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Aug 27, 2013

Whatever happened to...Tony Yeboah

Long before Robin van Persie's title-crowning strike against Aston Villa or Paolo Di Canio's gravity defying scissor-kick for West Ham, there was one volleyed goal that football players of professional and amateur backgrounds desperately sought to simulate. 'The Yeboah' was the holy grail for a generation of schoolkids and Sunday league players alike. The man behind the goal played just 42 Premier League games but his legend lived on long after he departed English football. Anthony 'Tony' Yeboah moved to Leeds United from Eintracht Frankfurt in January 1995 but, despite showing glimmers of his scoring prowess in his first season, it was in the early throes of the 1995-96 season that he leapt into the limelight. Playing against Liverpool, the club he supported growing up in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi, Yeboah cemented his already growing cult hero status at Elland Road with a truly explosive effort. A goal of real beauty, though not in the tiki-taka sense, it was technique and raw power bundled into a ferocious package. From Rod Wallace's headed knockdown, Yeboah unleashed a shot that flew past David James, thundered against the crossbar and over the line, before springing back up into the roof of the net. A month later he would claim a second spectacular strike as he danced through Wimbledon's defence on his way to a match-winning hat-trick, but for Yeboah there was one goal that stood out as his greatest in English football. "I have so many happy memories of playing in the Premier League, but the goal against Liverpool immediately springs to mind," Yeboah tells ESPN. "Before the game, we were discussing the possibility of beating Liverpool as Leeds had only won twice at home against them in 22 years. The game was extra special for me because I was a fan of Liverpool when I was growing up in Ghana and was very excited about the prospect of playing against people like John Barnes and Ian Rush, who I had used to watch on the television. "I wanted to show something to Liverpool, to show something to our fans. To go out and score against Liverpool was fantastic, but for it to be a winning goal, that goal. Wow. That it was a goal of that quality was something very special. You could see from the celebration how much it meant to me. The one against Wimbledon was also good but it was a game we won easily. I scored a hat-trick and it was 4-2. The one against Liverpool, in contrast, meant a great deal. It was the goal of the year, the goal of my life. I can still watch it every day and not get tired." An iconic Premier League goal was not to be enough to secure Yeboah's long-term future in the division, however, as a change of manager at Leeds United -- George Graham replaced Howard Wilkinson in September 1996 -- brought discord. Graham and Yeboah's relationship was a train wreck and the striker, who had been top scorer in the Bundesliga just three years earlier, found himself benched and unable to convince the Scot of his worth. "Sometimes when a new coach comes in, he likes to put his own stamp on the team, but George Graham did not do it the right way," Yeboah recalls. "He came in and told me I wasn't good enough but he was wrong. In Germany I scored a lot of goals, no defender could mark me. Yes, it was hard in the Premier League but I hadn't just suddenly become a bad player. I'm an emotional person and I wanted that commitment from the club and from my manager. I didn't get that with George Graham. "He painted this picture of me causing trouble but he showed me no respect. It was a very painful time and when Hamburg phoned me and asked if I would go back to the Bundesliga, I had to take the chance. My time in Leeds was up. I loved playing in the Premier League but to be honest it was not the greatest time of my career in terms of my form. At Frankfurt I became the first [and still only] African player to be the Bundesliga's top scorer. I did it two years in a row too." Yeboah spent four years at Hamburg -- though never rediscovered the midas scoring touch of his first spell in Germany -- before ending his career in the Middle East with Qatari club Al-Ittihad. Yeboah's life since retirement has been spent back in Ghana, a fact he is particularly proud of. With the riches afforded to players in the west, few African footballers opt to permanently return to their native countries, with Yeboah's decision to go back -- coupled with his status as the first Ghanaian to dazzle in the Premier League -- making him a revered figure in his country. The world of business beckoned for Yeboah and after retiring he added the roles of sports agent, hotelier and football club chairman to his CV. Bearing his most apt of nicknames, one can spend £77 a night to stay in a 'Yegoala' hotel in Accra or Kumasi, while Kumasi also plays host to Yegoala FC, a Ghanaian second division club bankrolled and run by Yeboah. "My career as a player has really helped me in life after football," Yeboah explains. "In Ghana, many people respect me and appreciate that when I finished playing football I returned to my country to set up business and continue my life. There isn't always that support or solidity. A lot of Ghanaian players will stay overseas but I love my country and wanted to try to help the economy and give something to my nation. "I set up hotels as I wanted to provide employment opportunities. It makes things easier when it's 'Tony Yeboah's hotel' -- people like to come and visit and I speak to them, show some pictures, share my memories. It's fun. I have had many guests stay in my hotel who are Leeds United fans over from England. They will say 'do you remember this goal?' or 'do you remember this game?' There are no special discounts for Leeds fans though I'm afraid!

It was the goal of the year, the goal of my life. I can still watch it every day and not get tired.

-- Tony Yeboah on that goal against Liverpool.
"Yegoala FC was a more natural step and I love that I can still be involved in football too. We try to focus on finding talented young players and giving them a chance. Sometimes I think about dusting off my boots, I'd like to do that but I think the players would laugh! It's great to be able to advise young players on the way they play or their career decisions. I play golf too, that's my No. 1 sport now -- I'm a 10 handicap. "To be honest, I don't miss playing football as much as I thought I would when I was still a player. I was fortunate to have a great career and achieved a lot of things. I knew one day I'd have to stop playing football. You miss the day-to-day stuff a little, seeing your friends and team-mates every day, the fans who support you. You can't forget it. All good things come to an end though." Fortunately for football lovers the world over, there is no finality to the enjoyment of Yeboah's goals -- thanks the power of YouTube a new generations can become acquainted with his wonder strikes. And if you ever want to reminisce with the man himself, you know where to stay in Ghana.

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