Yakubu: Redknapp used to tell me, ‘Go destroy those guys’ – and I did
Feed the Yak and he will score, as the song went. And the Nigerian striker didn’t disappoint.
There were more than 200 goals across all competitions – 95 of them in the Premier League – during a nomadic club career, making him a huge fan favourite and a cult hero in English football.
Yakubu is aware of his status and understandably proud of it.
“It feels good. It gives you more confidence when you see that the supporters really like you,” Yakubu says. “By scoring goals, you show them that you’re doing your job and fighting for the team. Scoring goals is one of the best feelings in the world and it’s an honour for me.”
Consistency was Yakubu’s watchword. He hit double figures in each of his first five Premier League seasons, despite never playing for one of the division’s powerhouse teams. That run would surely have continued but for the injury he encountered at Everton, which slowed his progress before a prolific swansong with Blackburn Rovers.
Although goalscoring seemed to come naturally to him, it was the product of years of hard work and meticulous practise. Yakubu came from humble beginnings to succeed at the top level for club and country. He started out playing barefoot before being given his first pair of boots at the age of 12. The hardship he experienced growing up in Nigeria shaped his outlook and aspiration. He was driven to create a better life for his family through football.
“It wasn’t easy in the first place, growing up with no shoes and playing with your bare feet. It’s quite hard, but you’re not scared to play with those guys who are wearing shoes. I was lucky enough that I got my first pair of boots from my brother. It was unbelievable. It was a motivation for me.”
As well as a great deal of skill and commitment, an adventurous spirit was needed to help Yakubu realise his ambition. In 1998, he left Nigerian side Julius Berger to sign for Maccabi Haifa. It was an important stepping stone to a brighter future, as he came to prominence with seven goals in nine games during the Israeli club’s unexpected Champions League run.
A hat-trick against Olympiacos and a goal and an assist in a 3-0 win over Manchester United exposed Yakubu’s talent to a much larger audience. A potential move to Derby County had already fallen through because of work permit issues and a trial with West Ham had led nowhere when Portsmouth pounced in January 2003.
“I went on holiday to Nigeria,” Yakubu says. “I got a call from my agent to say that Portsmouth were willing to bring me in to train and take it from there. I went there and I’ll always be grateful to Harry Redknapp for giving me the opportunity to play.”
Portsmouth were in the First Division at the time. Yakubu’s added firepower helped to secure the title and promotion to the Premier League. His loan move was made permanent for £4million that summer, and he thrived with Redknapp’s constant encouragement.
“He always believed in me. He always motivated me, and his man-management was unbelievable. He’d say, ‘Just go and destroy those guys. They’re not good enough. Your quality is much better than theirs.’ And I did it.
“When I crossed the white line, I wanted to give my best. I didn’t want to let myself or my family down. Harry was the one who gave me the opportunity to show myself and I did it, thanks to him.”
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There were obstacles along the way, not least the notorious intensity of English football, but Yakubu was able to overcome them and establish himself as one of the Premier League’s most feared strikers – strong, clever and clinical.
“It was quite hard for me when I came here. I still remember my first game against Brighton. I think I played 20 minutes, but it was like 120 minutes,” he laughs. “I was tired and I was wondering if this place was right for me. Sometimes you have doubts about your ability, but the more I started to train, I was able to adapt.”
Yakubu was a supreme penalty box predator. He scored 16 goals in his first full season, as many as Michael Owen and Nicolas Anelka, including four in one game against Middlesbrough. He went on to join the Boro in May 2005 ahead of an unforgettable campaign in which Steve McClaren’s side reached the UEFA Cup final.
“We had four top strikers there, with Mark Viduka, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Massimo Maccarone fighting for a place every week. They pushed me a lot, and I pushed myself because I didn’t want to sit on the bench.
“I proved to myself that I deserved to be playing before them. It was a great honour to play in the UEFA Cup final. Of course, we lost against Sevilla, but the history was there and it was a good experience.”
Some of Middlesbrough’s momentum dissipated when Gareth Southgate replaced McClaren as manager. After two years at the Riverside, Yakubu moved to Everton for a then club-record fee of £11.25million.
It was an unusually large outlay for David Moyes, who got the Toffees punching above their weight and consistently qualifying for Europe on a tight budget. Yakubu made an instant impression, scoring 21 goals despite missing several matches to compete in the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations.
“We had some great leaders – Tim Howard, Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill and Phil Neville,” he says. “We had good characters there, and we all fought together every week. It’s a good club. I still have communication with some of the people there. They call it the people’s club and it was an honour for me to be part of their history.”
Yakubu has plenty of praise for Everton’s manager too. “David Moyes was good. He’s a very, very strict guy and a very hard-working manager. He was very tough in training, but the sessions were spot-on. Even when you’re tired, he makes you believe that you can still do it.”
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After playing so regularly for so many years, Yakubu succumbed to injury during his second season at Everton. He ruptured his Achilles tendon away to Tottenham Hotspur and missed 10 months of football. When he returned, he was in and out of the team, struggling to rediscover his rhythm.
This led Yakubu to join Leicester City on loan under Sven-Goran Eriksson before completing a permanent move to Blackburn Rovers on transfer deadline day in August 2011. A tumultuous season followed, which was successful on a personal level but saw the club relegated to the Championship.
“People sometimes say that if you can get a striker who can score 15 goals in the league then you’re guaranteed to stay up. I scored 18 that season and we were close to doing it, but in the end we didn’t make it. That’s the sad part for me,” says the former Nigeria international, who won 57 caps for his country.
“I wish we’d stayed in the league. We fought so hard, but the atmosphere wasn’t good with the owners, the fans and the manager, Steve Kean. The fans weren’t happy with the manager and every game we played was like playing away. We still stuck together but we went down.
“The atmosphere wasn’t right, but we just put it to the back of our minds and tried to do our job. It’s a great club, with nice people as well. I hope they will bounce back and be in the Premier League where they belong.”
The bizarre situation that Blackburn found themselves in was probably best summarised by the protests against the club’s owners, Venky’s, who run a poultry business in India. A live chicken, draped in a Rovers flag, was released onto the pitch during a 1-0 defeat at Ewood Park. Yakubu was the player who caught it and handed it to a steward so that play could continue.
It wasn’t something he ever expected to deal with in his football career. “I think the chicken on the pitch was against Wigan,” he says. “Everyone was laughing. I still see some of the videos sometimes, and they make me laugh.”
Never forget the time Yakubu & Ali Al-Habsi rescued a chicken at Ewood Park ❤️ pic.twitter.com/JqPtrvbJpw
— Soccer AM (@SoccerAM) June 3, 2020
Relegation with Blackburn marked a disappointing end to Yakubu’s long and productive stay in the Premier League. He scored lots of goals in China for Guangzhou R&F but struggled to adjust to the game’s slower pace. He retired in 2017 after short spells in Qatar, Turkey and the English lower leagues.
Now 38, Yakubu works as an agent and is part of Bentley Sports Group in Portsmouth, who run training camps for aspiring footballers. He is focused on supporting and developing young players both here and back home. Having made it to the top of his profession against the odds, he wants to see others do the same.
“I have a few boys I’m looking after, and my brother has an academy in Lagos as well. I’m always there to help him out. They’re looking for the new Yak, even better than the old one! I’m trying to pass my experience on to these young players, to follow their dreams and never give up.
“Sometimes they’ve been to two or three clubs where nobody’s believed in them. It’s not the end of the world. I’ve been there before. I went to West Ham and they didn’t take me. It’s football.
“You should never think that’s the end of the story. It’s not. You go again and you fight for it.”
By Sean Cole