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Sports Features of Tuesday, 24 April 2018

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Tony Yeboah: A Leeds United legend

Mention the name Tony Yeboah to anyone in the vicinity of the Elland Road football ground in Leeds, and it will undoubtedly be one that is well received. Truth be told you can extend that statement to anyone who watched the English Premier League in the 1990s.

He may not have had the most illustrious spell in England's top flight, but he is arguably one of the most well-remembered players of that era. The reason being that when the forward did find the net, he did so with spectacular fashion.

The ex-Ghanaian international was signed by Howard Wilkinson back in January 1995 and provided a decent return for the £3.4m that was spent to acquire his services from the Bundesliga outfit Eintracht Frankfurt, a club which he called home for nearly five years of his career.

The player already had something of a burgeoning reputation after a string of impressive performances in the German top flight, you must not forget that this was an era where there was not the same access to European football in the UK.

Therefore, for Yeboah to already be on people's radars must have meant that he was doing special things while tormenting German defences week in, week out. That said, though, you also must not forget that any foreign signing to the English league was treated with an air of mystery.

This is obviously not the case today as the Premier League is awash with stars from all over the globe, but 20 or so years ago, any player transferred from a more international climate was more akin to a footballing novelty act.

Yeboah was arguably the first African superstar in the English Premier League, and his arrival paved the way for many footballers from the continent to follow in his footsteps. One of those is Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and when you see he is odds on to win this season's Golden Boot, there is no doubting he will be in the same conversation when discussing past and present African legends.

If any club is linked with a hot prospect in this day and age then it is very easy to look on Youtube and hunt down a compilation video of that player's skills, something that fans were not as fortunate to have in the embryonic years of the Premier League.

That meant that in this instance, Leeds fans would have to wait and see what their new signing Yeboah could deliver. A tally of 12 league goals in 18 appearances in Yeboah's first season would quickly endear him to the Leeds United faithful.

But it was arguably his second season in which he truly became a household name. The reason being that he was almost a recurring name on the goal of the month competition that was held by the BBC on their flagship football show Match of the Day.

There are two goals that will live longer in the memory than most. The first came in August 1995 as Liverpool made the trip to Elland Road. It was a hot August Monday evening and the Sky Sports cameras were in attendance as the Ghanaian scored a scorching volley to win the game for his club.

The 35,852 were treated to something special just five minutes after a goalless first half. A hopeful ball towards the Liverpool area was headed up further into the air by Rod Wallace, a touch that would set Yeboah up perfectly for what was to happen next.

He struck an exquisite volley past the helpless David James and, with the ball cannoning off the underside of the bar before bouncing over the line, he had put Leeds in front. It was a position they would hold on to come the final whistle, with that strike being the game's only goal.

Not only had Leeds earned all three points but they had also just found a new hero. Again this was not necessarily a goal that would have been shown on countless football shows for the simple reason that they did not exist.

But word of mouth meant that by the time that the following week's Football Focus had come around, fans from all over the country were lining up to see this spectacular strike. At this point, 'Yeboah-mania' had swept the nation.

It was goals such as these that endeared the player to Leeds fans, but what made it all the more impressive was the fact that a finish of high quality such as this was not just a one-off or a fluke - they were an occurrence with frightening regularity.

Take, for example, just a month later when Leeds made the long trip down to London to face Wimbledon at Selhurst Park. Yeboah once again showed what he is capable of in front of goal and if the strike against Liverpool was exquisite, then this one was ferocious.

After an almost comical game of headers and volleys between Wimbledon and Leeds, one where the ball stayed in the air after four consecutive touches, the ball finally arrived at the body of the visiting team's star player.

It's at that point where Yeboah entered centre stage once more, and his initial touch with the chest allowed him to tee the ball up nicely. However, looking at his second touch it seemed as if it was too heavy with the ball now edging out of reach.

He thankfully managed to maintain control of the ball by taking a touch inside, one that allowed him to move possession to his other foot. And it is here where the main act of the day took place, as what happened next was purely a piece of art.

The purists of the game may prefer a deft touch or a well-executed flick but it was here where Yeboah showed nothing but raw power. He hit a shot so fierce that it cannoned off the bar not once but twice, before finally nestling in Wimbledon's net.

The energy in that finish was something that had probably not been seen in Leeds colours since the days of Peter Lorimer back in the 1970s. So much so that you can see the controlled aggression from Yeboah continue into his celebrations.

Knowing he had scored a simply wonderful goal, he peeled away with his fists clenched before being embraced by his teammates. From there the camera cut to the Wimbledon goalkeeper who is almost left aghast at the velocity of the shot that had just beaten him.

To score one goal like that is impressive, to score two is simply legendary. Especially when the two strikes have been recorded in relatively quick succession. Again there would have been no social media back in those days, just a report from the BBC's Barry Davies during Grandstand.

His explanation during the post-match report simply did not do the goal justice, but the way he described it almost implored you to make sure you watched the goal later that evening on Match of the Day and for the people who did stay up late enough, they would have most definitely been rewarded.

And Yeboah would also be personally rewarded when this strike was voted as the Goal of the Season in 1995/96. It was an award that he was always going to be a favourite to win, simply because he scored so many different great goals.

That and the finish against Liverpool were just two of his twelve league goals that season, a tally that he matched from the campaign before. However as good as these goals were, it was a period that also hinted at the beginning of the end of his time in West Yorkshire.

Unfortunately for Yeboah, there were a couple of factors that meant that his stint at Leeds was not necessarily going to be a long one. Firstly he picked up an injury while representing Ghana on international duty. And, although it would not see him out of the Leeds lineup for too long, he did not have the same sharpness as before, with signs that he was perhaps not fully fit on his return being somewhat evident. This lack of fitness led to a drop in form which in turn meant that his place on the team sheet was under threat.

This was a threat that was increased after the sacking of Howard Wilkinson, the man who bought Yeboah to Elland Road. Wilkinson, who won the English First Division with Leeds back in 1992, was replaced by George Graham, who himself had won the same title just a year earlier with Arsenal.

The former Arsenal boss was notorious for his discipline and upon his arrival, there was an early clash of personalities between him and Yeboah. It was one that was only going to offer a single outcome - that being the eventual departure of the Ghanaian forward from Leeds.

Yeboah would only manage to play seven games in his third season with the club, with this string of appearances failing to provide a single goal. Although he was given a fleeting amount of opportunities by George Graham it was apparent that he had seen enough.

From there, Yeboah would return to Germany but this time he would ply his trade with Hamburg where he spent five seasons, before finally winding down his career in Qatar where he played under Austrian coach Josef Hickersberger.

His departure meant that Leeds' loss was Hamburg's gain and it is fair to say that the Premier League lost a cult hero in September 1997 when Yeboah was sold. His star may not have burnt for long but there is absolutely no question that his star burnt bright and he is still a Leeds legend to this day.