As gunshots rang out and ricocheted across Villa Park, a figure with his pants around his ankles, waddled clumsily into the back of the waiting getaway car. The tyres screeched away as 12.6 million pounds spilled from the inside of the cab and was hurriedly gathered by the bumbling villa-gers, and thus setting in motion one of the single most incredible achievements in English footballing history. Dwight Yorke was now a Manchester United player, the fee in old money would have represented a lot more nowadays, had the economic downturn not belittled our currency and deflated the value of the pound to something equivalent to hamster cage liner, and he was considered a bit of a gamble. The rest of this introductory paragraph is no more real than the stuff you read in the tabs, but has nothing on the real story that was to follow.
It was the beginning of the 1998-99 season and a protracted metaphorical cloud hung just above the interminable literal clouds over Manchester. Before organised religions had rubber stamped their dogma all over the worship of celestial bodies, it was generally considered that the Sun was God: the life-giver, the energy source for all of nature’s wonders. In May 1997 Manchester United Football Club had been plunged into darkness, and stripped of its biology, by the retirement of one of its chief deities. The following season, bereft of their omnipotent one, they were now also without the accustomed omnipresence of silverware. A bit much? It’s titled a fairytale, go with it.
Towards the end of the previous season, the fledglings were becoming more than capable of fending for themselves. The introduction of Jaap Stam had potentially shored up a defence that had, in previous seasons, begun to creak under the weight of its combined catheters. If only there was an adequate clichéd analogy to describe how there was a missing piece – like when you’re trying to complete a puzzle, say, a jigsaw – then I could use it to describe how we were lacking something up front.
Andy Cole *blah blah Andrew Cole arf arf* was filling part of the hole left by Eric in his own inimitable style. Initially, at times, he was Laurel or Hardy, the weight of expectation was a piano, and the journey towards success was a set of wooden stairs. Having arrived from Newcastle a few years previously with the reputation of a bright star, we had come to realise on closer inspection – as the Universe dictates – that stars shine brightest when they are on the verge of collapse. Andy Cole had got to work trying to prove the faith Fergie had shown in him was misplaced and was rewarded when United attempted to offload him in exchange for Alan ‘Alan Shearer’ Shearer. It wasn’t until he’d had his legs removed by Neil Ruddock and sewn back on the right way round by our Franken-Scientists (that one’s for you Hargo!), that he’d started to look very much like the player we thought we’d bought. With this, he still managed to cut a lonely figure at times.
Teddy Sheringham had arrived from Spurs with the more pointed intention of stepping into the physical and emotional vacuum created by the departing Eric. Although there were parallels in their playing styles, it wasn’t as simple as replacing the irreplaceable with what you perceive might work as a replacement, hence the term, innit. When not initially aggravating Roy Keane with every sinew of his being, Teddy spent most of his time stamping his feet and generally harrumphing in the direction of Andy Cole. The much maligned rift between them was a point of weakness within the squad. Hatred, or a strong dislike, is always the externalisation of the negative traits within the hater and rarely a genuine fault of the hated it is directed towards. The more the animosity between the two grew, the weaker the team would become as a result (despite their view to the contrary that they just, “got on with it”).
Solskjaer, the child-dialled terrorist (the marketing team were still at the drawing board, brain-storming his nickname), had arrived the year before Tedward and was busy working away behind the scenes developing his support act, and creating a range of crocheted cushions for protecting what was to become the most hard-wearing posterior for the most celebrated bench warmer the Premier League would ever see.
Teddy Sheringham needed a distraction from his burgeoning hatred of Andy Cole, Andy Cole needed love. Solskjaer needed just one more nudge down the pecking order and the team needed a lift.
I’m not suggesting that the players were emotionally inept before the arrival of Dwight Yorke, or that they weren’t capable of great things, but with the bastions of the drinking culture long gone, everything had got a bit pasta and fish, a bit, bed before 9pm, a bit well … serious. One of the enduring aspects of Dwight Yorke’s presence in the squad was how his infectious positivity appeared to rub off on those around him. None more so than Andy Cole.
I don’t think anyone noticed, because it certainly hasn’t been mentioned enough already, but Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole formed a partnership and it was incredibly good. It didn’t have defenders cowering at the thought of them every single time they took to the pitch, as the hyperbole may have you believe, but when it worked it was a thing of beauty. The step-over combination with the one-two – their trademark if you will – was, if you’ll pardon the excuse to crowbar in the title (that is barely being referred to at all), the stuff of fairytales.
The thing is, Dwight Yorke was a very gifted footballer and maybe because of his late development, never really afforded the respect for that, that he may have deserved. But his greatest gift to United in many respects was in offering Andy Cole a friendship within the squad; and in doing so bringing out in him an arguably more gifted player than himself. You don’t need me to regale you with stories of how the season turned out, just put ‘Manchester United Treble’ into Google and knock yourself out.
Somewhat unfortunately, with regards to his lasting legacy at the club, he also brought with him the very thing Fergie was constantly battling to keep at spitting distance: the paps. It’s the salacious gossip that is attached with a permanent asterisk alongside the mention of Dwight Yorke’s name that could more than likely consign the memory of his United career to the box-file titled ‘Characters’ (as if such a thing exists). He is ultimately much more than that. In my eyes he was the catalyst for something that we are very privileged to have witnessed as fans of Manchester United.
The day Dwight Yorke signed was just a day when a footballer wrote his name on a bit of paper, in the same way he would have practised since he was child. The day and event of him partaking in that act, in and of itself then, actually quite mundane – not something you would have set the video up for. The events that transpired as a direct consequence, are far more befitting of the title I started with.