SPOTLIGHT: Gyan's ready to go in derby

20 August 2011 08:00
WITH the clock ticking towards Sunderland's first meeting with Newcastle United of the season, Asamoah Gyan seemed relaxed enough.

After breaking from the table-tennis in the games room at the Academy of Light, the jovial African chatted extensively about his childhood, his ambitions, life outside of football and, of course, the Wear-Tyne derby.

All that will matter to Gyan today, though, will be the date with Newcastle. He will prepare for, play in and recover from the biggest match the North-East has to offer and his performance will be examined on Wearside, Tyneside and by millions back in his homeland, Ghana.

This will be the third time he has faced Newcastle in his 12 months in the region. Having lost 5-1 last October and scored the late, late equaliser with his chest in the return fixture in January, Gyan is still to enjoy the experience of a victory over Sunderland's fierce rivals.

To Gyan, football has been his life ever since his early school days in Accra. Like the majority of young footballers in Africa, he would be out on the dry wastelands across the country in his bare feet.

Such times are far removed from Gyan's lifestyle now. A superstar in Ghana, he was wearing a Michael Jackson t-shirt, covered in diamantes, as he chatted, sporting a watch and necklace encrusted in diamonds.

Such pleasures are his own rewards that vindicate his decision to uproot from his family unit during his teenage years, choosing to head for trials in Greece and Italy. Finally playing in football boots rather than destroying the souls of his feet.

"There is a lot of football talent in Ghana, it's a football nation and I was one of those desperate to make it as a professional when I was young," said Gyan. "You see all the young players playing bare footed and I was one of those. I would always play without any shoes or trainers right up until I was ten. It just felt natural, it's strange when you look back, but it felt right.

"I will never forget those days. Without boots you kept hurting yourself, you'd kick the ground and see the blood pouring out. It really hurt and you'd have to run off, get it cleaned up, and then you'd go back and play.

"It would still be hurting you, yet you would still go out there and play with the wounds. It sounds strange but it was fun and thousands of children still do that now across Africa. That's just the way it is."

It was from such times of hardship that Gyan developed his talent for the game. He started out as a left-back, which is fitting considering his favourite number is the "lucky 3" he wears on the back of his shirt, but he had become a striker by the time he headed to Athens for a trial.

Gyan said: "At 15 I travelled over to Panathinaikos, they wanted me to sign. I was all set to move to Greece at that age, but FIFA brought in a rule change that meant I couldn't because of my age so I went back to Ghana.

"I would have signed for them but I ended up signing for Udinese in Italy when I was 18 after I'd had a trial there. In between Panathinaikos and Udinese, I went back to Ghana to continue my education.

"It was hard to leave home, like it is for so many young African footballers, but to go to Europe is a great opportunity. If you're successful you often have to move away, it's something you just have to get used to."

Gyan might have spent the last eight years away from Ghana, but he has never forgotten his roots. That is why, in January, he will be launching his own charity, which is aimed at improving the standard of living in the rural areas of Ghana.

"It will be about making sure there is clean water in the villages in Ghana and helping teenage girls in the country," said Gyan. "Sometimes the young girls marry very young, then go to the marital home without education. Sometimes it's about being educated and I hope to help.

"At that age, 15, girls need to be able to go to school. There's a saying in Ghana, 'a man can do, but a woman can do better' and hopefully I can make sure they become important people.

"I've seen so many problems at home so that's why I want to help. I grew up in the city so I didn't come across issues with the water as much, but it would be good for the villages to tackle and I want to help."

Whether it is in the rural areas of Ghana or on the main streets of Accra today, millions will be watching their World Cup hero in action for Sunderland in the Premier League.

Sulley Muntari and John Mensah may have departed, but the Ghana flag is flying high at the Stadium of Light and Gyan thinks there are presently more Sunderland supporters in that corner of the world than any other top-flight club.

"Everybody in Ghana watches Sunderland," said Gyan. "It's not Chelsea or the big teams like Manchester anymore. I'm the only Ghanaian in the Premier League because Michael Essien is injured at the moment at Chelsea.

"It's like Ghana are playing in the Premier League when I am playing. Ghana is now Sunderland. Everyone over there wants to watch. It's incredible. Saturday will be massive."

Since leaving the Accra based Liberty Professionals in 2003 to join Udinese, Gyan has gone on to represent his country 51 times and his form for Udinese, Modena and latterly Rennes persuaded Steve Bruce to pay £13m for him last August.

During his career he has experienced what it is like to play in such important occasions, particularly when Ghana have come up against their staunchest African rivals, Nigeria. His experience of his two Wear-Tyne derbies, however, have left him reflecting there is nothing quite on a par.

"I've played in a lot of big rivalry games but this one is special," said Gyan, linked throughout the summer to a move to Tottenham but maintains he is happy in the North-East.

"Everybody talks about it all the time and if you score you're a legend. It's special to all of the fans and as players we can't afford to lose.

"African soccer is different, everyone loves the game there's something extraordinary about this fixture. There are games like Real Madrid v Barcelona but this one is something else. The way the atmosphere is generated is incredible."

When Gyan was talking, there was still 48 hours before Sunderland were due out to face Newcastle in the Stadium of Light's first match of the new Premier League season.

Sunderland head in to the fixture with nine summer additions to the first team squad and Gyan - who last year recorded a Ghanaian Hiplife song with Castro the Destroyer that won a gong at Ghana's Music Awards - has been trying to get the rest of the squad in tune before the Magpies' visit.

"Everybody's prepared for the game," said Gyan, whose alias in the music industry is Baby Jet. "I sang one of my own songs to the squad on Wednesday. Maybe we should try warming up for the derby by singing it.

"I had to sing in the hotel before the Liverpool game as well, they all told me to sing. Everybody sat down and had to look at me. We didn't do too badly there, so maybe we should keep it up.

"We didn't play well at all against Newcastle last year. We needed something extra and we have a lot of new players. Newcastle have got a new team as well, it will be interesting because of the number of new players involved on both sides.

"Last season they dominated both games but this is going to be different, we're talking about a different Sunderland team. Everybody's prepared, I don't believe in mind games, for me they don't come in to it, you just have to go on to the field and deliver."

If he can help Sunderland triumph in the 144th Wear-Tyne derby at lunch-time, the African dance which has become a regular fixture in the Black Cats dressing room over the last 12 months will be in full flow come full-time.

Source: Northern_Echo