“Yeboah is the man they’ll be aiming for,” suggested Sky Sports’ commentator Rob Hawthorne, as John Lukic prepared a goal kick from in front of Elland Road’s South Stand, “To produce something for them.”
The clock was showing 50:00. By the time it read 50:18, Hawthorne’s words had changed from an idea to a prophecy, and everything before that moment had changed, and everything that came after that moment was changed.
Tony Yeboah’s powerful dipping volley into Liverpool’s goal cracked the crossbar and it cracked time, dividing history into before and after, reverberating through both, leaving nothing in the stories of Leeds United or Anthony Yeboah untouched by the arc light of that one goal.
A strike from the 1970s by Peter Lorimer no longer looked the same, as now it was compared to the goal that was come. Any goal Yeboah scored from that day forward carried echoes of The Yeboah Volley. His life would never be the same, history would never be the same.
The five minutes before had been mundane. Neither Leeds nor Liverpool showed much initiative at the start of the second half, pushing passes but not much else. Tony Dorigo was booked when the ball got away and he lunged into Jamie Redknapp. Leeds were passing into trouble and Sky’s co-commentator, Trevor Francis, was saying they had to stop trying to play Liverpool’s game and be more direct.
He tried saying, “That’s what I was talking about,” but he knew Yeboah’s goal, direct as it was, was not what he had meant. “That’s unbelievable,” he said, sounding shocked. “That’s the goal of the season.” A little later, he added, “If nothing more happens in this game I shan’t be disappointed, because I can say, I was here.”
The goal was something new in the world. Hawthorne pointed out that, “Liverpool seem as lifted by that Yeboah goal as Leeds are,” and as the crowd were singing ‘We are Leeds’ and ‘We’re Leeds and we’re proud of it’, Redknapp tried his own 35 yard shot that deflected for a corner. Then John Pemberton passed out of defence straight to Redknapp, but with Lukic rushing towards him Steve McManaman fluffed his chance to score, squaring instead to Ian Rush, who was tackled in front of an open goal by Gary Kelly. Robbie Fowler tried a shot from 25 yards, but Lukic dived to his left and made a good full length save with his left hand. Lukic saved another shot from McManaman, who dribbled through the middle and around Gary Speed.
Then Sky cut to more replays of Yeboah’s volley. “I’m surprised you didn’t see the paint cracking on the goal,” said Hawthorne, “From the impact it had on the crossbar.”
Sky had been looking for that impact. Richard Keys introduced the second half by asking, “Is the stage set for Tony Yeboah? These are the sort of matches that Andy Gray says he can win in a flash.” This sort of match was tense by half-time, 0-0, between two teams Keys said were expected to be “vying for the title” after finishing 4th and 5th the season before, Leeds a point behind Liverpool, but sixteen behind champions Blackburn Rovers.
Before half-time the game was being characterised by Liverpool’s possession, repelled outside the penalty area by Pemberton and David Wetherall, with Carlton Palmer pressing high to force them back from midfield. Yeboah had pushed John Barnes over as he tried to make something happen for Leeds, and tried dribbling into the penalty area when he did get the ball, but he was hacked down by Phil Babb.
After Liverpool’s Yeboah-inspired flurry in the second half, Leeds began dominating and Yeboah had more influence. Leeds cleared a corner and Yeboah got the ball deep in his own half, where the crowd cheered him as if expecting him to produce another spectacular moment from there. Later, in Liverpool’s half, he made a turn and a pass to Palmer, who wanted handball for Mark Wright’s block. He charged down a backpass towards David James as the Kop roared him on.
Rod Wallace did a trick on the wing so he could cross to Brian Deane, whose header was saved; Gary Speed shoved referee David Ellery to the ground as he tried to get to the ball; and Phil Babb and Dominic Matteo together had to tackle Gary Kelly to stop his break down the right wing. Tony Dorigo was urged forward by the Leeds bench on the other touchline — “Use your fucking legs, Tommy!” — and when Gary McAllister won a tackle high up the pitch, the passes that followed were hailed with olés from the crowd, even if there were only three of them. McAllister tried a trademark shot from the edge of the penalty area, curving it just inside the post, but David James dived to tip it outside.
Then Lukic punched a Liverpool corner to Yeboah, and everyone knew: he was off. He ran into Liverpool’s half, nutmegging Rob Jones, sending Matteo spinning, and trying to lob David James from 25 yards, delighting the Kop even as they grabbed the ball after it cleared the crossbar. “If that had gone in, I would have backed him to win the lottery on Saturday,” said Francis.
McAllister was United’s best player, and the rest of the team kept taking the ball from him, then giving it straight back; it was safer than giving it to Carlton Palmer, who miscontrolled one pass high up into the East Stand. Prompting down the left in the first half, McAllister burst into the box, trying to collect a one-two from Wallace, but the ball was cleared to Robbie Fowler; in front of the Cheese Wedge, he sent his clearance booming into the sky, high over his penalty area, out for a throw-in near the scoreboard on the other side.
Fowler had come on halfway through the first half to replace Stan Collymore, Liverpool’s new English record signing. Collymore had won his debut match with the only goal against Sheffield Wednesday, but when he ran into Leeds United’s penalty area in the first few minutes, John Pemberton’s sliding tackle left him on the ground. Pemberton didn’t touch the ball but referee Ellery didn’t see anything, no Liverpool player was near enough to realise, nobody in the Kop was going to say anything, and after lengthy treatment, Collymore was left looking mournfully at his own bench for twenty minutes while they tried to ignore their new star player’s new limp. As Leeds began to dominate, Roy Evans brought on Robbie Fowler, and after Yeboah had scored, there was a brief cutaway to Collymore in the treatment room, his shirt off, his ankle bandaged.
In the last twenty minutes Steve McManaman became the threat Leeds had to watch, drifting behind his strikers while United’s three midfielders, McAllister, Speed and Palmer, were looking forward for another goal. Nobody was getting near him, except Howard Wilkinson, who came on the pitch during a break in play to give McManaman a bottle of water. Liverpool were coming closer. Wright flicked a corner back into United’s penalty area, high and dropping between Lukic and Rush, who jabbed at the ball and sent it on a slow roll just wide of the empty goal. The next summer, Rush would be posing next to Tony Yeboah in the new Leeds United kit, doing what Yeboah hadn’t done, taking the number nine shirt away from Brian Deane.
From another corner Barnes deflected Jones’ shot onto United’s post. Barnes then cooly dribbled around McAllister in midfield, who didn’t worry, but waited a moment and cooly took the ball off Rush. Fowler had two chances, a chip and a shot — the latter set up for him by Carlton Palmer — putting both just wide.
At the other end Yeboah took a loose ball, ran at goal, shot from 25 yards, chased the blocked ball as it went spinning into the air, and gave it to McAllister with a backheeled volley. Everyone was watching Yeboah to see what more he could do, as if he hadn’t done enough. Jamie Redknapp was getting frustrated, and tried volleying at Lukic from 25 yards. “It’s very optimistic to score from 25 yards on the volley,” said Francis, “Unless, of course, your name is Mr Yeboah.”
It wasn’t something Francis would have said in the first five minutes of the game, before Tony became Mr Yeboah, Sir Yeboah, Lord of the Volley, although back then Yeboah had tried dribbling forward from 45 yards out and shooting high into the South Stand from thirty. He’d scored twice on the opening day at West Ham for an overall record of 14 goals in 17 starts for Leeds; the night changed the numbers to 15 in 18, but it changed much more besides.
Even John Pemberton was changed. Standing over a free-kick on the halfway line, near the dugouts, he was given plenty of advice from the bench about seeing out the final moments of the game: “Down the line! John! Down the line!” But Pembo had seen David James off his line, and launched the ball over the penalty area, a few yards wide of goal and out towards the Kop — a shot. “Fucking ‘ell!” yelled the South Yorkshiremen on the bench. “If that had gone in, could I change my man of the match?” asked Francis.
He’d already given it to Yeboah, while the night’s star was being stretchered off, in line with new rules to get injured players off the pitch quickly. Mark Wright had decided to leave a mark on him, but it only prompted Sky to show a real-speed replay of the goal that upset Wright, and for the crowd to cheer and sing Yeboah’s name when he recovered to come back on.
John Barnes showed more respect. Yeboah took his time after the final whistle, smiling and waving to all the people singing his name in the stands, but Barnes was waiting for him by the tunnel with a handshake and a few words.
In the tunnel, Yeboah gave some words of his own to Sky. “It’s a fantastic, unexpected goal,” he said. Watching a replay of Wallace setting him up, he added, “Today, unfortunately, I don’t get very good passes, but a very nice header there.” He also praised the fans: “It’s very difficult for Leeds to lose in the home matches, because the atmosphere in the stadium is unbelievable.” Waiting in the background, wearing the 1992/93 blue ‘n’ vomit Admiral away kit, were a crowd of the night’s ballboys waiting to slap Yeboah on the back and praise him. Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and Stephen McPhail were among the babyfaces excited to have seen such a goal, to have touched the scorer, to get their faces on TV.
Then it was back to Keys and Gray in the Sky TV studio, the latter frantically swapping video cassettes in his big machine to show the best angles of the goal that had changed everything. “I’ve got a tape and I’m going to take it home with me,” said Gray.
Running the video to the point where Wallace’s header started dropping towards Tony Yeboah, Gray then offered us a glimpse of an alternative reality that had already, in less than an hour, become impossible to imagine.
“Pull it down and pass it to someone!” he said. “Oh well, never mind,” he laughed, as he pressed play on the tape. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)