Welcome to the latest edition of the Maverick Series. This time we look at Dwight Yorke’s transformation from a rookie plucked from Caribbean obscurity into one of the most feared strikers in the Premier League.
Like most young kids just starting out going to the football, getting into the ground early and seeing the players have their pre-match warm-up was a huge part of the occasion. I used to love this for one reason in particular, however; to see Dwight Yorke juggle the ball all the way across the length of the pitch. He’d balance it on his head, do keepy-uppy’s and generally entertain the crowd. Both on his way out to warm up and then also on the way back in from in front of the Holte End down to the player’s entrance in the corner of the Trinity Road stand. And I lapped it up. I loved it and thought it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen as everyone else simply trudged back inside.
Yorke is undoubtedly the most skilful player I’ve ever seen pull on a Villa shirt. He understood the importance of being able to use those skills to entertain the crowd. ‘The fans are paying their hard-earned money to come and be entertained. It should be like going to the theatre!’ he revealed in an interview with the club’s website in 2014. And over nine years at Villa, he provided plenty of moments of magic.
Ups and downs
Signed in 1989 by Graham Taylor after seeing him on a mid-winter break tour of the West Indies, Yorke transcended several different eras during his time in B6, truly taking in the highs and lows. He was part of title-challenging seasons under both Taylor and Ron Atkinson. The striker also experienced relegation battles, again under Atkinson and Czech manager Josef Venglos.
Those early years would see Yorke’s form become as erratic as Villa’s finishing places. The wonderkid had shown promise towards the end of Taylor’s final season and also in Venglos’ sole season in charge during a handful of appearances and the arrival of the charismatic Atkinson saw Yorke given his first big push. He didn’t disappoint, finishing top goalscorer with 16 goals in all competitions.
But Yorke would find life difficult as Atkinson assembled the classic strike force of Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson. The Trinidad and Tobago international would still feature heavily. But would mostly operate as a winger which was negated much of his effectiveness. It would be a frustrating couple of years under Atkinson as injury and lack of form stunted the youngster’s development. Nevertheless, Yorke would still manage to write himself into the history books by becoming the last player to ever score in front of the old terraced Holte End. He netted both goals in a 2-1 win over Liverpool before it was demolished to make way for the new all-seater version which we know and love today.
Atkinson’s ageing squad was feeling the strain though and his inevitable dismissal would be the catalyst for Yorke’s uprising into one of the Premier Leagues’ most deadly marksmen. After securing Villa’s Premier League status, Brian Little overhauled the squad and Yorke was once again deployed in his natural striker role. The 1995/96 season saw a then 24-year-old Yorke explode with 25 goals in all competitions. It helped propel Villa to a superb 4th place finish (unfortunately, before that position generated a Champions League place). More importantly, having missed out completely on the victorious League Cup campaign a couple of years earlier, Yorke registered the first in a long list of honours. The striker played a pivotal role and scoring the final goal in a resounding 3-0 victory over Leeds United at Wembley to bring the trophy back to Villa Park.
Yorke’s goal scoring form continued over the next couple of seasons and he was by now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Robbie Fowler, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer as one of the league’s very best strikers. But with Villa unable to push up into the upper echelons of the Premier League, it was only a matter of time before the big boys were circling after our prized asset. The divorce between Yorke and Villa wasn’t amicable though. The eventual £12.6 million move to Manchester United became notorious for then-manager John Gregory’s famous admission that ‘if I’d have had a gun, I’d have shot him’ upon Yorke’s request to leave. Yorke played the opening game of the 1998/99 season against Everton but had clearly downed tools in order to force through the move.
Despite that, it’s hard to begrudge any player a move to a club where they hoovered up such a vast amount of titles. That late 90s/early 00s United side was one of the greats. Yorke played a huge role in winning the Champions League (he was the top scorer in the competition that season, as well nabbing the Premier League Golden Boot) along with three league titles and an F.A Cup.
Start spreading the news
The souring of the relationship towards the player from some supporters was heightened by a future short stint at Birmingham City and sadly, for some, still lasts to this day. That also isn’t helped by some of his personal life choices (his autobiography ‘Born to Score’ is full of lusty anecdotes) which have left him open to ridicule at times. He also continuously throws his hat into the ring whenever a managerial vacancy arises at Villa Park.
But for me, the good memories far outweigh the negativity. Yorke was incredible for Villa and as I mentioned, he was willing to provide entertainment with his goals. He has admitted he massively buzzed off the Villa Park crowd, and, in my mind at least, we gave him the best anthem of any Villa player ever. ‘Start spreading the news, he’s playing today, he’s gonna score a goal again, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke’. The whole rendition sung by Ron Atkinson is absolute gold; someone needs to upload it to YouTube if they have it.
And fuelled by the crowd, a confident Yorke was capable of unbelievable things. At the peak of his powers, even cheeky Panenka penalties were being successfully converted. The attempt was tested to glorious effect in an F.A Cup tie against Sheffield United in 1996. However, it is the sight of England number one David Seaman faltering on his line in a 1-0 victory against Arsenal a couple of years later which is most fondly remembered, as Yorke softly chipped the ball straight down the middle of the goal.
The audacity of trying such a thing when the game is locked at 0-0, with Villa down to 10 men (Ugo Ehiogu had been sent off) and against one of the finest goalkeepers of his generation highlights just how special and talented Yorke really was. Fittingly, that would be his last ever goal for Villa.
A cheeky player enjoying life
But that typified Yorke. A cheeky player who loved life on the pitch and showed it with a constant smile. And despite enjoying the fruits of his success off the pitch also (again, read his book), Yorke managed to live a playboy lifestyle without completely destroying his career. Yes, there was a decline after his time at Old Trafford, and a stint in the Australian A-League isn’t much to write home about. But he still managed to hang up his boots at the age of 37 whilst still a Premier League player with Sunderland. His numerous club honours speak for themselves. Being able to captain his beloved Trinidad and Tobago in the 2006 World Cup at the age of 34 is also one of his greatest achievements.
For one reason or another, his reputation amongst Villa fans isn’t as holy as it should be, considering he scored 97 goals in 284 games for the club. That’s a shame. But there is no denying that Dwight Yorke was one of our greatest players, certainly in the modern era.
And remember – ‘if he can score from there, he’ll score from anywhere, it’s up to you, Dwight Yorke, Dwight Yorke – da da da da da da da da da da da da!