The birthday boy starred for two Premier League-winning sides, and ought to go down as one of the league’s great imports
By any measure, Kolo Toure, who turns 41 on Saturday, had a noteworthy career, and certainly exceeded expectations after joining Arsenal in a bargain deal from ASEC Mimosas in 2002.
The former Ivory Coast defender, who is an assistant coach to Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers these days, was signed by Arsene Wenger in February 2002 but didn’t feature for the remainder of the 01/02 season.
While statistics will show he made 27 appearances in 02/03, only nine were starts, and a young Toure had to play second fiddle to Martin Keown and Sol Campbell in a campaign that saw the North London side throw away an eight-point lead with nine games remaining.
At the time, the Ivorian was deployed in defensive midfield, central defence and right-back and often looked unconvincing. In fairness, this was probably due to being moved around across different positions, his age and relative inexperience at the top level.
Before his introduction to the English game, there was a perception that Wenger had inherited a great defence at Arsenal – Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams, Keown and Lee Dixon – and the feeling was the Frenchman was going to struggle to build another strong defensive unit once those players aged and declined.
However, the ASEC graduate grew into a solid centre-back and completed a new backline comprising Ashley Cole, Campbell and Lauren. German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann replaced long-serving David Seaman in the summer as well, but the Gunners improved defensively and conceded 26 times in an unbeaten campaign that saw them keep 15 clean sheets.
Only Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea with 21 had more, and the Gunners’ development from the previous campaign was apparent. In 02/03, Wenger’s side conceded 42 goals, keeping only 10 shut-outs, which was the ninth-highest in the top flight.
A year later, with Toure a mainstay at the back, their progress was marked.
Admittedly, while the North London club’s meaner rearguard can’t be attributed to the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations winner alone, his influence was significant.
His growth from the ropey defensivemidfielder, adept at playing different roles, to consistent head alongside Campbell was truly impressive, and the West African joined a list of bargains by Wenger who turned out to be important players for the club.
Despite Arsenal’s decline, which coincided with their move away from Highbury, Toure went from strength to strength, and he eventually moved to nouveau riche Manchester City in 2009.
Earlier, the central defender had narrowly missed out on a Champions League winners medal in 2006, where the Gunners were beaten 2-1 by Barcelona, having beenpart of the side that kept 10 successive clean sheets in Europe from matchday three till Barca netted twice in the decider at the Parc des Princes.
The Arsenal backline kept out Real Madrid, Juventus and Villarreal en route to their decider with the Catalan giants.
For context, Los Blancos had Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul and David Beckham in their ranks, while the Old Lady were blessed with David Trezeguet, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Pavel Nedved, while the talented maverick Juan Riquelme and Diego Forlan starred for the Yellow Submarine.
Nevertheless, Toure and co. prevented the aforementioned stars from finding the back of their net during their run to the final, an extraordinary feat.
The West Africanhad played in nine of the 10 fixtures, only missing out on the 1-0 win at FC Thun in matchweek five, and scored the decisive goal of the London side’s semi-final tie with Villarreal, a first-leg finish that sealed progress to Arsenal’s first and only Champions League final to date.
Leaving North London was imperative given Wenger’s sides strugglesto compete with their rivals, while a falling out with the firebrand William Gallas made his stay at the Emirates extra uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the Ivorian’s Man City spell, which produced another Premier League title win in 2011/12, is somewhat overlooked owing to the turbulence that ensued after an encouraging 2009/10 campaign.
Fears over his weight led to the apparentlyunwitting ingestion of a banned substance, prompting a six-month doping ban in March 2011, while a two-year clandestine affair before and after his marriage further damaged his reputation in Manchester.
The first, though unacceptable, can be put down to naivety but infidelity, and the manner of the facade, certainly dented Toures image, and he struggled to shake a certain comedic perception for the rest of his career.
Certainly, the opprobrium that followed the player has meant his legacy in English football may forever remain tainted.
Accepted, he failed to adhere to professional and social mores, but so did Rio Ferdinand who was banned in 2004 for missing a drugs test, while John Terry and Ryan Giggs have fallen foul of their marital vows by engaging in affairs in the past.
The aforementioned players are widely regarded among the best players of the Premier League era, despite their shortcomings, owing to their various qualitiesand what they brought to their teams.
This argument isn’t being brought forward to give Toure a pass, norcan the ex-Ivory Coast star’s achievements in the English game match up to those icons, but merely to put everything in perspective.
The former defenderfalls into a nine-man list of players who won the Premier League with two different clubs. This group includes Nicolas Anelka and Ashley Cole with Arsenal and Chelsea respectively, Carlos Tevez at both Manchester clubs, and recently N’Golo Kante (Leicester City and Chelsea) and Riyad Mahrez (Leicester and Man City).
With 353 top flight appearances, Toure ranks as the African with the most games in the division. That’s 55 appearances more than Shola Ameobi who comes in second.