“If I was such a playboy, how come I’m still going at my age?” Dwight Yorke asks, which is a fair point for a 35-year-old. He asks, too, how he can be such a dilettante if Roy Keane, the scourge of all big-time charlies, has made him a key component of the Sunderland team who are promising to be perhaps the greatest success story of the English season.
The North East club have climbed from the Coca-Cola Championship’s relegation zone to one point off automatic promotion and the rise is all the more fascinating for having Keane and Yorke at its heart. Scowling Irishman and an easy-going Tobagonian make an unlikely pair.
If you believe the tales, Yorke appears to epitomise everything that Keane railed against during his irascible days as Manchester United captain, but the truth is more complex. And Keane knows better than anyone that appearances can be deceptive.
He could be brutally thuggish as a player but was a regular visitor to Bill Beswick, the sports psychologist, during his time at United and showed an open mind to yoga. He is an intelligent man and is proving to have the makings of a brilliant manager. He was bright enough to recognise that an enthused, ambitious Yorke could be a valuable signing, so he picked up the phone.
“There is one reason that I am here and that is purely down to Roy Keane,” Yorke said. “I was playing for Sydney and I had no desire to leave the lifestyle or the weather.
“I had previously been told through my agency that the likes of Cardiff [today’s opponents] were interested, but I didn’t need that. This division had always looked pretty tough and I had just come off the World Cup [where Trinidad & Tobago made their first appearance] and I thought that was the peak at my age.
“The gaffer and I had maybe spoken once since I left United, but then the call came through from him. He just said, ‘I’d love you to come and brighten up the place and bring your experience.’ And because it is Roy Keane, that is very flattering.” Yorke was on the next plane.
He says, only half-joking, that Keane needed someone who was not afraid of sitting down and talking to him. Just about everyone else at Sunderland is too wary of the man whose appearances in the occasional five-a-side can still put the players on edge. “Me and his assistant, we are the ones who cheer him up when he’s depressed,” Yorke said. “He likes that I can banter with him.” Yorke is not sure that anyone else dares.
Keane has been instilling self-belief, but also discipline. He left three players out of his team for missing the bus. “One look with those eyes can control a dressing-room,” Yorke said. “For a manager, that is quite a weapon.
“He has done everything that can be expected of him so far, although things have been going well, which makes his life easier — makes all our lives easier. We’ll see how things are when they don’t go so well.”
Keane and Yorke were teammates for four seasons at Old Trafford, winning three consecutive titles. Yorke was brilliant in that first, treble-winning campaign, but Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are the ones whose names ring around Old Trafford because of their goals in the Champions League final at the Nou Camp. While he does not make a big deal of it, Yorke feels that his contribution is overlooked. Former teammates do say that he lost some of his enthusiasm after the treble, although Yorke believes that Sir Alex Ferguson judged him on perceptions.
“I was obviously in a very public relationship with Jordan [the model, with whom he had a son, Harvey],” he said. “I would be out on a Wednesday night and that would come out in the paper on Friday. Of course, the gaffer reads it and thinks, ‘He’s been out again.’ He’s, what, 65, and old-fashioned in his ways. He would like everyone to be like Paul Scholes or Gary Neville.”
Yorke claims to have put in one last big effort, even giving up his international career, but Ferguson had bought Juan Sebastián Verón and Ruud van Nistelrooy and was determined to plough on with a one-man attack. “He wanted to play Scholes behind Van Nistelrooy and, no matter how I tried, he was set in establishing that formation,” Yorke said.
They left on good terms — Yorke leaves everyone on good terms — and Ferguson invited him to train at United when he needed to get fit for the World Cup finals last year. Yorke does admit to having lost his appetite for the game for a couple of years while at Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City. That period followed the loss of his sister, Verline, to cancer.
Yorke’s career was stagnating, although he is still bitter over the ferocious tackle from Graeme Souness, his manager at Blackburn at the time, on the training ground. “It does not surprise me that he’s out of a job because almost every club he’s gone to he’s not done it as a manager,” he said. “He’s f***ed up most of the time.” It is a rare flash of anger from a famously laid-back soul.
Yorke is loving life again and being back in England allows him to visit Harvey, 5, who has various health complications, including blindness. “Only time will tell how much he will be able to see but he’s a very happy young man,” he said.
He has just returned from visiting his good friend, Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, at the cricket World Cup. I suggest that it was brave of his manager to let him out of the country. “The gaffer can trust me,” he said, albeit with a twinkle in his eyes. “I used to be easily led, but I am having to set an example these days.”
He is managing to hold a place in central midfield, where he uses his comfort on the ball to good effect in a hurly-burly division. He has another 12 months on his contract and desperately hopes to spend it in the Barclays Premiership.
He acknowledges his debt to Keane, whose sense of humour can be as brutal as his tackles. When the United players were counting the days to Ferguson’s departure, none was more eager to usher him into retirement than the exiled Yorke.
Then came the day when the Scot called the players together and announced that he had decided to carry on. “That’s you f***ed”, Yorkie,” Keane said. He was f***ed then but he is loving every minute of his, and Sunderland’s, renaissance.