DeAndre Yedlin is centre stage in a primary school gymnasium, helping to teach a group of suddenly rather self‑conscious children the art of trapping, volleying and heading a football. As they gradually shed their initial shyness in the face of the vividly dressed Newcastle United player leaning casually against the wallbars, Yedlin, too, relaxes.
Yet if Rafael Benítez’s first-choice right-back is ideally qualified to help spearhead a charitable mission to promote physical activity among North Tyneside’s children, the 24-year-old United States international is most definitely not your stereotypical one-dimensional elite athlete.
Growing up in Seattle and studying at university in Ohio, a love of art and design almost rivalled football for first place in his affections. The interest has resulted in a clothing range named Roselle, Yedlin’s middle name. “It’s going well,” he says. “I’m just waiting for some samples to come back to me from LA, then we’ll be ready.”
Judging by his trademark style – slightly bling with an abstract twist featuring splashes of primary colours – footballers could prove ideal consumers. “Players, yeah, but I don’t like to put a market on it,” he says. “It’s whoever likes the clothes. If you put a market on it you get into people’s heads a little bit and limit them. It doesn’t matter to me if someone wearing the clothes is 10 or 90; what matters is that they like them.”
If the admittedly unlikely idea of Benítez modelling Yedlin’s range while prowling the technical area would provoke delight, the prospect of Donald Trump as a client is less appealing. “I’m not really a political person but I’m not the biggest fan of Trump,” Yedlin says. “I have my thoughts on him. I’m not a fan of his policies, the things he says, the things he’s brought to the table.”
In contrast, a player looking forward to renewing old acquaintances against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley on Wednesday night has nothing negative to say of the three managers he has played under in England. “Mauricio Pochettino [Spurs], Sam Allardyce [Sunderland] and Rafa have improved the defensive side of my game 100%,” he says. “They’ve all got different qualities but they’ve all been good to me. Allardyce is more the traditional English coach, Pochettino’s a little bit standoffish, in the sense he just kind of lets you do your own thing, and Rafa’s much more hands-on. Rafa does a lot more one-on-one work with players.
“Rafa understands that every player’s different and needs different things. He connects with everybody on a personal level. I’m really fortunate to be working under him.”
Benítez has taken the trouble to understand Yedlin’s background, to grasp the depth of his relationship with the grandparents, who brought him up and regularly visit him in Newcastle. The defender has never met his father, who is serving life in a US prison, but he is now on good terms with his mother.
A mix of Latvian, African American and Native American heritage, Yedlin sports tattoos in Hebrew paying homage to his great grandparents and the role of his great-grandfather, Irving J Schaffer, in flying fighters for the US airforce during the second world war. “I’m not a practicing Jew but my great-grandparents were,” he says. “It’s part of our family history.”
In 2005 Schaffer published Red Skies at Night in the hope his searing accounts of combat missions and the psychological damage inflicted by battle might help veterans afflicted by Gulf war syndrome.
Schaffer’s great-grandson knows he is lucky to inhabit a very different world. Even so, in a football context, this season has contained some tense moments for last season’s Championship winners.
“If, before Christmas, you’d have asked a lot of people if we’d be safe in early April they’d have said: ‘You’re crazy,’” Yedlin says. “You have to give credit to not just us players and the staff but the fans. They didn’t turn on us when results went badly, they stuck with us, stayed positive and it’s paid off.
Since a win against Arsenal in mid-April secured safety, results have slipped. Newcastle’s slight loss of edge and motivation is something the USA international is unhappy yet realistic about. “A lot of people don’t realise how mentally tough the Premier League is. There are so many ups and downs and the margins are so fine but we want to end the season on a high.”
He is also praying Benítez extends his contract at St James’ Park. With a year remaining on that deal and admirers circling, the Champions League-winning manager is seeking assurances as to the size of next season’s budget and the board’s ambitions from Mike Ashley, Newcastle’s maverick owner.
Negotiations are delicately poised and trust seems elusive but Yedlin is desperate for Benítez to continue. “The discussions between the manager and the club are massive,” he says. “He’s a great manager. He’s loved by the city and the club.
“He’s put so much faith and trust in me, he’s taught me a lot. This city and this club need to keep Rafa – and for a long time. There’s a sense of unity under him. The reason I joined Newcastle was because I could see we could do great things. If Rafa stays, I think we can achieve a lot.”
More immediately, victory at Spurs would help secure a top 10 finish. “Playing at Wembley will be pretty cool,” says Yedlin, who is looking forward to showing off his scorching acceleration at the national stadium. “Even Americans have heard of Wembley! And I’ve still got a lot of friends at Spurs; people it will be great to see again.”
There is no resentment towards Pochettino for sidelining him. “I understand his decision to leave me out. It’s all worked out, I’m very happy here. I thought London would be great but I actually found it pretty difficult. Newcastle feels more like home, more like Seattle, it’s more relaxed and the people are much friendlier. It’s a unique place – like nowhere else in England I’ve been. Newcastle’s fantastic.”
Yedlin had hoped to visit Russia for the World Cup this summer but the USA’s failure to qualify leaves him kicking his heels. “It’s the biggest event in football so not being involved is very disappointing,” he says. “But a lot of very good younger players are coming through in America and I’m very excited for the future of our national team.”
What price the USA squad heading for the 2022 finals in Qatar resplendent in Yedlin’s trendsetting suits?
Source: The Guardian