I had three black male idols growing up. At their peak, they were the best in their field. And they were all footballers.
The 90s brought English football back to top with the inauguration of the Premier League. Foreign imports became the norm and amazing players from around the world graced the pitches of Britain. One such figure was Tony Yeboah. He joined Leeds United in 1995 for £3.4 million and scored 32 goals in 66 appearances. But it was one goal that drew my attention. If you’re a football fan, you know which one it is (although he scored a similar one in the same season). A header down and, without touching the floor, Yeboah volleyed a thunderbolt towards goal that smashed the underside of the crossbar and won the game. I had never seen anything like it. He reminded me so much of my dad who was the archetypal black man in my life. The connection was even deeper as my dad supported Leeds United as well (while I supported their bitter rivals, Man United). He was basically my footballing dad. I used to have a Panini sticker of him and kept it for years as a souvenir. In my later years, I bought a Corinthian figure of him as a tribute. Black male representation was few and far between growing up, outside my father’s presence. Yeboah showed me another heroic example of a black man coming from a foreign land to save the day.
My other two idols started apart but came together in the greatest year of my prepubescent life. Andrew Cole was born to Jamaican parents in Nottingham (where I currently reside). Overcoming troubles in his early life, and racism in the beginning of his footballing career, Cole made a name for himself at Newcastle United and became one of the country’s top strikers. His prowess caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson and in a shock move – at least to Cole who found out days before the deal was finalised – he left Tyneside for Salford. But things weren’t as rosy in the North West. At Newcastle, Cole was the target man and he never seemed to miss. Manchester United were a completely different team. Every player had a role and there was no part greater than the sum so he had to adapt his game. The media assumed because he scored goals for Newcastle, they’d continue to flow at Man United but their praising tones turned to harsh criticism. Blackburn Rovers pipped them to the title in 1994/95 and Cole was made the scapegoat.
“…two black men of Caribbean descent at the peak of their careers scoring an iconic goals in one of the greatest stadia in Europe.”
A serious injury the next season and a change in style, turned Cole into a utility striker. In 1998, my third idol joined him at United: Dwight Yorke. His transfer fee was a beacon to the Premier League after United relinquished the title to Arsenal, showing everyone they wanted it back. Yorke was also of Caribbean heritage much like Cole and myself. The Tobagonian had made a name for himself at Aston Villa and his partnership with Cole remains the greatest I’ve ever witnessed. This was typified at the Camp Nou in Barcelona in 1998. A pass from Roy Keane was dummied by Yorke, flowing through to Cole. He passed it across to Yorke on his first touch, who returned the favour, cancelling out the defenders beside him and Cole placed it in the bottom corner. It gave me goosebumps then and still does today. That silent connection but above all, two black men of Caribbean descent at the peak of their careers scoring an iconic goals in one of the greatest stadia in Europe. And for my team. If Yeboah was my footballing dad, Yorke and Cole were my footballing older brothers.
I looked up to all three of them as black players who defied racial stereotypes. White media figures default to characterisations of strength and speed when discussing black athletes. It’s a tired trope with decades of evidence to the contrary. My father worked as a teacher before he retired and in the latter part of his career, he helped BAME students and ran a Saturday School for Black British children. Children who were often in trouble at school looked up to him and called him the best teacher they ever had. It gave me immense pride to see and hear that. Seeing black figures on TV showing what we can do if we’re allowed to express ourselves extended that and provided an enriching environment to follow suit.
Luke Alex Davis