Forgotten Footballers: Nigeria’s Yakubu Aiyegbeni

He has appeared in over 250 Premier League matches for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers, is the second highest ever African goalscorer in Premier League history and the third

He has appeared in over 250 Premier League matches for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn Rovers, is the second highest ever African goalscorer in Premier League history and the third highest ever international goalscorer for Nigeria. It can only be one man, ‘The Yak’ himself: Yakubu.

Name: Yakubu Aiyegbeni

Age: 31

Position: Striker

Clubs: Julius Berger FC, Maccabi Haifa, Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton, Leicester City, Blackburn Rovers, Guangzhou R&F, Al Rayyan SC

Country: Nigeria

From barefoot to boots

Yakubu Aiyegbeni started his career with Nigerian club Julius Berger FC in 1997, before moving to Israel for three years to play for Maccabi Haifa. Here, he showed his goal scoring exploits and helped Haifa win the Israeli Premier League in back-to-back seasons (2000/01 – 2001/02) to qualify for European Cup football. During the 2001/02 season, the Nigerain striker scored 13 goals in 22 games to become the club’s top scorer (joint fourth in the league top scorers). 

In the 2002/03 season, Haifa finished second in the league but the Yak managed to score five goals in five Champions League appearances, including a hat-trick against Olympiakos, in the group stages. These impressive performances in Europe caught the eye of then Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp, who wasted no time in signing the striker on loan in January 2003. 

The Yak joined Pompey whilst they were playing in the First Division (now the Championship), and soon made his mark in English football scoring at a rate of one goal every two games (seven goals in 14 games). These goals, in the second half of the season, earned much-needed points to help Portsmouth win the 2002/03 Division 1 title and secure promotion to the Premier league. Yakubu’s contribution to his sides’ success was much admired and saw his temporary loan became a permanent transfer in May 2003. 

Did you know?

Yakubu used to play barefoot on the streets of Benin, Nigeria, until his brother gave him a pair of boots aged 12. 

English dominance 

No. 1 Portsmouth

In the 2003/04 season, Yakubu played all but one of Portsmouth’s Premier League matches (37 in 38), starting all but two, even if he did lack consistency. 

He scored his first Premier League goal in his second match, opening a 1-1 draw against Manchester City in August. Two months later, after eight consecutive league matches without a goal, he scored a brace in a 4-2 win at Nottingham Forest in the League Cup. He then went on to score the final goal of a 6-1 win over Leeds United in November, to what was to be the biggest home win of the league. For the next seven league matches and a League Cup defeat to local rivals Southampton, the Yak did not score. 

This dry run was thought to have ended in January 2004, as Yakubu scored four goals in three games, one against Blackpool in the FA Cup, then one against Aston Villa and two against Manchester City in the league. But, after that, he did not score for the next six Premier League games or three FA Cup matches, during which he also played at the 2004 African Cup of Nations. It was because of international duty, the Nigerian missed his only league match of the season, a 3-0 loss at Liverpool in March. 

He did however end the season with 11 goals in 10 league games, starting with one each in four straight games. The first was the only goal in the South Coast Derby against Southampton, followed by a goal each against Blackburn and Charlton Athletic. He then scored four in one game as Portsmouth defeated Middlesbrough 5-1 on the final day of the season. 

Yakubu scored 16 league goals all season, making him the clubs top scorer (joint-sixth highest scorer in the league). Portsmouth finished a respectable 13th place in the league, just missing out on European Cup football. Fratton Park was one of the hardest grounds to get a result at that season, with their powerful frontman striking fear in the eyes of defenders. Portsmouth were also the only newly promoted side to preserve Premiership status as Leicester City (18th) and Wolverhampton Wanderers (20th) were relegated back to the Championship.

During the summer of 2004, several of Pompey’s Premier League rivals were chasing the signature of their star striker, for up to £10 million. Instead, Yakubu chose to stay and help improve the club’s position in the next season. He scored 13 goals in 30 games but his club finished 16th having been dragged into a relegation dog fight. His final goal for Pompey came in May 2005, before he left the club, an equaliser at home to Bolton Wanderers in the penultimate league game of the season. Though, this single goal, gave the single point that assured survival in the Premiership for Portsmouth. 

There were however managerial changes in fear of relegation for the club that season. Redknapp was replaced by executive director Velimir Zajec in November, then he too was replaced by Alan Perrin four months later. This staff shake-up and in search of European football had the Nigerian international looking to play for another club in England, preferably a more stable one.

Yakubu’s 29 league goals between two seasons make him Portsmouth’s highest ever scorer in the Premier League, with nine more than their second-highest scorer Benjani Mwaruwari. During two and a half seasons in all competitions (League Cup and FA Cup) the Yak scored over 40 goals in over 90 games for Portsmouth. 

No.2 Middlesbrough

In the summer of 2005, Yakubu moved to Middlesbrough for £7.5 million, a record fee for a Nigerian player ever. In his first season, he scored 13 goals in 34 games (including four goals in seven FA Cup matches), followed by 12 goals in 37 games in the season after (including four goals in eight FA Cup matches). 

The Yak further showcased his talents where he was first spotted, in Europe, forming a formidable partnership with Australian Mark Viduka. Yakuba helped spearhead Middlesbrough to the 2006 UEFA Cup final against Sevilla, beating the likes of Roma, FC Basel and Steaua București on the way, only to lose 4-0. 

The Riverside outfit finished 14th under Steve McLaren in the 2005/06 season before joining England and replaced with then club captain Gareth Southgate who managed to get his side 12th in the 2006/07 season. 

However, even though the Nigerian reached further in European Cup football than ever before, he wanted to play for something more. So Middlesbrough’s 2007 player of the year was yet again in search for another club, and yet again in England, but this time, a club destined for bigger and better things. 

No.3 Everton

In the summer of 2007, Yakubu joined Everton for a club record fee of £11.25 million on a five-year deal. He had apparently rejected the traditional centre-forwards’ number 9, in choice of the number 22 instead. This was his goal-scoring target for his first season with the Toffees, a feat he fell just one goal short of achieving. 

He got off to a flying start, opening the scoring on his debut in a 2-1 win at Bolton in September. His fist ‘yak’-trick was against Fulham in a 3-0 win at Goodison Park in December. Yakuba then flew off to play for Nigeria in the 2008 African Cup of Nations but following their exit, was late returning to Everton, and as a result dropped by then manager David Moyes.

Nevertheless he soon burst back onto the scene, literally, scoring one of the fastest goals of the season, within 47 seconds he opened fire in a 3-1 win over former club Portsmouth. He remained a constant scoring threat throughout the rest of the season, adding a further three goals in three League Cup games on the way.  

In the last game of the 2007/08 season, the Nigerian internationals’ brace against Newcastle United in another 3-1 home win helped the Toffees clinch fifth place and qualify for European Cup football. He finished the season with 15 league goals to his name, 21 goals in all competitions (League Cup and Europe); it was a career best having played 39 games in total. The Yak even became the first Everton player since Peter Beardsley (1991-1993) to net more than 20 goals in a season. 

Yakuba started the 2008/09 season in similar fashion, scoring four times in the first five games. He went on to score his 100th goal in English football in a 2-1 league match win at West Bromwich Albion. However, he then failed to find the back of the net in 10 consecutive games, and things went from bad to worse. As soon after, the striker ruptured his Achilles in a league match against Tottenham Hotspur, ruling him out for the rest of the season. As a result, Yakubu only managed to score four goals in 14 games for Everton, who did well to finish fifth without their main man leading the attack. 

In the 2009/10 season, he slowly but surely came back to the first team having played in the reserves for almost a year. Everton fans showed their support for their forward by creating the chant ‘Feed the Yak and he will score!’ Though, however much he tried to repay the faithful, Yakubu still found it difficult to score more than five goals (25 games) in the league on his comeback for the club. As a result, the Toffees slipped to eighth in the league table. 

In the 2010/11 season it wasn’t much better either, he played 15 games and only scored one goal before being sent on loan to Championship side Leicester City for the second half of the season. During four and a half years, in all competitions (Europe, League Cup and FA Cup), Yakubu scored over 30 goals in over 100 games for Everton.

No. 4 Leicester City

Yakubu joined Leicester in January 2011, in the hope of a regular starting spot under then manager Sven Goran Eriksen. It’s what he got and the Nigerian re-found his goalscoing touch in the Championship, scoring on his debut in a 1-1 draw against Preston North End. Over the next five months he went on to score 11 goals in 20 games for the Foxes, as they finished 10th in the league. Yet, the Yak wanted away from the then Walkers Stadium, to be back playing in the top flight of English football again, this time for any club that expressed an interest first. 

No. 5 Blackburn Rovers

In the summer of 2011, on transfer deadline day, Yakubu signed a three-year deal with Blackburn Rovers for an undisclosed fee. He was assigned the number 24 shirt by manager Steve Kean (perhaps an indication of how many goals he wanted him to score) and the Yak was determined to make the fans chant his name once again. 

Without question, they did. The striker claimed a Man of the Match performance in September on his debut against Arsenal, in which he scored a brace in Blackburn’s 4-3 victory. In December, the Yak scored all four goals for Blackburn in a 4-2 win over Swansea City, scoring two in each half. It was his first Rovers hat-trick and his first four goal haul since the last day of the 2003/04 season, for Portsmouth against Middlesbrough. Later that month, he scored two goals in his sides shock 3-2 victory at Manchester United. 

In January 2012, against Fulham, Yakubu was shown a straight red card, for the first time in his career, and in his nine years playing in the Premier League. On his return from suspension, he notably scored two in April at home to Liverpool, although they lost 3-2. 

In his first season at Ewood Park, he made a significant contribution for the club in all competitions scoring 18 goals in 33 games, the joint fourth top scorer in the league. However, despite the Yak’s best efforts, the Rovers finished 19th in the league and were consequently relegated to the Championship.

This prompted Blackburn’s player of the season for 2011/12 to consider his options and leave for not another club in England but China, to be a part of the highly lucrative football programme currently in the making, alike fellow strikers Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. 

China, Qatar and beyond

The Yak signed a three-year deal with Chinese side Guangzhou R&F in the summer of 2012. He scored over 20 goals in over 40 games, helping Guangzhou claim mid-table finishes before being lured to Qatar by Al Rayyan SC in 2014, after just two years in China. This was the last we heard of Yakubu. 

Yakubu Aiyegbeni on one hand can be remembered for missing an open goal for Nigeria against South Korea, at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, or on the other hand remembered as a strong and explosive striker who scores for fun, whether it’s one, two, three or even four in a single game.

In search of that European dream, the Nigerians fine form saw him rise to fame in England, winning awards, breaking records and even gaining his own chant in the process. One of the highest and sometimes even fastest goal scorers, he netted a century of goals in one of the best leagues in the world.  

Whether the 31-year-old chooses to play out the rest of his career in Qatar or perhaps make a shock return to the Premier League, there is no doubt wherever he plays, Yakubu will continue to terrorise defences week in week out.  

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Image: Google