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Media Interview

Yobo in power play

Jamie Jackson, The Observer — 7 September, 2003


Joseph Yobo: The quietly confident young defender is happy proving himself at Everton
On a Friday evening in late July, Joseph Yobo was tracked down to the north London hotel where he was staying with the Nigeria team ahead of an international the next day. When the central defender's room was called, a friend answered and said Yobo was on a long-distance call but would be happy to speak soon. Considering no appointment had been made, this was kind. But an hour passed, Yobo did not appear and, when his room was called again, the friend apologised. Everton's £3.5 million signing from Marseille in May - he played on loan last season - had slipped out of the hotel with the rest of the players for dinner.
Without a great deal of hope, a mobile number was left. But just before midnight, two voicemail messages were received, each from Yobo apologising in his gentle lilt for his rudeness and arranging to speak the next morning. A rather nice surprise and a sign that, well, he's one of the good guys. And so, just after 10 the next morning, Yobo, capped 18 times for Nigeria, appeared in the hotel lounge. Various team-mates were scattered around eating breakfast and after exchanging a morning hello with Bolton's rather stocky looking Jay-Jay Okocha, he took a seat.

Yobo, 23 yesterday, was born in Kono, southern Nigeria, and began his career with Michelin of Port Harcourt, a team owned by the tyre manufacturer. Despite being considered the best defender to grace Goodison Park since Kevin Ratcliffe (during Everton's most successful period 20 years ago) Yobo first came to prominence as a striker during the 1999 World Youth Cup and also featured, early on in his career, in midfield.

Defence, though, is his natural habitat. 'I am very strong at centre-back and I want to get better in that position. If I don't make silly mistakes, I will do a good job,' he says.

At 6ft 1in he is athletic, rather than imposing - and this quality, also evident in his on-field game, is probably the area he needs to improve. During the 3-0 Merseyside derby defeat eight days ago, Yobo was at fault for Liverpool's second, his failure to muscle in on Milan Baros allowing the Czech to nip in and lay the ball on for Michael Owen to score. This is surely just a matter of fine tuning. His relaxed demeanour - he strikes you as wiser than his years and at ease with himself - will also be an invaluable quality through his career when the inevitable dips in form arrive.

How happy is he then at Everton? 'Very. I am well settled,' he says, smiling. Was it nerve-racking playing on-loan last season and having to prove himself? He shrugs. 'No, because at Marseille I was happy. I just wanted to prove something, so I had a discussion with the manager [David Moyes] and I said, "Let me come and see what will happen."'

In 1998 Yobo moved from Port Harcourt to Standard Liège in Belgium. He followed the example of elder brother Albert (also a central defender) who had moved abroad before him, first to Auxerre and then to his present club, Grazer AK in Austria. Three seasons and 48 appearances later, he left for Marseille and following a brief loan to Tenerife and 23 games for the French club, he ended up on Merseyside last summer.

'Marseille is more like a traditional club [than Everton]. There is only one team in the city and everyone adores the players. Here it is different. When we play against Liverpool this is not really football. Just power, power - you give it everything.'

Yobo is impressed with the work Moyes has so far done with him and 'wonder kid' Wayne Rooney. 'He does different things in training. He is the type that if you let him play he is difficult to mark. But if you get close, then it is also difficult.'

Now settled in Everton's central defence, after Moyes played him at right-back for a few games, he names pace and power in the tackle as his strengths. To these should be added his mental approach. He gets excited not nervous, he says, and was unfazed playing in last summer's World Cup, where he was one of the few exceptions in a disappointing tournament for Nigeria. 'I felt very comfortable. It was a big experience because it was my first World Cup I wanted to give it my best and the atmos phere was great. For me I was very happy to be part of that.'

Yobo is a devout Christian - he wears a large silver crucifix that is visible over his tracksuit top - and feels his faith is fundamental to his life and football. 'It's important because I grew up with God. I say my prayers and go to church in Liverpool every week. It gives me hope and takes me away from bad matches. If I don't play well then I worry.' He has also been helped by Okocha and Arsenal's Kanu who call after games, offering advice and support.

Although viewed as the successor to Okocha as Nigeria's skipper - he has already performed the role - for now Yobo just wants to play. 'That's all. I try my best every game. But when I was chosen to lead, I had to set the example [and] I find it natural.'

As natural for some, though not many, as returning calls close to midnight ahead of an international. Yobo made 22 starts for Everton last season. Expect him to be ever present this campaign.

�2003 The Observer


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