There is a good chance Asamoah Gyan will be celebrating more than just his 25th birthday tomorrow. Having scored four goals in his past three appearances for Sunderland, including an excellent strike in Sunday's victory at Chelsea, the Ghanaian will be confident of finding the net against Everton. That would further endear him to fans and make it seem even more improbable that there was a time when supporters, not Sunderland's, wanted to kill him. But there was.
Steve Bruce made Gyan Sunderland's record signing in the summer when he bought him for £13m from French club Rennes but, if the size of the fee and expectations placed any burden on the striker, it cannot have been more onerous than the pressure he endured during the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations. Ghana, as hosts, were considered one of the favourites to win but they laboured through the group stages, during which Gyan squandered a slew of chances. He was particularly wasteful during the 1-0 win over the minnows Namibia, so much so that he received death threats from enraged fans. One small group of extremist supporters descended on his family home to harass his mother, prompting the striker and his elder brother, Baffour, a midfielder who spent a decade playing in eastern Europe before returning to Ghana where he now turns out for Asante Kotoko, to vow to quit playing for the national team unless the abuse ceased. Ghana's then manager, Claude Le Roy, warned fans that if they hounded Gyan out they would be losing a player destined to be one of the game's greats. "People should have patience with Asamoah, he is a very young striker and looking at him objectively I can say that his pedigree is not far off Samuel Eto'o or Didier Drogba," said Le Roy.
That was not the first time such predictions had been made. Gyan has been tipped for the top ever since he scored for Ghana on his debut as a 17-year-old in 2003. It was against Somalia in the first preliminary round of World Cup qualifying – which usually only small fry have to contest – showing how low Ghana's football fortunes had sunk. Gyan has played a prominent role in his country's rise from the nadir to unprecedented heights, yet all along his mental fortitude has been tested as his achievements have been pockmarked by mishaps.
In 2006 he became the first Ghanaian to score in the World Cup finals, his goal in the 2-0 win over the Czech Republic after 70 seconds turning out to be the fastest of that tournament. However he missed a penalty in that match and in the second-round defeat against Brazil he was sent off after earning a second yellow card for a preposterous dive. Last summer, of course, he excelled in South Africa but will forever be remembered for missing the penalty against Uruguay that would have propelled an African country into the semi-final for the first time. But he demonstrated great dignity and steel in the aftermath of that miss – not least when he volunteered to take the first penalty in the subsequent shoot-out, and scored.
It seems that, as may be divined from the slinky dance with which he celebrates goals, this is an upbeat man who does not dwell on the down-side of life. Earlier this year he provided entertaining proof of that when he released a hit single, 'African Girls', with Ghana's leading hiplife star, Castro the Destroyer. Gyan appears gurning and gyrating in the video to the song, which intriguingly rejoices that "African Girls, they be sweet, sexy like cheese." For all his confidence, however, and despite the powerful, clever and selfless running and distribution that, as Le Roy indicated, is indeed reminiscent of Drogba, there remains a suspicion that too often Gyan's composure deserts him in front of goal. He scored three times at the last World Cup but hit more shots off target than any other player in the tournament. Last season his haul of 13 goals for mid-table Rennes was commendable but his chance conversion rate was 16%, among the worst rates of any forward in the league. There is no doubt he has been doing well but, if age – and perhaps the experience of working with Darren Bent? – can help him improve his finishing, his best is yet to come. There could be a lot more celebratory dancing in Sunderland.
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