Yeboah revels in Leeds love affair

Phil Shaw bears witness to the deification of Elland Road's striking idol; UEFA CUP VERDICT: Prolific African converts Yorkshire club to contenders while United's injury travails temper happy travels
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The Independent Online
In the small hours of yesterday morning, a jobsworth at Leeds- Bradford Airport achieved what Monaco had failed to do throughout 90 minutes in the Louis II Stadium: stop, or at least hold up, Tony Yeboah.

All night Yeboah's pace and power had made him first to everything. Now, heading the queue to show a passport, this non-EU citizen was obliged to wait and fill in forms until the rest of the Leeds United party were waved through. "Lerrim in," a sympathetic voice from among the Ghanaian's team-mates pleaded. "He's just scored a bloody hat-trick."

Yeboah, described by his manager Howard Wilkinson as "gentlemanly", bore the delay with dignity. A few autographs for press men ("It's not for me, it's for my lad"), and he was off into the cold and mist of a new day. Leeds, accustomed to dawns of a false kind since the championship triumph of 1992, now have even greater reason to believe Yeboah will turn them from pretenders into contenders again.

Placing the onus on one individual may seem ill-advised, and Wilkinson's interest in Faustino Asprilla and Ruel Fox suggests he recognises as much. But, as Yeboah points out, Leeds were one of the Premiership's better sides before he defected from Eintracht Frankfurt in January. All they lacked was someone to put the ball in the net.

Tuesday's haul, which took his tally to seven this season and condemned the European Cup semi-finalists of 18 months ago to a 3-0 defeat, means he has done precisely that 20 times in 22 starts for Leeds.

On the face of it, a 29-year-old African with a background in engineering is an unlikely Yorkshire folk hero. Yet for all the infamous insularity of some inhabitants of the broad acres, who are convinced that foreigners start at Todmorden, there is a parallel history of warming to exotic exceptions to the rule of the school of dour Tyke functionalism.

After all, Elland Road's idol par excellence, before it all went horribly wrong, was Eric Cantona. Three decades earlier, when black faces were conspicuous in English football, the Leeds crowd took a South African, Albert Johanneson, to their hearts. And did not Sachin Tendulkar's style and charm, if not his batting feats, erode age-old prejudices in the county's cricketing fraternity?

Leeds' season-ticket sales took off this summer after Wilkinson made Yeboah's move permanent for pounds 3.4m. Cult status was already bestowed by the goals that shoehorned them into the Uefa Cup. Deification, the kind which led worshippers in Germany to name themselves Yeboah's Witnesses, was finally confirmed in Monte Carlo.

As the squad strolled on the pitch before the game, the travelling hordes chanted his name like a mantra. Over went Yeboah, patiently pumping hands. One close-range finish, a spectacular curling drive and a chipped shot on the run later, he was sharing the moment in the same corner.

It is tempting to wonder what the catch is, whether this fine romance will end in tears. The Cantona experience ate deep into the Leeds psyche, and it could be argued that there was little difference between Yeboah's feud with the Frankfurt coach, Jupp Heynckes, and the souring of relations between Wilkinson and his Gallic genius.

Otherwise the similarities between Yeboah and Cantona are largely superficial. True, both revel in the intimacy of English grounds and the idolatry of the crowds. Each also enjoys the tendency of defences here to lie flat, and has a facility, rare in our game, for coolly placing the ball past a goalkeeper as if passing it into the net. Whereas, however, the Frenchman can appear volatile and surly, Yeboah is summed up by his manager as "confident but unassuming". While Cantona professes a passion for poetry and painting, Yeboah's only declared preference is for Yorkshire pudding. It is as if all we need to know about him, all that he promises, is that he will score goals.

To the delight of Leeds, and those who backed him at 16-1 to be the country's top scorer, he is certainly doing that. "Tony's unique - not just different from other strikers, but better," Wilkinson said. "I've never seen or worked with a finisher like him. He thinks he'll score every time he goes out there.

"I'd never actually seen him play, but I watched him a lot on Eurosport. I remember thinking: `Christ, what a player'. What you saw him do in Monaco he did for four years in the Bundesliga. `Routine' goals from three yards, wallops from 20 or 30. Right foot or left, headers. The lot.

"As it turns out Tony looks a bargain at what we paid. But it doesn't matter what he's worth because he's here now and we won't sell him." So what is the catch? "There isn't one," came the reply. "Maybe it's a case of right place, right time."

ELLAND ROAD GOAL HEROES

He may have made only 22 appearances for Leeds (plus four as a substitute), but Tony Yeboah's goalscoring record (20 goals at a strike rate of 0.77 goals per game) at the moment outshines some of the great Leeds goalscorers of the past:

Apps Goals Strike rate

(subs) (goals per

game)

Tom Jennings (1925-31) 174 117 0.67

John Charles (49-57/62) 337 157 0.47

Allan Clarke (69-78) 361 (5) 151 0.41

Peter Lorimer (62-79/83-86) 604 (27) 238 0.38

Mick Jones (67-75) 308 (5) 111 0.35

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