When £12.6 million pounds left the Old Trafford coffers and travelled down the M6 to Birmingham B6, Martin Edwards wasn’t the only one to raise an eyebrow. The United chairman must have been slightly worried at the prospect of relinquishing the balance sheet of such a large sum of money. The signing of Yorke came hot on the heels of the signings of Jaap Stam £10.6m from PSV and Jesper Blomqvist £4.4m from IFK Göteborg.
I also had my doubts about Yorke, as good as a player as he was. I wasn’t convinced that £12.6m was a fair price for a forward with no European experience and who had never challenged for honours. In a nine-year spell at Villa, Yorke had 97 goals from 284 games. It should be noted that Patrick Kluivert was amongst United’s targets. Following events in St. Etienne, a rumoured swap deal involving David Beckham and Kluivert, seemed as if it might actually materialise.
I could be doing him a disservice. If you compare him with Cantona 225 games, 67 goals, then Yorke would clearly come out on top. The difference between the two, is that the Frenchman had a whole lot more to his game. The sheer presence to walk into Old Trafford and make it his own, for a start.
“A couple of weeks ago Dwight openly state to me that he wanted to play for Manchester United and not Aston Villa. That really hurt me, and if I had had a gun I would have shot him.”John Gregory wasn’t best pleased with Dwight Yorke in 1998.
Yorke’s transfer was quite controversial from a Villa perspective. Then manager, John Gregory was adamant that his star man wasn’t for sale. Not unless United would throw in Andy Cole in exchange – as if! Yorke met Gregory in his office and stated he wanted to leave. It led to the famous quote from John Gregory “I’d have shot him, if I had had a gun in the office.” Yorke played for Villa at Everton in the season opener, but made no effort at all, such was his unhappiness at not getting his dream move. The transfer seemed to drag and drag. The United board weren’t convinced Yorke was the man and neither was Brian Kidd. The ex-United assistant manager apparently favoured John Hartson!
The greatest season in United’s history, started awfully, for United and Stam who had a torrid afternoon in the sun as Nicolas Anelka showed him how tough life would be in England. Meanwhile Yorke’s on-off move to Old Trafford dragged on, and on. He eventually signed for United on 20th August 1998 and made his debut at West Ham where he was unable to help the reds and the match finished goalless. September brought his home debut and two goals in a 4-1 rout of Charlton Athletic.
In October a 3-0 defeat of Southampton at The Dell, saw Yorke and Cole hit the United scoresheet for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last yet it was only the second time that Yorke and Cole had started for United. A 5-1 demolition of Wimbledon saw the two combine again and it was obvious to everyone that the two were becoming Ferguson’s preferred attacking partnership.
November saw a trip to Camp Nou in the return Champions League fixture with Barcelona. The first game in the ‘Group of Death’ had seen a fantastic 3-3 draw with David Beckham scoring a marvellous free kick at the Stretford End. The return was every bit as good in terms of entertainment value. The game ended 3-3 again. Yorke and Cole combined with a marvellous one-two that gave Andy Cole a very simple finish. It was a simple finish yet the movement between the two created a highlight reel goal that sent the entire Barcelona defence, for a hotdog!
Yorke’s first hattrick came in the New Year against Leicester City at Filbert City in a 6-2 rout, that saw Andy Cole with a brace and a collectors item from Jaap Stam. This was followed by the winners against Charlton Athletic and Derby County. The goal versus Charlton came in the 89th minute. Proof that United were capable of going the distance. The next game at the City Ground would go down in United folklore. But not for Yorke. United’s new signing was on the verge of another hattrick, when he got the hook. Replaced by Solskjær, it would be the Norwegian that would steal the headlines.
With United making relative light work in the league, their European form was taking shape. Having navigated the so-called ‘Group of Death’ alongside Barcelona and Bayern Munich, They found themselves with a tricky tie against Internazionale of Milan. And Diego Simeone.
The meeting was obviously billed as a grudge match due to the previous incident between David Beckham and Simeone in the 1998 World Cup. The spotlight was on Beckham and rightly so. He had been fantastic for United. The night was made for him and after a frosty pre match handshake with Simeone, Beckham tore into Inter. In the sixth minute, Beckham found space on the right, and delivered a trademark cross into the area, where it was headed in by the unmarked Dwight Yorke. On the stroke of half time, Neville found Beckham and his cross was again headed in by Yorke. It put United firmly in control and gave Yorke his eight goal in seven European matches. Yorke would also be on target in Turin with an all important equaliser after United found themselves staring down a Champions League semi final exit.
United’s season had taken shape and their form had been brilliant throughout. They had shown themselves to be Premier League contenders and although riding their luck at times, had done the same in Europe. In the FA Cup, they had knocked the old enemy out in the 3rd round with Yorke providing the equaliser, before overcoming Chelsea after a replay. Yorke was the match winner with two goals, one of which a sublime chip with the outside of his right foot. It set up a titanic match against Arsenal, their rivals in an absorbing title race. United ran out the victors in one of the FA Cup’s greatest ever matches. A 2-1 victory that had everything. A sending off, an extra time penalty. And a match winning goal, from the FA Cup gods.
The culmination of a season long’s work, that had involved some incredible games involving Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern, Inter and Juventus, was a chance to win club football’s ultimate prize.
Camp Nou. 26th May. Sir Matt’s 90th birthday. And the small matter of Bayern Munich. United were famously without Keane and Scholes and in truth rode their luck at times after conceding an early goal. But luck played no part in United’s win. The willingness to play until the absolute end throughout the season, culminated in two sensational goals in two minutes from Sheringham and Solskjær. United had reached the promised land!
Yorke had undoubted delivered. I’m happy to say I was wrong and that £12.6 million was a snip in the grand scheme of things. It’s a shame that after such an ultimate footballing high, Yorke never really hit the same heights. His second season ended up with another Premier League winners medal and he contributed with 22 goals. But by his third and final season, his United career had really petered out. Yorke was on hand with another hattrick in a 6-2 home demolition of Arsenal though. But in January 2002, a move to Middlesborough fell through and he played his last game for United that month. He wasn’t even issued with a squad number for the 2002-03 season.
Yorke contributed 65 goals in 147 appearances for United, but his career at Old Trafford will always be defined by his contribution to United’s treble winning season.