In the summer of 2002 21-year-old Nigerian international defender Joseph Yobo became the first signing of Everton’s new manager David Moyes. His arrival on loan from Marseille saw Everton beat off the attentions of Juventus, Arsenal and Newcastle United and set the standard Moyes sought for his new arrivals. The youthful, elegant figure of Yobo was much in contrast to the overpaid veterans that had largely characterised the reign of Moyes’s predecessor Walter Smith.
Yobo had started his career with Mechelen, then Standard Liege, following a route travelled by many promising young African footballers, who see Belgium – with its easier immigration regulations – as the ideal stepping stone to the main European leagues. He appeared 46 times for Liege, making his debut for Nigeria too. In 2001 he joined Marseille and was part of the Nigeria squad that fell at the first stage at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.
The nature of Yobo’s transfer to Everton later that summer laid a template that Moyes would follow many times over subsequent years. He paid £1million for Yobo’s services for a year, with an option to complete the transfer at a fixed additional fee of (£4million) if he impressed. Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar would be signed permanently after similar deals proved successful later in the decade, while the likes of Phillipe Senderos, Manuel Fernandes and Jo would be discarded after failing to impress Everton’s exacting manager.
Happily Yobo impressed immediately. In his first days at Goodison he showed himself to be a skilful, ball-playing centre-half, with the ability to deputise at right back. Immensely cool in possession, he also had the fastest change of pace witnessed in an Everton central defender since Kevin Ratcliffe’s heyday.
Yobo’s debut season coincided with this author’s grandfather’s seventy-fifth year of watching the club. Normally difficult to please, Charles Mills was fulsome in his praise of the young African, saying that he overshadowed another young prodigy – Wayne Rooney. ‘He had a look of T. G. Jones about him,’ he said. ‘He is outstanding. In the fifty years since T. G. left I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody quite like him. Cool as you like, he never once looks flustered. For me, it was him that was the outstanding presence in many of those early games, not Rooney.’
In the summer of 2003 Moyes took up his option to retain Yobo after protracted transfer wranglings with his former club. With his teammates he suffered a difficult second season but he emerged a stronger player and played his part in Everton’s ascent to Champions League football after their fourth place in 2004/05. With the departure of Alan Stubbs at the end of that season Yobo’s name was assured as one of the first on the Everton teamsheet.
Much of the earlier exuberance of Yobo’s first days of the club had, alas, been coached out of him by this stage, and he was as renowned for his clearances into Row Z as he once was his flourishes and dragbacks in his own half. The transition made him a better, more resolute defender and in 2006/07, with Yobo virtually ever present, Everton had one of their best defensive seasons of all time, conceding just 36 league goals – a feat they bettered by three goals a year later.
There were, nevertheless, terrible lapses of concentration that perhaps stunted his ascent from top class Premier League defender to a player of world class renown. These became less prevalent as he matured, but were the cause for some angst-ridden moments.
Yobo was one of the most popular members of the Everton squad and seemed to possess a sense of level-headedness and inherent decency lacking in many of his Premier League contemporaries. He was a deeply religious man, who took strength from his convictions. 'It's important because I grew up with God,’ he said in an interview with The Observer in 2003. ‘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.'
With Yakubu and Victor Anichebe, Yobo formed a strong Nigerian contingent at Goodison. He participated in the 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010 editions of the African Cup of Nations, occasions that added to his standing as a footballer, but interrupted his Everton career. In 2010 he captained Nigeria at the World Cup finals in South Africa. As in his previous finals appearance in 2002 his country were knocked out in the first round.
Yobo found his Everton first team place threatened by the arrival of Phil Jagielka in 2007 and his emergence as an England international centre back after he had formed a good partnership with Joleon Lescott. But the reality was that in a congested season three top class central defenders were a necessity. This became apparent when Jagielka snapped his cruciate ligament at a crucial juncture of the 2008/09 campaign and Yobo reclaimed his place and appeared in the FA Cup Final defeat to Chelsea at the season’s end.
In the summer of 2009 Lescott joined Manchester City following an acrimonious transfer wrangle. Yet rather than cement Yobo’s place in the team, Moyes showed a preference for Lescott’s replacement, Sylvain Distin, alongside Jagielka. In the second half of the 2009/10 campaign Yobo made just three starts, amidst speculation that he had fallen out with Moyes.
At the end of the season he was loaned out to Turkish club Fenerbahce, where his career was revitalised. Yobo scored the goal that clinched the league title for the club in a 4-3 win over Sivasspor, enabling the Istanbul club to pip Trabzonspor to the title on the head-to-head rule after they finished on equal points. It proved to be something of a hollow victory, however, with Fenerbahce implicated in a huge match-fixing scandal and stripped of the right to compete in the following season’s Champions League.
That prevented Yobo from making a permanent £6million switch, but he was in no doubt that he did not wish to return to Merseyside. ‘I do not want to return to Everton because I have seen the difference in playing in a competitive team on a regular basis and that has helped me to improve,’ he said. With this in mind, Everton accepted a second year-long loan deal and Yobo returned to Turkey.