The following article, based on an interview between ex-England and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor and journalist Lasana Liburd, was first published in Trinidad Express on 6 May 2004:
“Let me tell you something that will always stay with me,” said former England and Aston Villa manager Graham Taylor. “I had just switched on the television at home and was getting to ready to watch Manchester United play Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League final when the phone rang. When I picked it up, it was Dwight [Yorke].
“He was just leaving his hotel in Barcelona to go the stadium and he said ‘I am just phoning to thank you for what you did for my career’. I was so stunned that I immediately went and told me wife what happened.
“It brought a tear to my eye.”
Taylor, one of Britain’s most respected managers, has coached many top footballers including former English standouts like John Barnes, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker but none more memorable than Trinidad and Tobago star Dwight Yorke.
The player who he chanced across on a pre-season tour in Tobago and offered the opportunity to become one of the sport’s biggest names.
It seems a lifetime ago. Fifteen years to be precise.
But Taylor, who must have signed hundreds of promising players in a managerial career spanning nearly three decades, recalled his time with the player with remarkable clarity.
They met in the summer of 1989 and Yorke was an Aston Villa player before Christmas.
Their professional relationship ended two years later when Taylor replaced Bobby Robson as the English national coach. But the affable gentleman was clearly still smitten by Tobago’s ‘Smiling Assassin’.
At present, Taylor works as a television correspondent and this journalist ran into him at a Premiership fixture. It took only the words ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ and an authentic accent to convince him to grant an interview.
Some of his recollections are already well known and practically folklore in the Caribbean.
He trivialised his role in discovering the 17-year-old striker, who he first saw in a friendly contest against a Tobago XI at Shaw Park during a pre-season Caribbean tour by his Aston Villa club.
Yorke, he explained, was just too good to miss.
“You didn’t need to be an expert to recognise the qualities he had,” said Taylor. “I wanted him on my team for the second half. I wanted the other Villa players to be able to give me a first hand report on what they thought of him but [the Tobago XI] said no.
“I understood that if he scored against Tobago then, when we left, he would still have to live there and it might have been difficult for him to live down…”
Without any prompting, Taylor also remembered the second Tobagonian he invited to Birmingham for closer inspection at Villa Park.
“Colvin, I think his name was,” said Taylor, “yes, it was touch and go with Colvin. I felt he was a good player but he was 22 or 23 whereas Dwight was 16.”
(In fact, Dwight was a year older than he recalled while Colvin Hutchinson—Yorke’s teammate at Signal Hill Senior Comprehensive and on the national team—was probably a year younger.)
“I felt that, at 16, Yorke had more time to grow into the British culture,” he said. “But if we signed Colvin at 22 or 23, we would not have been able to wait two or three years for him to be in the first team as we could with Dwight. So, I had to measure him up to the midfielders we had at the time.
“I also had to weigh in the fact that the midfield position is a very demanding one and he would be playing in a league and against players much tougher than anything he could have experienced in the Caribbean.
“I also felt that he did not have that little bit extra that Dwight did.”
There was a wry smile on his face when he mentioned the price of £10,000 that Villa paid for Yorke.
It was a steal and everyone at Villa Park knew it.
Taylor suggested that such a deal could not be done now but he also felt the growing awareness of Caribbean clubs is a double-edged sword.
“Clubs cannot come and steal Caribbean players,” he said, “because there is much more awareness of the worth of players now… But, at the same time, clubs are unwilling to risk too much money on players who must still adjust to the professional circuit and a new lifestyle.
“When Dwight came here, he had never seen snow before. It is a tremendous move to go from one culture to a next at any age; whether it is 16 or 29 or 59.”
Taylor had worked with two players of Caribbean heritage before Yorke. He coached the Jamaican-born Barnes and speedy striker Luther Blissett at Watford.
Barnes moved on to stardom at Liverpool while Blissett enjoyed a stint at AC Milan.
Taylor suggested that they shared natural pace, agility, and a ‘good touch and feel for the ball’ as well as the ability to excite people.
But he explained players need special help in settling into a new environment and insisted that a Trinidad and Tobago player should never sign for a club unless he was convinced there were people within the organisation to help him adjust.
The bane of Caribbean players was on the tip of his tongue.
“You just cannot be as carefree in attitude over here,” he said, with a pained expression. “Things like punctuality are very important to people here. It means an awful lot.
“If you are told to be somewhere at 10 and you report at 10.05 or 10.15, that does not go down very well with some people at all.
“People here do not understand that the player is coming from a different world and needs to be helped to adjust.”
The scowl left his face as the conversation swung back to Yorke.
Did Yorke recreate himself as a player from a dazzling dribbler to a clinical finisher? The Soca Warriors star was initially used on the right wing at Villa but was converted into one of the Premiership’s deadliest centre-forwards.
(Yorke’s 123 Premier League goals was a record for a non-European player until Argentina and Manchester City star, Sergio Aguero, caught up with him in 2017.)
“The Yorke that I first took was a dribbler who would go at people,” said Taylor, “but as he progressed he learnt things and added things. I only had an early part in Dwight’s career but I always felt he could do whatever he wanted [in the game].
“He was always a team player but I felt that he needed to show people that he could be a star. At one point, it seemed that he was happier to be a provider than a scorer and you have to ask yourself ‘is it because he is taking himself out of the heat of the battle or he is just doing the right thing to assist his team’?
“It was about getting the right balance.”
His successful spell at Manchester United—where Yorke won League, FA and European Champions’ League titles—showed the result of the player’s maturity.
Taylor revealed that Yorke phoned him before his record £12.6 million move as well.
“When I left Villa, I gave Dwight my phone number and told him to call me whenever he had a problem,” he said. “We kept in contact on a regular basis too. One day, he called me and said that he heard through his agent that Manchester United wanted him and that Aston Villa were offering him a massive contract.
“I told him ‘Dwight, I said to call me when you have a problem; that is not a problem’.”
Taylor advised Yorke to go to United just as he left Villa when the opportunity to manage England came along.
“I know some people at Aston Villa may be mad at me for saying this,” he said, “but my advice was to go to Manchester. With all due respect to Trinidad football, I felt it was unlikely that he could perform at the highest level, which is the World Cup.
“So the next thing was European Championship football.”
Yorke’s success at Old Trafford is history—in more ways than one.
Celebrated on the field, Yorke was eventually hounded out after a string of media exposes into his private life. His move to Blackburn Rovers, two years ago, failed to re-ignite his career and a training ground bust up with manager Graeme Souness has seen the striker frozen out at Ewood Park.
Taylor does not know whether the 32-year-old striker is still capable of leading the forward line as he did at United and suggested that Yorke may be more successful now as ‘a link up player’.
However, he suggested that Yorke does not respond well to bullying managers.
“Dwight is not a person who you will get the best from if he is constantly criticised,” said Taylor. “He needs the manager’s belief to do his job. Now, he has not helped himself with some of the things [in his personal life] that he apparently did. I think he does take an awful lot of baggage with him.
“At the same time, I do not think his life as a single man is any worse than what a lot of other players do.”
He is sceptical of possible moves to Qatar or the United States Major League Soccer (MLS), which he considered to be just ‘pay offs’.
“If you are not happy at what you are doing,” he said, “you will never do your best… He needs this explained to him.”
It has been sometime since their last conversation. But Taylor explained that he was always ready to help his former signing with words of advice.
Nothing he reads or hears can tarnish his memories of Yorke and particularly that phone call before the biggest game of his career.
“Most people don’t know that side of Dwight,” said Taylor, “but that is why I always find it hard to criticise Dwight.
“That is why I will always be a Dwight Yorke fan.”
Editor’s Note: Graham Taylor OBE passed away on 12 January 2017, at the age of 72.
Dwight Yorke went on to play professional for another five years, which included England Premier League spells with Birmingham City and Sunderland City. He captained Trinidad and Tobago at the Germany 2006 World Cup. At present, he works as an analyst for SkySports, while he says racism has so far denied him the chance to become a football manager.