Ex-Portsmouth, Everton and Middlesbrough star Yakubu: We were so poor I played football barefooted in Nigeria - now it's time to help others achieve dreams

Yakubu offers his phone as evidence, eager to exhibit irrefutable proof.

Thursday, 29th October 2020, 6:00 pm
Yakubu celebrating another Pompey goal - he totalled 43 in 92 appearances during his time at Fratton Park. Picture: Mike Egerton

The message’s content details the wish of a father to enroll his son on additional coaching sessions during forthcoming school holidays.

The former Nigerian international beams at the request, his burst of pride indisputable.

Having spoken passionately of his post-football profession for almost an hour, now Yakubu sought to table further persuasive testimony. His case was compelling.

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The Maccabi Sports Ground in Barnet forms the backdrop to Yakubu’s latest challenge.

Having established Wilbury Sports Management in January 2018, the ex-Pompey favourite these days fulfils the role of a football agent.

Intriguingly, the 37-year-old also insists on coaching clients on the training pitch, staging weekly two-hour sessions for up to eight aspiring players in the local park near his home.

As a child growing up in Benin City, Yakubu played football barefooted as his parents couldn’t afford shoes.

Free-scoring Yakubu was a popular figure at Fratton Park before moving to Middlesbrough in the summer of 2005 for £7.5m. Picture Mark Lees/PA

He would blossom into a powerful striker whose outstanding Pompey spell put him on the Premier League map and even saw a Port Solent boat named after him.

Now he’s striving to inspire others to fulfil footballing ambition.

Yakubu told The News: ‘When I tell people I do some of the coaching they think I’m just joking, I’m not, I am quite serious.

‘It is not all about looking after young boys, it’s about teaching them. They still need to learn, these are small details, they must know them.

Yakubu's company, Wilbury Sports Management, have this month entered a partnership with Bentley Sports Group, and will work alongside former Pompey physio Neil Sillett (pictured)

‘When trying to change them, I sometimes say “Listen, I know you guys are thinking this is boring, and I know it is, but we must keep doing the same stuff everyday. As soon as you get it right, you will go to a club. 100 per cent they are going to take you”.

‘I pushed myself to become where I am today, nobody pushed me. I actually wish I had someone who pushed me more, maybe I would have played for Barcelona.

‘I have no regrets, I think I had a great career, it was unbelievable, and I’m happy. However, I want these guys to know that it is all about hard work and dedication.

‘When I was young, I watched the national team on TV, players like Kanu, and I would tell my brothers that I wanted to be the one on that television. I wanted people to watch me play, I knew I could do it.

Yakubu is pursued by team-mates Patrik Berger, Matt Taylor and Gary O'Neil after scoring from the penalty spot against Southampton in April 2005. Picture: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

‘At the age of six, when I started football, I had to play barefooted, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me shoes. There was no money. Today I can afford to buy shoes for my kids, but it wasn’t like that for me, no way.

‘I would be scared to play barefooted now! Not then, though, I didn’t think about injuries, you just want to play, you just want to show everyone you are good.

‘After about two years of doing that, my brother gave me money to buy shoes. Shoes are like a God, getting shoes is a big deal, but originally I couldn’t get used to them.

‘I remember my first time in a game wearing shoes. Do you know what I did? I took them off for the match as I knew I would play better barefooted than with shoes.

‘I ended up being man of the match – with no shoes! I was playing central midfield at that time and didn’t even score. But I was man of the match.

‘Later I realised I had to play with them, I was playing so many games and it was getting tougher and tougher.

‘Some people think about money, but it’s sport, you have to love the game. If you don’t love it, there’s no point. This is the passion – I love it.

‘It’s about hard work and dedication, then the money will come. Don’t think about the lifestyle with money, travelling in a nice car, living in a nice house and the clothes. Think about the football and the rest will come.

‘When your name is not there, nobody will want to touch you.’

As a 20-year-old, Yakubu arrived at Fratton Park in January 2003 to strengthen the Blues’ bid for Premier League football.

Initially recruited on loan from Maccabi Haifa until the season’s end, the powerful striker netted on his full debut against Grimsby.

He would rattle in seven goals in 14 appearances as Harry Redknapp’s side captured the Division One title to reach the top flight for the first time in 16 years.

Now a permanent Fratton Park signing, during Yakubu’s maiden Premier League campaign in 2003-04, he scored 19 times in all competitions, including four against Middlesbrough in May 2004 – the final match.

That season he finished among the Premier League’s leading scorers, listed joint-sixth on 16 goals alongside Michael Owen, Nicolas Anelka and Aston Villa’s Juan Pablo Angel.

He added: ‘They used to ask me what my target was for each season? How many goals do you think you are going to score?

‘I wanted to be the league’s top scorer, that was my main target.

‘In those days there were strikers like Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Teddy Sheringham, massive players. I used to compete with these guys.

‘I wanted to see my name there, I wanted to be there with them – in the top seven in the Premier League – here.

‘I still remember after signing for Pompey permanently in the summer of 2003 and then, a few days before the Premier League season started, Svetoslav Todorov got injured in training.

‘Harry pulled me over and said “You’re playing this weekend against Aston Villa, how many goals do you think you can score this season”.

‘I asked how many did he think? He replied: “If you get me 20 goals, I will give you £20,000.

‘So I told him “Okay”. He thought I was joking, but I was serious.

‘For our last game we played Middlesbrough at Fratton Park. I scored four that day in a 5-1 win to take me to 19 – and was still going for another to reach that target.

‘After the match, I went into the dressing room and was upset. I’m telling you, I was. I wasn’t happy, I wanted one more goal. I needed more goals.

‘Harry said: “Come on Yak, you’ve scored four goals today, what’s wrong?”. But I wanted one more.

‘Harry had forgotten about the bet as well. When he realised he said he should have taken me off!

‘I still have the match ball, it’s in my flat in Port Solent, which I still own. My sister lives there now, she is married with three kids.

‘Pompey will always be in my heart, I started from this place. You never forget where you come from – it was a big platform for me from Israeli football to English football.

‘I remember my debut against Brighton. I came on for 33 minutes and it was like 120 minutes for me, I was so tired. The pace was very difficult.

‘The next game was against Grimsby and I started. After 15 minutes, I was tired, I swear. It was too hard, all about running, if someone kicks it long you have to chase.

‘During that match it was going through my head – “Maybe this is the wrong place for me”, Yet the more I trained, I got used to the system and the easier it got.

‘When I moved to China from Blackburn, in the first training session I would make runs and they didn't give it to you, they were too slow.

‘When I first arrived in England, I wanted it slow, it was too fast. By the time I left, I wanted it fast, but China was too slow! You have to adapt to the system. Fortunately, I’m a quick learner.’

Yakubu’s Fratton Park tenancy ended in the summer of 2005 with a move to Middlesbrough for £7.5m, a Pompey club record at the time.

The Nigerian international had scored 43 goals in 92 appearances. No Blues player has registered more in the 21st century.

He went on to enjoy similarly prolific spells at Middlesbrough, Everton, Leicester and Blackburn, racking up a total of 96 Premier League goals.

During his time at Everton, Yakubu had been lined up for a Spurs reunion with Redknapp for a £15m deal, only to rupture his Achilles tendon in November 2008.

In November 2017, he announced his retirement, although had long been absent from the international scene following 21 goals in 57 outings.

Now he’s undertaking different challenges, with his company this month joining forces with the Bentley Sports Group, a partnership which will see him work alongside former Pompey physio Neil Sillett.

Their aim is to aid the pathways of aspiring players and coaches into football, with a training centre in Florida and another planned for Cyprus.

Yakubu’s passion to inspire others to fulfil footballing potential is certainly admirable.

He said: ‘The Pompey fans were unbelievable and I have great memories. We were a team together, everyone was fighting. I met Matt Taylor the other week and still speak to Lua.

‘In the end I wanted to move my football to the next level. I was supposed to go in January 2005, but was told to wait until the summer.

‘In the end everyone was happy about my transfer to Middlesbrough. Pompey wanted me to go because it was good money, it suited everyone.

‘I’m now retired, but I can’t walk away from football.

‘It’s not just all about being a football agent, it’s about hard work, just like the way I played football. This is the next chapter and I want to learn, I’m learning everyday.

‘I have seen so many young players thinking they are going to the top, but up there (in the mind) they are not strong. Mentally zero. So you make them believe they can do it.

‘Other agents just want to sign the players, they don’t care if they train, it’s up to you. But I don’t want to be one of those agents just taking the money, I want to teach these boys how to become a better player.

‘You have to be there for these boys. When things are going well, agents want to be there. When things are not going so well, they don't.

‘I have 10 players now. We are not in a rush, just take it day-by-day. I want to try to help these boys follow their dreams. Like I did.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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