UEFA Champions League - Quarter Final First Leg - Manchester United v Inter Milan. Manchester United's dwight Yorke celebrates after the game

Dwight Yorke: ‘Two black guys who never thought they would play for Man Utd – Me & Coley did something unique’

Dwight Yorke will forever be remembered as one of the main reasons why Manchester United won the continental treble in 1999, but history could’ve looked much different had he not thrown his head onto the end of a looping cross from Andy Cole in Turin.

April 1999. United had slipped off the top of the table after only managing a draw away to Leeds United, and regrettably had allowed Juventus to score an away goal as they left Old Trafford with a 1-1 draw.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side now needed to win in Italy in the second leg or get at least a 2-2 draw if they wished to advance to the Champions League final ahead of the Old Lady.

“It’s quite remarkable when you think of the position that we were in, 1-1 at Old Trafford and going to Italy against probably some of the meanest defenders around back then.”

United expected an ‘extremely difficult game’ against a team that included Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and Antonio Conte but certainly didn’t expect to find themselves 2-0 down early on, Filippo Inzaghi scoring twice inside the first 11 minutes.

“Having to turn that deficit around, because Italians are known to be defensively solid, to break those shackles in the way that we did and with the manner that we came back and showed that ability to fight back, had been the forefront of our season,” Yorke said.

“With our backs up against the wall, we’d always somehow come back stronger and we did that against Juventus.”

Roy Keane replied to Inzaghi’s early brace after 24 minutes. Game on. But the pressure was still on United to find the all-important second.

Enter Yorke, who was creeping around a typically watertight Juve backline before slyly running off the back of a helpless Ciro Ferrara to get on the end of a pinpoint cross from Cole, who had taken the ball from a brilliant knockdown by David Beckham.

“Becks is top and it’s not often enough you give someone the credit because he’s got so much going on. He’s such an iconic figure,” Yorke said.

“For me he was one of the top guys that I really admired [for] the way he went about his day-to-day job – he was extremely fit, he’d take of himself. [He was] really devoted to getting married and raising a family – but football was very much at the forefront of that as well.”

At a time when his stardom only continued to increase – the curtains becoming floppier, the collar popping more often, the outfits becoming more absurd – Beckham was under pressure from every angle.

Yorke was in awe of how he handled it.

“To see the guy operate on a day-to-day basis and recognise why he turned out to be who he was, he deserves a lot more credit than some people give him in terms of his football credentials. He deserved a lot more.”

United’s main man

With such a blend of personalities, though, someone had to ensure they all worked towards the same goal.

Sir Alex Ferguson said after that 3-2 victory that Yorke’s second goal ‘killed’ Juve on the night. The 1999 Premier League Golden Boot winner didn’t need much in the way of extra motivation to come up with the goods when it mattered most.

“[Ferguson] motivated me by giving me the opportunity and paying the fee that he wanted to make sure he brought me to the football club. I think at that time it was a huge fee [£12millon], a record for the football club.

“That was encouragement enough, from a manager of his status, to invest in someone like myself, especially from the background I came from,” Yorke said, referring to his Caribbean roots.

“There was no greater motivation than to have someone of Sir Alex Ferguson’s stature say to you, ‘I want you as my number one and I want you to be the main man at the football club’.

“From the moment that came out of his mouth, that was like gold man.”

Yorke admitted that trying to fit into a dressing room full of stars who’d already won trophies was ‘always a little bit challenging’ but that there was no such struggle for him, because of his personality and what he believed he brought to the dressing room.

We all know what happened next. The Red Devils wrapped up the Premier League title with a win over Tottenham and eclipsed Newcastle to win the FA Cup, meaning a trip to Barcelona to face Bayern Munich was the only thing standing in the way of them completing the treble.

No pressure, then. Certainly not for Yorke, who thrived in the situation they found themselves in throughout the season.

“Living a dream beyond my wildest imagination coming from the Caribbean, being here at the top of the game, scoring goals and winning major trophies… There was nothing to not be happy about and I was the happiest person among all of the players.”

Representing the Caribbean was especially important to him: “I thought about doing something like being the first out of the Caribbean for sure. I wanted to be the first to go on to win major trophies – I didn’t realise it was gonna be with Manchester United at the highest level in British football!”

“It was a quite incredible ride.”

Deadly duo

That ride included him not only lifting the treble, not only winning the Premier League Golden Boot and Player of the Season awards for 1998-99 but also forming one half of one of the most deadly strike partnerships the game has seen.

It was Andy Cole who assisted him in the Stadio Delle Alpi against Juve, just one of many lethal combinations between the pair.

“A couple of players – Bergkamp and Thierry Henry for instance, Shearer and Sutton to a point – but they were nothing quite like myself and Coley. The reason for that was because Coley and I became very good friends on and off the football pitch, and that friendship was something unique.

“Two black guys who never thought they would play for United. We felt like we wanted to do something unique, something no other black strikers had been able to do.”

Yorke was extremely keen to give Cole his flowers. The Englishman scored 24 times and assisted seven across all competitions in that iconic season, but it all could’ve been much different.

“Coley deserves a lot more credit than I do because I at least knew I was coming in as the most expensive [player at United] and I was gonna get that chance to play.

“He could’ve easily taken the easy route and left the football club, but he decided to stick around and fight.”

Drawing on the presence of both Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, the other two strikers at the club, Yorke passionately explained how ‘Coley’ backed himself despite the competition for places, and formed a connection in attack with him.

“Coley was such a good mover of the football and I used to drop into pockets which gives defenders nightmares and that created a bit of havoc or chaos among them where they didn’t quite know how to contain us,” Yorke said.

It wasn’t all about the dynamic duo, though. The pair played in front of a ferocious setup that included some of the very best in the world, and could rely on Solskjaer and Sheringham to weigh in with goals themselves – pretty big ones, at that.

“We got a lot of credit and praise for that particular year, but it was such a fun time to play with the likes of Giggsy and Becks supplying you with those ridiculous crosses. And then we’ve got Scholesy with his intelligence in midfield and Keano as the driving force and captain.

“Knowing that we had that sort of ammunition in our lockers, teams found it extremely difficult to contain us and we just exploited most teams that we played against.

“When you have those kinds of qualities around you, football becomes such a joy to play.”

History will always remember that night in Barcelona and Solskjaer’s late winner as United’s finest hour, but Yorke’s equaliser against one of the toughest defences in the world was quietly just as important.

A joyous footballer with an equally joyous attitude spurring him on, in what remains one of the game’s greatest squads ever assembled.

By Mitch Wilks

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