The Cult: Tony Yeboah
When he wagged his finger towards the crowd, more often than not Tony Yeboah had scored a screamer. He became an icon at Leeds United, and so he earns a place in The Cult.
This week's inductee to The Cult is a man who became known for his wagging finger, belting goals and profound love of tasty Yorkshire snacks. You can read our previous entries here.
Cult Grade: Yorkshire Pudding
In the modern world of sports science, nutritional awareness and fluorescent isotonic sports drinks, it's hard to imagine a professional player putting his success down to the restorative strength of Yorkshire puddings. Consisting of, well, fuck knows what, the nation's favourite carbohydrate snack is hardly the epitome of clean nourishment and health. With its crusty, indeterminate batter surface, its squishy bottom and customary accompaniment of gravy, roasties and other delicious beige-brown stodge, the Yorkshire pudding is a good, honest, unassuming food, more likely to inspire a generous tyre of belly fat than athletic prowess and sporting accolades. That wasn't the case for Tony Yeboah, however. In fact, the Ghanaian striker credited the humble Yorkshire pudding with inspiring him to the most incredible of goalscoring feats.
In many ways, Yeboah and the modest Yorkshire pudding have much in common. Both are unpretentious, both are widely beloved and, in the mid nineties, both were indispensable sources of sustenance to the people of Leeds. Yeboah arrived at Elland Road in 1995, and joined a side that – despite having won the league only three seasons previous – were Premier League also-rans, and short on the crucial commodity of goals. He had no problems rustling up a piping hot bundle of them almost immediately and, by the time he left the club just over two years later, he had scored 32 in all competitions and hit some absolute screamers along the way.
While he has become a staple of classic Premier League highlights reels on account of his penchant for a long-range thunderbolt, Yeboah could score them any way he liked. Much like the versatile Yorkshire pudding, he could complement his general brilliance with a whole host of other ingredients, from poacher's goals to off-the-shoulder dashes, looping headers to cool finishes one-on-one. Just like the exquisite Yorkshire pudding, he was the tastiest component of a very British line up, founded on the meat-and-potatoes skills of Tony Dorigo, Carlton Palmer and Brian Deane, then topped off with the rather more luxuriant talents of Gary McAllister and a young Gary Speed. While his teammates formed the main basis of the Leeds United recipe, Yeboah was the pièce de résistance. Leeds fans took him to their hearts accordingly, and so he became as popular in West Yorkshire as the battered snacks he so often professed to love.
With Yorkshire puddings acting as the fuel to his engine, Yeboah changed the footballing landscape in Leeds. On the pitch, he transformed them into one of the most exciting teams in the country, while his goals ensured them a place in the 1995/96 edition of the UEFA Cup. Despite the fact that little was expected of Leeds in the competition, he gave them one of their greatest European nights of the nineties when he scored an unanswered hat-trick against Monaco in the first leg of the opening round. Though Howard Wilkinson's men would fall at the second hurdle and go out to PSV Eindhoven, it's a performance which has lived long in the memory, just like so many of Yeboah's tireless endeavours.
In the meantime, Yeboah was making an inadvertent mark off the pitch, too. As his standing amongst Leeds fans grew, people started defacing adverts for the Yorkshire Electricity Board (YEB) around the city, adding 'OAH' wherever they felt it was called for. This was fitting, given the electric pace and power that Yeboah could bring to a game, but also a sign that Yeboah had been taken in as one of Leeds' own. For a fanbase that could be notoriously hostile, that was no mean feat, especially not for a black Ghanaian who, had he arrived at the club a decade earlier, would have found himself playing at a ground with a visible National Front presence and a particular reputation for racial abuse.
While times were much changed by the time Yeboah was banging them in for Leeds, his success at the club can have done no harm for changing attitudes amongst the support. He made a profound impression on Leeds' cultural consciousness, and is a reference point for anyone who grew up there in the nineties, or had the good fortune to see him play. What's more, he did all this in a triflingly short space of time, which is perhaps the only regret of his happy association with the club. In the end, niggling injuries took their toll. Perhaps that diet of Yorkshire puds wasn't so harmless, after all.
In much the same manner as his greatest goals, Yeboah was something of a bolt from the blue. He turned up at Elland Road an artless, unaffected yet spectacular footballer, and he left much the same, bar his immortal cult hero status and the fact that he was no longer a relative unknown. He came, he scored, he conquered, leaving an indelible legacy at Leeds United and securing his place as a Premier League icon. Then, just like that, he was gone, like the last Yorkshire pudding of a truly crisp and wonderful batch.
Entry Point: From Ghana To Germany
While English fans think of Yeboah as one of the most memorable players of the nineties, so too do their German counterparts, especially those of Eintracht Frankfurt. To this day, supporters of a certain age wear T-shirts emblazoned with the words Zeugen Yeboahs, which translates to 'Yeboah's Witnesses'. He scored well over 100 goals for the Hessian club between 1990 and 1995, perfecting the art of his trademark volleys and belting strikes out of what seemed like nowhere. He was beloved of Frankfurt long before he was beloved of Leeds. It wasn't always that way, however.
Having secured a transfer from Ghanaian side Okwahu United in the late eighties, Yeboah joined FC Saarbrücken, becoming one of the first African players to grace German football. Initially, German football was fairly hostile; in much the same way as it was in England, racism was still rife on the terraces and in the stands. When he moved to Frankfurt at the turn of the decade, he was subjected to boos from his own fans and monkey chants from opposition supporters. He soon set about shaming his critics, which was perhaps the motivation for the finger wagging celebration which accompanied almost every goal.
Not only did Yeboah tear through the Bundesliga, he also tried to tear down the barriers between black footballers and white German fans. He was the first black player to captain a Bundesliga side, and used his influence to send a message when he authored an open letter condemning racism in German football alongside SG Wattenscheid's Souleyman Sané and Fortuna Dusseldorf's Anthony Baffoe. Speaking to a Ghanaian outlet in 2011, Baffoe credited that letter with a sea change in attitudes amongst German supporters, and a general change for the better in terms of overt racism and discrimination on matchday. It's for that reason, as well as his thumping goals, that many in Germany credit Yeboah with helping to bring the era of eighties bigotry to a close.
While he is a cultural icon in Yorkshire, then, Yeboah is equally revered in the Rhineland. His face is still used to promote anti-racism campaigns, while his name features prominently in the records of the club where he was once roundly booed and abused. While the Premier League had cleaned up its act somewhat by the time he secured his move to England, the effect Yeboah had on his fans there seems broadly comparable. While he finished his career with a close affinity to Germany and a profound love of Yorkshire puddings, so too did he bring a bit of Ghana to both Frankfurt and Leeds, and find a loving home for it there.
The Moment: Leeds vs. Liverpool, August 1995
So to the fiercest debate of Yeboah's career, and one which rages amongst fans to this day. Which of his goals was truly the greatest, his off-the-bar volley against Liverpool or his five-touch wonder against Wimbledon not long afterwards? On this, we must defer to the great man himself, and go with the magnificence of the former. Having supported Liverpool as a young man, he has always claimed that his looping shot past David James was his favourite goal of his time in England. There's certainly no faulting the aesthetics of it, and there are few who don't get goosebumps watching him catch the tumbling ball and send it hurtling off the frame of the goal and into the back of the net.
While Yeboah felt an emotional connection to the Liverpool goal, there's a reason it has become so ingrained in the psyche of English football as a whole. It was scored on a Monday evening and, with the game on Sky Sports, a whole nation of fans was watching. That's another reason that Yeboah cites it as his favourite, in that so many supporters were able to experience it. Much like his spirit animal, the sumptuous Yorkshire pudding, his purpose on this earth was to give the people something on which they could be forever sustained.
That said, a word for Yeboah's second favourite goal, scored just over a month after the first. While his chance against Liverpool fell like manna from the heavens, leaving him to strike with balletic grace, the opportunity he got against Wimbledon was entirely born of his own hard work. With a bout of head tennis breaking out in the midfield, Yeboah went for the ball, chested it down and made it bounce and bobble like a pinging pinball. Somehow, despite all that, it stuck to his foot, allowing him to twat it it in off the crossbar once more.
"I had no idea what they were, but I loved them. I used to say that it was the Yorkshire puddings that gave me the strength to score goals."
– Tony Yeboah, speaking to the Yorkshire Evening Post last year.