Yakubu Aiyegbeni has become something of a figure of fun in recent years, but for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers he was an utterly sensational goalscorer.
As humans, we love a laugh at someone else’s expense. It’s so widespread the Germans even have a word dedicated to this phenomenon. And if the fun can be poked at someone who makes more in a week than most of us would do in a year, then all the sweeter.
That was exactly the case in February when footage emerged of Yakubu Aiyegbeni pacing around the centre circle for more than two minutes during Coventry City’s 3-1 loss to Swindon.
Play passed him by as his team-mates avoided giving the ball to him, with one even approaching him, presumably to find out what was going on. Fans can be heard in the background shouting at him.
The online reaction broadly fell under two groups: those frothing at the mouth with righteous indignation as to why a professional was shirking his duties, further manifestation of English football’s deep mistrust of those players it thinks aren’t pulling their weight.
The second group comprised of people who thought it was a really funny episode and questioned the wisdom of Coventry signing a player clearly past his sell-by date in the first place. Further proof, if any more was needed, of the dysfunctional management threatening to run the club into the ground.
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The truth, as ever, was much more complex than a man just deciding to down tools as he so desired.
As reported by the Coventry Telegraph a few days later, Yakubu was suffering from a hamstring tear he suffered when he laid on an assist for George Thomas to score a consolation goal, and with his team having used up all their substitutions, the 34-year-old simply stayed on the pitch to make up the numbers.
The injury ruled him out for the rest of the season, and he was released in April. But the truth is inconvenient in the face of likes and shares to be had from a viral video of a footballer simply being lazy. The narrative must fit no matter what.
But watching that video makes it easy to forget just how good Yakubu was in his pomp. He may be a figure of fun now, but at his predatory best there was no one pointing and laughing, just terrified opposition defenders trembling at the sight of a terrifying goal-getter.
Yakubu arrived in English football on loan from Maccabi Haifa in January 2003, as Harry Redknapp sought the firepower to propel his Portsmouth side to automatic Premier League promotion from the Championship.
It was a low-risk deal, the type that earned Redknapp his reputation as a wheeler-dealer capable of spotting obscure talent in the transfer market, and it paid off as Yakubu scored seven times in 14 appearances to help Pompey win promotion as champions.
They were convinced enough of Yakubu’s credentials to pay £4million for his services in the summer, and finally the Nigerian had earned his move to England.
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A year earlier Maccabi had sold a then 20-year-old Yakubu to Derby County, but although he trained with the club for a while, he was denied a work permit by the British courts for failing to meet the requirements.
Yakubu, understandably, was disappointed with a dream move falling through, but he wasn’t one to let it get to him. On his return to Maccabi he scored a double in the first leg of the Champions League third qualifying round against Sturm Graz as the Israeli side made it to the group stages.
Yakubu was in devastating form in the competition proper: a hat-trick put Olympiakos to the sword in an emphatic 3-0 win, while he scored a penalty to complete a rout of Manchester United by the same margin and one more in a 3-3 draw away to Olympiakos.
Maccabi may have crashed into the UEFA Cup after finishing third in their group, but Yakubu announced himself to the watching world with seven goals in eight appearances. It was what earned him the aforementioned move to Portsmouth, and that was just the beginning of Yakubu’s legend in English football.
Yakubu, with his bulky frame and low centre of gravity that makes him look like a man who works as a nightclub bouncer in his spare time, was built for the rough and tumble of the Premier League.
He had no pace, of course, but what did he need that for when he could bully defenders into submission with his sheer power.
But Yakubu had more to his game than just brute force. He was clinical in front of goal; his acute awareness of space and time made him a tailor-made predator in the area. Sixteen goals followed in his debut Premier League campaign and twelve in his sophomore season.
In his last game for Portsmouth he scored four of five goals in a 5-1 demolition of future club Middlesbrough. Yakubu was a one-man wrecking ball.
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As it turned out, Boro came calling soon after, with a £7.5million fee – the highest fee ever paid for a Nigerian at the time – enough to tempt Portsmouth to sell on their prized asset after only two seasons.
The Riverside was a great place to be in the 2005-06 season as Steve McClaren led the side to a remarkable campaign, particularly in the cups.
Yakubu, naturally, was a central figure in that success, with 19 goals scored in all competitions; a change of scenery did nothing to blunt his edge in front of goal.
As was the case at Portsmouth, Yakubu spent only two years at Boro, despite adding another 12 goals in the league in his second season.
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One of the most memorable came in a 3-0 thrashing of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in what was the heaviest defeat of the Portuguese’s first reign.
Yakubu was simply unplayble that day: first he pounced on a loose ball to set up the opener for Fábio Rochemback, then he closed the scoring himself with a truly brilliant effort.
The ball broke to him and suddenly he was face to face with John Terry – then at the peak of his powers. Unfazed, the Nigerian took him on, moved inside the box, and slotted a low drive past Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal.
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David Moyes was suitably impressed to make him Everton’s then-record signing for £11.25million in 2007.
Yakubu was keen to play regularly in Europe, and Everton were on the market for a prolific marksman to propel them to regular continental football; it was a union that suited both parties.
Yakubu, ever the maverick, chose to wear the number 22 jersey, as an indication of his goal target. He netted 15 league goals in a season disrupted by his appearance for Nigeria at the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, and finished the campaign on 21 goals in all competitions – just one shy of his target.
In recording his highest career tally, Yakubu also became the first Everton player since Peter Beardsley in 1992 to break the 20-goal barrier. Everton finished fifth, with their aim of qualifying for Europe achieved.
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Unfortunately for Everton’s record signing, it was downhill from there as a ruptured Achilles tendon away at Tottenham in November of the following season ruled him out for 10 months.
Everton cashed in and Blackburn was his next signing post. His 17 goals, however, were unable to save the side from relegation as the club collapsed under the weight of the disastrous Venky’s ownership.
That spelled the end of Yakubu’s time in the Premier League, which he finished with 95 goals in 252 appearances. That makes him the third-highest scoring African in the competition behind only Didier Drogba (104) and Emmanuel Adebayor (97), a truly remarkable achievement when you consider he played for significantly inferior clubs compared to those two.
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Despite all of his goals and his success in the Premier League, Yakubu has never been particularly well liked in his home country of Nigeria.
A return of 21 goals in 57 caps is nothing to be sniffed at – in fact, he is the third highest scorer in Super Eagles history – but Yakubu’s time with the national team was fraught with tensions with managers and the media.
Things came to a head at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia when he flouted team rules about late nights and was sent home by coach Christian Chukwu along with two others. Two years later, he decided against playing for Nigeria in the same competition.
Furthermore, he will always be remembered for his open goal miss against South Korea at the 2010 World Cup.
It’s rather unfortunate that his career – in England and for Nigeria – is remembered for the errors and missteps, when in his pomp he destroyed all that was in his path with his power and knack for goals.
Amid all the noise to paint him as a lazy mercenary nicking one last pay cheque, let’s not lose sight of just how majestic the Yak was.
By Aanu Adeoye
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