Tue, Jul

Dwight Yorke was just 17 years old when he gave his strongest hint yet of his rare quality as a footballer.

Trinidad and Tobago were away to Costa Rica and coach Everald "Gally" Cummings promoted Yorke-ahead of another precocious talent, Russell Latapy-to boss the midfield area. Central America is no place for the faint of heart and older, more experienced players struggled to cope with the demands of that environment.

Not only did Yorke look comfortable in his first competitive start, he twice shook the opposing upright with venomous shots and regularly imposed himself on a Costa Rican team that went on to win international respect at the 1990 World Cup with wins over Sweden and Scotland and a narrow 1-0 loss to Brazil.

It was the catalyst for an exceptional career which saw Yorke become the Caribbean's most celebrated player and a household name in regions all over the globe.

And yet, for over a decade, Trinidad and Tobago fans were convinced they were shortchanged.

When Yorke prematurely retired from international duty, five years ago, he tallied just six World Cup qualifying goals from four CONCACAF tournaments. He was joint sixth on the all-time list and well behind Steve David's 16 goals while Stern John has since pushed the record to 18.

Yorke's returns were closer to central defender Marvin Andrews and left back Marvin Faustin-both on five goals-than they are to the nation's most prolific strikers. It seemed incongruous with the reputation he built for himself abroad.

In Europe, he was the Caribbean's most recognisable player but, in his homeland, he was seen by many as a son who squandered his inheritance.

What a difference two years can make.

Ex-national coach Bertille St Clair spent his tenure as coach trying to coax his former protégé out of retirement. Two years ago, I raised the possibility of a return to international duty with Yorke after a Birmingham City training session.

Yorke swore that he was not for turning. He felt he had nothing to prove and had lost belief in the administration of the national team.

He changed his mind the following year after falling out of favour with Birmingham coach Steve Bruce and, inevitably, he was greeted with some skepticism on his homecoming. One newspaper editor-not at the Express-wrote an editorial outlining the reasons why Yorke should be overlooked. In truth, he should have killed the fattest calf to mark the occasion.

Yorke's worth to the "Soca Warriors" campaign was as invaluable as it was unexpected.

He did not register a single goal in 15 competitive outings and rarely stretched the opposing defence-in 23 outings, since his return, Yorke managed one successful free kick against St Vincent and the Grenadines as well as a cheeky penalty and tidy finish against Iceland.

But his leadership was outstanding. From the phone call that convinced Latapy to join the qualifying push, to his application and guidance on the field, Yorke captivated local fans with qualities they never knew existed. Perhaps he even surprised himself.

Respected for his goals and medals, he is adored now for less tangible qualities.

At 35, Yorke joined England Championship strugglers, Sunderland, after the World Cup and has helped the North East team from the bottom of the standings to a more creditable spot in mid-table.

The Trinbagonian contributed just one goal to their tally, but manager Roy Keane, a former Manchester United teammate, credited Yorke's role behind the scenes from selecting the pre-game music playlist to improving and energising his younger counterparts at training sessions and match days.

He is likely to do a similar job for the national team as new head coach Wim Rijsbergen tries to prune his squad for the 2010 World Cup push.

The supposed selfish star has been transformed into a selfless statesman.

Yorke's match winning days are gone, but it allowed his qualities as motivator and leader to come to the fore and it is encouraging to hear that he wants to acquire his coaching badges.

Older and wiser, he finally fulfilled his star billing and Trinidad and Tobago will never forget him for it.