Wayne Rooney had been and gone, Tomasz Radzinski was dotting his final ”i” with a flourish and the last of the spring rolls sat soggy and shunned when the man of the moment arrived at the monthly supporters’ meal.
Joseph Yobo was the centre of Merseyside’s most burning ”will he, won’t he” debate of the season. It was finally put to rest this week when Everton turned his Â£1-million one-year loan deal from Marseille into a permanent move.
Yobo was an inspired choice for David Moyes’s first signing as a top-flight manager. Strong and athletic, all boundless energy and expert positioning, the Nigerian has recovered from a slow start — an ankle injury picked up in pre-season and then aggravated in training kept him out until late September — to establish himself among the best defenders in the premiership.
With his gargantuan presence reassuring a back line once prone to implode, Everton have conceded few goals in their recent run.
While the 22-year-old remained on loan there were nervous whisperings in the Gwladys Street. The 12-month loan deal cost an extra Â£4-million to extend the contract by four years.
”It’s all going to the Yobo fund,” joked one Goodison employee having sold a Â£1 club pen to a fan preparing to enter the autograph frenzy.
But the fact that Yobo lives in the same apartment complex as Gerard Houllier hardly eased nerves at the ”school of science”.
”I’d never played in a divided city before, where you’d expect some people not to warm to me,” said the defender, whose stirring performances for a disappointing Nigeria in Japan generated interest from Juventus, Newcastle and Arsenal. ”But everyone, even the Liverpool fans, have welcomed me. I can understand the Everton supporters’ concern but I’m having a wonderful time and they’ve shown me love.
”This was a step into the unknown for me, a big decision to come here because the club has been struggling. But I arrived here and talked to the manager and he convinced me to come. I didn’t know of David Moyes before but his ambition shines through everything — the club, the players he signs, the players he already has.
”He has set his sights on great things, on bringing back some of the glories of the past. He is building a team that will be successful, a side with fight and determination, and that’s why I came here. I’m ambitious and I can always get better, in every aspect of my game, but I’ll keep working hard. I wanted to play at a European team, and at one of the top clubs — I am now.”
Yobo is fashioned from the same mould as his manager — young, dynamic, self-assured — and, like Moyes, has settled serenely into the premiership. An assured debut against Fulham in September proved the catalyst, his authority swelling with every game.
At Blackburn last month he was utterly dominant, in the air and on the ground, with his side’s fourth successive 1-0 league victory, their fifth win in succession, culminating in the defender flinging his shirt gleefully into the delirious Darwen End. The last time Evertonians were demanding an African’s shirt, they were spitting with rage at Alex Nyarko’s spineless displays.
Yobo’s sending off against New- castle resulted in the team’s first loss in six games.
The Nigerian can appreciate their recent toils. At Marseille he played for France’s biggest recent underachievers, a side who struggled pitifully last season. Just over two years ago Marseille fans attacked six of their players — including the captain at the time, Robert Pires — at the club’s training camp in the wake of a 5-1 defeat by St Etienne.
”The coach spent so much money and we had a team full of new players, but we were not familiar with each other,” said Yobo , who moved to the Stade Velodrome from Standard Liege. ”We had early set-backs and never recovered.
”The fans expect Marseille to be in the top three every year so, if we didn’t win a game, they got at us. They didn’t understand why the team was struggling, and that made life hard. People recognise you in the street, give you trouble and you end up not going out. After that, coming here and being welcomed as I have has been so refreshing.”
This year, Marseille are one of a clutch of clubs mounting a title challenge, not that Yobo is unhappy to miss the revival.
”There was a lot of expectancy after what I did at the World Cup and I wanted to justify that to the Everton fans,” he added. ”But I’ve started to show my qualities and my confidence. Now I don’t feel under any pressure.” —