Former Celtic, Liverpool & Manchester City academy player Marcus Yakou speaks to Seán McGill about his friendship with Karamoko Dembele, the mental toll of lockdown & the possibility of returning north of the border.
The green and white hoops of Celtic. The royal red of Liverpool. The striking sky blue of Manchester City. The closest most 18-year-olds will get to this career path is a game of FIFA. For Marcus Yakou, it has been a reality.
From growing up in France, to striking up a friendship with Karamoko Dembele, to learning his trade in the academies of some of Britain’s biggest clubs, the teenager has built up experience beyond his years.
Yakou believes now is the time fulfil his potential and truly break through, and thinks Scotland may be the perfect place to do it.
“The Scottish leagues are underrated. I think for a while people go bored because Celtic were just dominating, but now since Rangers have kicked on, and there’s been good teams like Aberdeen and Motherwell in recent years, the league is more competitive now. I think it’d give me a good chance to get myself out there if I came back to Scotland one day,” he said.
A return to Scotland may feel like somewhat of a homecoming for Yakou, but his earliest years were spent in France with his parents of Ivorian descent. With four older brothers and a younger sister, there was plenty to occupy his growing mind. It transpired that more often than not, football was the focus.
“There’d always be five-a-side tournaments going on outside my house. Since I had four brothers, we’d enter together. I was four or five playing against 14/15-year-olds. It really helped my development.”
It wasn’t long before his talents garnered some attention, as Paris FC picked up the youngster before he was seven.
Determined that their children would speak English, Yakou’s parents announced that the family would be relocating to Scotland. Within just a few months of arriving on Scottish shores, Celtic saw him as a fitting addition to their under-11 set up. Even at that young age, the difference in style compared to his homeland was not lost on him.
“The pace of the game is much quicker in Scotland. In France, it’s more technical, we like to keep the ball. It’s quite a slow pace. You’ve got more time on the ball, but in Scotland, even at under-11s, you don’t have time.”
“When I was at Celtic I was at my happiest. Scotland’s quite chilled, I think it’s a good place to concentrate on your football without too many distractions.”
It was during this time at Celtic that he formed a strong friendship with Karamoko Dembele, the Celtic starlet who looked set to break into the Hoops first team towards the end of the 2018/19 season. The lack of game time afforded to his friend has surprised Yakou.
“I’m a bit disappointed for him. He’s got the talent. I don’t see any winger who can do the stuff that he does in that team. He’ll get his chance, at Celtic or somewhere else, and break out soon.”
“He’s doing well, so I’m just trying to catch up. I think it’s competitive like that. If I go back to Scotland, I’d love to play against him. He’s probably one of the best players I’ve played with and it’s all love at the end.”
Despite Yakou’s upbringing in France and then Scotland, his accent couldn’t be any more Scouse, courtesy of his move to Liverpool after leaving Celtic. A spell at Manchester City followed his departure from the Reds, further enhancing his technical and tactical abilities, leaving him capable of playing as a six or an eight, as a centre-back or a right-back.
“I don’t shy away from the physical game, but I prefer when the ball’s on the ground so I can play. I’d be excited if I came back to Scotland, just to show what I can offer to a team.”
As it became apparent that minutes would be limited for Yakou due to City splashing out on the world’s best young talent, it was time to take the next step.
Leaving the comfort of elite academies is bound to be tricky for any youngster. Initially enamoured with his move to Bury, the club ultimately succumbed to their financial woes, just as the youngster had been offered a scholarship.
“I thought I was going to kick on at Bury and then you start hearing things like ‘the club doesn’t have money’ and ‘the club doesn’t know if they can pay your scholarship’. I was really gutted to leave.”
Yakou enjoyed his time at AFC Fylde before joining current side Stockport County since Bury’s untimely demise, speaking eloquently of how his new experiences have shaped him, while being candid about the mental consequences of a young player’s development being held back by lockdown.
“I nearly broke down the last few months. I just really wanted to play. Mentally, it definitely takes a toll on you…I was just so frustrated at not being able to play. Waking up and doing the same thing. Training on your own is quite difficult as well, it all just took a toll on me.”
“Leaving big clubs for the lower leagues has made me mentally stronger through. I think when you’re at a big club you’re in a bubble. You’re so comfortable with the coaches that you don’t need to push yourself as much.”
This ability to reflect on his journey, to offer astute insights on the moments and decisions that have shaped his fledgling career, exemplifies the confidence and intelligence of Yakou. Should he return north, Scotland will have gained a youngster with the type of resilience and hunger that is always guaranteed to get the terraces talking.