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Oct 16, 2009

Dwight Yorke: Smiling Assassin

In a Premier League full of seriously high stakes and grave financial ramifications for failure, it is easy to forget that football is just a game. And no player better embraced that philosophy - enjoying making a living playing the sport you love - than Dwight Yorke. For 15 Premier League seasons, the striker charmed English fans with his smiling demeanour and impressed them with his finishing prowess.

The Soca Warrior is the ninth highest scorer in Premier League history with 123 top flight strikes to his name. But Yorke was not just a prolific finisher, with his goal stats failing to reflect his all-round contribution as a serial provider. An outstanding first touch and excellent vision meant that Yorke's team-mates were regularly left grinning as widely as him after benefiting from another of his assists.

The roots of Yorke's jovial approach to playing the game can be found in his humble beginnings in Tobago. Born in a small town in the south-west of the Caribbean island, his mother was a cleaner and his father a bin man. As a boy, Yorke perfected his skills playing with oranges and breadfruits on the beach, blissfully unaware that he would one day become a sporting hero in his nation.

Graham Taylor brought Yorke to English shores when he signed him for Aston Villa in 1989, after being impressed by the Tobago player's abilities in Villa's pre-season tour of the West Indies. Originally operating on the right wing, Yorke impressed with his close control and skill with the ball at his feet. Yorke was eventually moved to play striker and he formed a potent partnership with Savo Milosevic that helped Villa win the 1996 League Cup, with both players netting in a 3-0 win over Leeds United.

Yorke was becoming a prolific goalscorer and he bagged 46 goals across the 1995-96, 96-97 and 97-98 seasons, including a memorable hat-trick against Newcastle and an audacious chipped penalty that beat David Seaman and sealed a 1-0 victory over Arsenal.

After nine years at Villa Park, Yorke revealed his desire to move to pastures new, though he was rebuffed by then Villa manager John Gregory who famously stated: "If I'd had a gun, I would have shot him," after receiving the transfer request.

Yorke attracted a number of suitors but was snapped up by long-term admirer Sir Alex Ferguson for a then Manchester United club record of £12.6 million. After a summer in which United had been linked with the likes of Marcelo Salas, Gabriel Batistuta and Patrick Kluivert, many eyebrows were raised over the signing; with fans and pundits alike questioning the expensive purchase of a striker who was not in the same 'world class' bracket as the other reported targets.

But Yorke was to prove the doubters wrong in what was undoubtedly his annus mirabilis.

He netted two on his home debut against Charlton Athletic to ignite an explosion of goals in a prolific season that yielded 29 strikes in all competitions. Yorke particularly thrived in the Champions League, scoring in six of United's eleven games, including goals against European heavyweights Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Juventus. Despite being 5ft 9in tall Yorke proved sensational in the air, with many of his goals coming from David Beckham's right-wing crosses including two against Inter Milan in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Yorke forged a special bond with fellow striker Andy Cole; great friends away from football, they had a superb understanding on the pitch and time after time the Yorke-Cole axis paid dividends for United.

The prolific partnership was best exemplified by a wonderful goal against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in November 1998. Roy Keane fed the ball to Yorke, who ten yards away from the penalty box dummied the ball, letting it run to Cole. As Yorke continued his run, Cole played a delightful one-two with him, before cooly finishing to the delight of the United away support.

After the treble success, United won the league again in 00/01, with Yorke netting another 23 goals. But his career had reached its pinnacle and he was to be the architect of his own downfall.

Cole was sold to make way for new signing Ruud van Nistelrooy but instead of taking Ferguson's decision to offload his friend, rather than him, as a vote of confidence, Yorke cut a frustrated figure and increasingly began to find himself in the papers. He had a series of high profile romances, including a relationship with English glamour model Jordan that ended in the striker denying he was the father of her child's baby (he was). His playboy lifestyle had begun to catch up with him and Ferguson had had enough of his unruly forward.

Few things in life are inevitable, but one football certainty is that if you fall out with Sir Alex, your days at Old Trafford are numbered. Just ask Paul Ince, David Beckham, Jaap Stam and Van Nistelrooy - all have felt the brunt of Ferguson's convictions.

Yorke netted an impressive 21-and-a-half minute hat-trick in a 6-1 thrashing of Arsenal that helped United towards a third successive title but the United boss had already made up his mind. In truth he could have promised to cook Sir Alex haggis, neeps and tatties for the rest of his life, but he had riled Ferguson, and there was no way back.

Yorke was sold to Blackburn where he struggled to re-create the form that he enjoyed at United, even when paired with comrade Cole. He angered another Scottish manager in Graeme Souness and the pair had a training ground bust-up over some robust tackles in a five-a-side game, leading to another move, back to the Midlands.

He moved on to Birmingham, again with little success, and it appeared Yorke's career was drawing to a disappointing end as he bowed out of English football to head to the A-League with Sydney FC. But the move rejuvenated Yorke, who produced a series of eye-catching displays, netting 7 goals in 21 games including another cheekily-chipped penalty against Adelaide.

The new Sunderland manager Roy Keane was watching him closely and Yorke's former captain at United convinced him to return to England with his struggling Championship side. The striker (and sometimes midfielder) helped spearhead the Wearsiders push back into the Premier League, where Yorke would play for two more seasons at the top level before hanging up his boots.

The Trinidad and Tobago national team was always placed as a top priority by Yorke and he became a sporting great and ambassador for football in his homeland, netting 19 goals in 72 appearances for his country. His proudest moment came when he led the team out with pride for their first ever World Cup finals appearance in Germany in 2006, captaining the side through every minute of their three group games before exiting the competition.

Yorke officially retired from professional football in September 2009, taking up a position as assistant manager of Trinidad and Tobago, and was characteristically humble when he reflected on his football achievements.

"I'll always count myself lucky," he said. "I was a boy on a beach from a little Caribbean island that got the chance to fulfil his dream of winning trophies at the highest level and captaining his country in their first ever World Cup finals. I hope people will say that I played the game in the right way with a smile on my face."

Even after drawing his career to a close, he has continued to steal the headlines after releasing a second autobiography which criticised the management style of former captain and manager Keane, and accused Sir Alex Ferguson of forcing him out of Old Trafford and into booze-fuelled depression.

Despite the controversy, the squandered money and the playboy lifestyle, Yorke will be fondly remembered by football fans for the goals he scored, his unwavering dedication to improving the football profile of his country and most importantly, playing the game in the right spirit - with a smile upon his face.

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