My first question has Dwight Yorke in stitches. Beside him, the Manchester United representative sent to monitor the interview is also laughing. “You are kidding,” says Yorke after catching his breath. “Did Andy really say that?”
I nod and show him my notes where Andy Cole’s statement from the offending interview is printed verbatim. The former England striker had likened his partnership with the Trinidad and Tobago star as “…meeting a special woman and falling in love. Everything felt right.” I ask him if he agrees.
Yorke proceeds to laugh some more. “Can you believe it?” he asks turning to his rep whose laughs have now descended into a wide ear-to-ear grin. The rep shrugs his shoulder, seemingly unsure of whether he should have an opinion, and Yorke finally turns back to me. “Alright, alright!” he says, holding his hands up slightly defensively. “I agree, but on one condition only – Andy has to be the woman in that relationship.” At that the entire entourage bursts out laughing.
It’s a good start to the interview. Yorke has been known the world over as the Smiling Assassin predictably due to the Cheshire cat grin he wears both on and off the field. It is also that smile that has endeared him to a generation of youths and most Manchester United supporters. That and the small fact that he has also won a treble, the unique combination of the English Premier League title, the FA cup and the Champions League.
In these days of Catalan dominance, that might seem like a mundane statistic but the world was a quite different and more equitable place in 1999; for the sake of perspective, David Beckham, for one, was a social pariah, abused in every ground in England and an 11 year old Lionel Messi had just been diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency that looked set to curtail his promising football career.
Yorke had just made the move from Aston Villa to Manchester United, but it had come about in slightly acrimonious circumstances, to say the least. The Villa manager at that time, John Gregory, was so upset at the sale of his prized asset that he famously said he would have ‘shot Dwight Yorke if he could.’
Hardly the right preparation when you come in to play for one of the most popular clubs in the world, but for Yorke reputations never held much currency. “I was lucky that I was a bit of a free-spirit and not very aware of the history of Manchester United when I came in to join them. For me, it was always about going out to play in a football game, no matter who the club. I told myself, I have done this a hundred times, no problem.” This is perhaps as good an explanation as any as to why Yorke embedded himself so well into his surroundings in his debut season and then went on to achieve so much more. The other was of course the great players he had around him. “… [David]Beckham, [Paul] Scholes, [Roy] Keane, [Ryan] Giggs – this was just a phenomenal group to play with and then we had players like [Teddy] Sheringham and Ole-Gunnar [Solskjaer]…amazing really.”
But for Yorke there was always Cole. Like Laurel and Hardy, like yin and yang -- only complementary not conflicting. “I think part of the reason we played together so well is because of how well we got along,” recalls Yorke with a cheeky grin. “I came in and originally I was supposed to be replacing him but he still went out of his way to make me feel welcome and show me around. He invited me into his home and helped to embed me into the club. And we did not even play together for the first five or so games,” says Yorke. But when they did it was magic.
A telepathic understanding saw both capitalize incessantly on the chances served up by their wonderfully talented midfield where Giggs and Beckham patrolled the wings, Scholes provided the creativity and Keane strode up and down like a titan. The striking duo had a number of memorable games, but the pinnacle of Yorke-Cole was undoubtedly a 3-3 draw at the Camp Nou against Barcelona in a game of such heightened quality that it should be required viewing for every football fan. “That day…”says Yorke pausing for emphasis, “…that day was brilliant and me and Andy were pulling things out that even the both of us did not properly understand.” Neither it seemed did the rest of the league or even the giants in Europe who bowed down time and again to the twin master-class served up by the dynamic duo.
In this age of 4231’s , two striker formations are almost dead but Yorke feels that clubs should still try and replicate the success they have had, as long as it works. “Too much is made out of formations, I feel. I think it is about using the players at your disposal to the best of your ability. If that means two strikers, then so be it,” says Yorke who still harbours managerial ambitions.
For the coup de grace of that incredible season, United again went back to the Camp Nou in Barcelona to play in what would become one of the most famous European finals of all time; if not the most famous. Looking dead and buried against German cracks Bayern Munich, the Red Devils snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with two late goals from perennial substitutes Sheringham and Solsjkaer. So highway robbery? Yorke shakes his head. He is still smiling. “Not a bit. That season we always had the belief that we could win games no matter what stakes we were up against. Everyone was playing at an incredibly high level. A big part of that is that we always knew that if we did not keep our performance up, there were top notch replacements waiting to take our place.” So just how many times has he been back to see that epic final? “Not once,” says Yorke. “I still see clips from time to time, but that is about it. I haven’t gone back to watch that match ever.”
When you win a treble in your first season, it really is hard to live up to anything ever again. Tennis player John McEnroe once said that being on top was the loneliest feeling in the world. Yorke nods his head. “But that’s sport, the fickle nature of it. One day you are a hero and the next you aren’t. I only scored a couple of goals less in my second season than in my first and suddenly I wasn’t good enough anymore,” he recalls.
You can see that there are no hard feelings with Yorke even though his later years at the Theatre of Dreams were compounded with frequently wild antics. Was it true that Ferguson even famously asked him to get married to curb his habits? Yorke is laughing again. “I got to be careful with that question.” He continues however, “well the manager has strong family values and he likes his players to get settled and live a very settled life. But I am not really like that, I am very happy go lucky and at that phase I was having a lot of fun. “But now that I am older, I can see where he is coming from,” admits Yorke with a sheepish grin.
And speaking of free spirits, you cannot conduct an interview with Yorke and not ask about Brian Lara, a man he grew up with in Trinidad and who went on to become one of the most famous cricket players in history. So could Lara have cut it as a footballer? “He was talented yeah, but in hindsight, I think we can say he chose the right career no?” asks Yorke and the grin is back on his face.
Yorke’s example is one that many from Bangladesh can follow. How does a young footballer from Trinidad & Tobago find himself playing for one of the most famous football club in the world and in one of the most famous games of all time? “That answer is short,” says Yorke, “…pure determination.” Truer words were never spoken.