Imagine, if you will, the greatest game of Heads and Volleys never played. Mark Hughes. Marco van Basten. Anthony Yeboah.
“I’d never actually seen him play but I watched him a lot on Eurosport,” Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson said in 1995, twenty years before heads of recruitment started to secretly run the Premier League. “I remember thinking ‘Christ, what a player!’”
Tony Yeboah arrived at Elland Road from Eintracht Frankfurt – later claiming to have turned down Bayern Munich in the process – halfway through the 1994/95 season as a 29-year-old unknown quantity.
120 goals in seven seasons in Germany, though, meant Wilkinson’s £3.4m outlay was hardly a cable-TV impulse purchase.
Despite starting in ideal fashion – a debut strike against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in February – and immediately settling into a goalscoring groove, none of Yeboah’s 13 scuffed, scrambled and slotted goals gave much of a hint of the impact he would make the following season.
Nonetheless, he still ended up as Leeds’ top scorer in all competitions, they lost only twice in the league after his arrival and eventually pipped Newcastle to a UEFA Cup place.
But a new gear would be located at some point that summer. Within eight games of the 1995/96 season, Yeboah had scored not one, not two, not even three, but four Goal of the Month candidates.
It would take 18 years and another force of nature in Gareth Bale before anyone managed to repeat the feat of claiming the BBC’s monthly award twice in a row.
His first eye-catching effort on the opening day of the season suggested that his newly-discovered passion for Yorkshire pudding wasn’t doing him much harm, as he battered an Upton Park goalnet into submission:
That piece of bouncing-ball brutality, though, never stood a chance of going down in Premier League folklore.
Just two days later, with the Monday Night Football cameras present at Elland Road for the visit of Liverpool, Yeboah finally announced himself.
Goal of the Month rival Stan Collymore had already limped off for the visitors before the 51st minute witnessed something extraordinary.
As is often the case in wondergoals for the ages, it relied first on some fortunate precursors: Tony Dorigo hoofing it forward, in that partly-deliberate-but-mainly-hopeful way that English full-backs of the 1990s dearly loved, and legendary target man Rod Wallace (all 5ft 7in of him) getting on the end of it with a tidy knock-back.
At this point in 2016 – having watched this goal approximately 1,000,004 times – you find it stripped of any suspense.
Yeboah pre-emptively steps back in anticipation of the ball coming to him, an act (in glorious retrospect) as crucial as all that comes before or after it.
Should anyone wish to literally produce “a great advert for the Premier League”, this would be its centrepiece. Van Basten’s looping impossibility for Holland at Euro ‘88 was one thing, but this was the moment that the art of the telegenic volley was nailed.
The combination of Wallace’s header and Yeboah’s spatial awareness meant that the ball couldn’t have fallen better for the no.21 (absolute 9/10 kit that year, Leeds, by the way) if he’d thrown it into the air from his very own hands.
Even then, four perfectly calculated sidesteps are required before Yeboah’s left foot (ridiculously, his “stronger” one) plants itself in the turf and the volley is well and truly on.
Guy Hodgson’s words in the Independent’s match report just about do the next second or two justice: “Yeboah, showing no compromise to a range of 25 yards, thumped a right-foot volley that hurtled through the sultry air and crashed past David James with awesome ferocity.”
James, apparently with a straight face, has given his version of events. “I hate that goal. At the time, I spent quite a few weeks afterwards moaning about the fact that I should have saved it.”
David James could not have saved it. David James, even with all the late-night Playstation sessions and happy-hardcore Adidas goalkeeper tops in the world, was not going to deny midweek lunchtime episodes of Premier League Years the very reason for their existence.
Yeboah – a childhood Liverpool fan – only managed to rub it in even more in a recent interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post: “He [James] was stretching and stretching as far as he could. He did everything he could do but the placement was perfect. I don’t think a goalkeeper in the world can save that. I’m not being disrespectful but what would they do? David James couldn’t do anything.”
The audible clunk of ball-going-in-off-crossbar – the finest sound in football by some distance – only adds to the thrill.
There’s even a rarely-shown alternative camera angle – shot from the East Stand, like football’s equivalent of the Zapruder film – for those who grudgingly admit they might be getting a bit tired of the main footage by now:
“If the Ghanaian continues to strike in this extraordinary manner, anything would seem possible”, wrote the Independent the morning after. They would only have to wait a month to test that theory.
The Wimbledon Belter
The afternoon of 23rd September 1995 had already seen some strange things at Selhurst Park: Carlton Palmer curling in a Goal of the Month contender of his own (unlucky, big guy) and, after Wimbledon had later pulled it back to 2-1, Yeboah going straight for goal from the kick-off and missing by centimetres.
Yeboah would score a hat-trick that day – his third for Leeds in barely half a season’s worth of games – but his first was the simplest of tap-ins from two yards to double his side’s lead three minutes before half time, only for Dean Holdsworth to give Wimbledon a lifeline immediately after.
Leeds could and should have seen it through safely to the break, but Yeboah didn’t fancy going into it upstaged by a Carlton Palmer 25-yarder.
If the goal against Liverpool – already pencilled in for Goal of the Season – was all about the perfect swing of his right boot, Yeboah’s next act of obliteration was a more full-body experience.
Kenny Cunningham’s headed clearance falls to Yeboah’s chest, 35 yards from goal. His left knee keeps the ball airborne, 30 yards out now, offering the possibility of a self-made left-foot volley.
Yeboah duly considers that possibility, but instead renders the existence of Wimbledon’s Alan Reeves utterly meaningless with a devastating dummy to bring the ball back inside. 25 yards out, and the ball hits Yeboah’s right knee – maybe by design, maybe not.
By now, midfield Beano caricature Vinnie Jones is on the scene to bring this promising sequence to a premature, and quite possibly illegal, end.
Keep an eye on him, and you might be able to pinpoint the moment that even he decides that a scything challenge would be an act of vandalism upon this unfolding masterpiece.
Once again, the ball has fallen exquisitely for Yeboah. “Oh-hoh, look at that…”, commentates Match of the Day’s already enthralled Barry Davies.
If the head-height Mitre Delta at Elland Road was asking to be hit, this one is positively begging to be taken on the half-volley. It has submitted all the relevant forms, in triplicate, in order to be hit on the bounce.
“OHHHHH LOOK AT THAT!”
Davies gleefully updates us on what it is we should be looking at, as Yeboah fires/rifles/thunders/hammers/powers/slams/rams/belts/blasts/drives/arrows/thumps/lashes/smashes/crashes (*delete as applicable, even though they are all applicable) his shot against the crossbar, down over the line, up against the back of the crossbar and, finally, into the net.
“From some 25 yards,” wrote the Independent’s Stephen Brenkley, “[Yeboah] struck a shot that thundered against the bar and continued into the roof of the net, almost splitting both asunder.”
The ball eventually dribbles back out into the vanquished arms of Paul Heald, whose Wikipedia page literally contains the words “he was the goalkeeper who was unable to stop Tony Yeboah’s thunderbolt in September 1995” at the start of its third paragraph, as if that remains his only contribution to humanity.
Which leads us to a logical, and rather unnecessary conclusion: which goal was better?
Yeboah has nailed his colours to the mast.“Liverpool was the best goal. Why do I think that? Because it was live on television and everyone was watching. It surprised people. Also, I grew up as a Liverpool fan and their team had Rush, Barnes, players I admired.”
“Wimbledon was all about control and if we’re talking technically, that is probably the best goal. But it’s about feeling and emotion as well, no? So it’s Liverpool. That was the one.”
From a purely televisual perspective, though, his Liverpool goal perhaps falls short.
Sky’s Rob Hawthorne leads into it with “Yeboah with the chance….!” which stretches the definition of a goalscoring chance to its limits, Yeboah or not. The BBC’s Clive Tyldesley attempted some sort of beat poetry about body clocks which ended up as simply a jumble of bewildered words.
At Wimbledon, though, Barry Davies’ commentary nailed it.
“That is wonderful! Oooohhhh, that’s twice the goal he scored against Liverpool in my book.”
When you consider Barry Davies’ “book” – which is full of is-Gascoigne-going-to-have-a-crack-he-is-you-knows and you-have-to-say-that’s-magnificents – not even Yeboah himself has much of an argument.
If you had to watch an endlessly looping video of one of the two, you’ll find that Yeboah’s half-volley has a few more layers to enjoy than his pure, unadulterated first-timer out of the Leeds sky.
It’s final, then: the Selhurst wrecking-ball beats the Elland Road arc of triumph. Via the crossbar.
Check out last week’s episode on Juninho here..
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