes and tucks it in. I've seen so many goals where the 'keeper has been the first one to commit himself and Tony puts it the other way. It's an art he's got."

Yeboah's goals, another two of which secured the three points yesterday at West Ham, are the main reason Leeds can look forward to European football this season and why some people think they can win the Premiership. In only 18 games between January, when the 29-year-old Ghanaian international moved to Elland Road from Eintracht Frankfurt, and May, Yeboah struck 12 times - a higher ratio than anyone apart from Alan Shearer.

It was clear that Leeds had hit upon an exceptional talent. Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, says Yeboah is the best striker he has ever worked with. "He's clinical, cool and calm." But now that the Premiership knows him, won't he find it harder this season? "Everybody finds it harder all the time," Wilkinson said. "But one of the things about being good is you work out how to keep going. And I think that underneath Tony's mild, self-effacing exterior is a very clever cookie."

At Elland Road last week, Yeboah explained what goalscoring involves. "It's about concentration," he said. "But you also have to be relaxed. If you're too aggressive you can miss. I try to create my opening and then cool down. Normally, in a one-on-one situation, the goalkeeper will go one way. That's why I always wait. I'm never nervous. It's not easy. But then scoring goals is something I'm used to."

It certainly is. Yeboah has been playing up front since he got into his first junior team at the age of six. One of eight children, he grew up in Kumasi, Ghana's second city, in the central region of Ashanti. His father Mike was a leading player with the big Kumasi club Ashanti Kotoko, and everyone expected Tony to follow him there. But he disappointed his father by going off to join the much lesser Okwahu United.

"Other people were deciding things for me and I wanted to decide for myself," Yeboah said. "Kotoko had a lot of good players and at the time I didn't really want the competition." It must have looked as if Yeboah was trying to hide; hindsight suggests it was an early example of the maturity and awareness that are key features of his game.

Yeboah was 22 and playing for Ghana in the African Nations' Cup when an agent from Germany approached him. "He told me I was very good," Yeboah said, "and that he could find me a club." Yeboah took his chance.

He had two years at Saarbrucken in the second division, then five at Frankfurt where he scored 68 goals in 123 games and was made club captain. He was happy and popular. He got married, and he and his wife, also from Ghana, had a daughter, now aged four. Fans went round with T-shirts saying "Yeboah's Witness" - a pun on Jehovah's Witness which works rather better in German where the j is soft. "It's nice when you see something like that," Yeboah said.

Then Jupp Heynckes arrived as manager. He didn't take to Yeboah, replaced him as captain and singled him out for extra training. "I felt as if I was being punished for something," Yeboah said. "It was all very bad and my performances went down." Things had reached an impasse during last season's mid-winter break when Wilkinson, who had only ever seen Yeboah on television, made his approach. It came at the right time.

"It was difficult to adjust to begin with," Yeboah said. "But it was a good experience for me. I had to try to learn quickly how to play the English way. A lot of people in Ghana thought I wouldn't be able to. In Germany they keep the ball for a long time. It's much slower. Here players make a lot more mistakes because you can't wait for an opening before making a pass. But I am strong and quick." He is impressively built - 5ft 10in and 13st 13lb - although a knee ligament operation two years ago means, he says, that he is not as quick as he was.

Yeboah still feels an attachment to Frankfurt, which was why he listened to them during the close-season when, with Heynckes having gone, they tried to get him back. "I felt it was diplomatic to do that. But I knew I wanted to stay in Leeds."

For Wilkinson, keeping Yeboah was "my absolute No 1 priority", and he duly succeeded. Yeboah has just signed a three-year contract and the many Leeds fans who have taken him to their hearts are more optimistic than at any time since the days of Eric Cantona. They may have to reconcile themselves to losing him for a few weeks in January when Ghana will defend their African Nations' Cup title in South Africa, but to have lost him altogether would have been infinitely worse.