Everyone, by now, knows the story of Kolo Toure’s first training session with Arsenal, the one where the unknown triallist scythed into Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and finally Arsene Wenger with violent abandon in a display that convinced his manager-to-be to draft up a contract immediately. Wenger, it’s fair to say, liked Toure’s desire.
It’s a story that has become popular not just because of its obvious hilarity but because it captures its subject so neatly. It cuts to the heart of the popular perception of Toure as a hapless trier, a lovable idiot. A man held in great affection but not great regard.
If that’s the lasting impression of Toure, then it seems remarkably harsh on a footballer who has clocked up 500 appearances at the sharp end of British football, finished in the Premier League’s top two on six occasions with three different clubs and played a part in the only two unbeaten seasons to have taken place in British football this side of the Boer war.
Not to mention having to reinvent himself completely in the process. It’s worth remembering that Toure’s first goal at Arsenal came at Stamford Bridge having been brought on as a roving midfielder. He duly opened the hosts’ defence with a driving run from deep and finished in predatory style. “The 21-year-old signed last spring looks to have a bright future,” noted the Guardian’s match report – although that future was envisaged more as a creative force than a destructive one.
As it was, Toure soon carved out a place for himself at the heart of Arsenal’s defence and in doing so helped allay the longstanding anxiety at Highbury over how the backline would cope without Tony Adams, who had ceased being a regular in the summer of 2001, with the club’s goals against column having crept steadily up in the two years since.
In 2003/04, with Toure installed in the backline alongside Sol Campbell – a partnership described by Arsene Wenger as “two turbo trains” – that number was chopped from 42 to 26 in one fell swoop. Toure can’t claim sole credit for what was undeniably a collective effort, but it was his arrival into the equation, along with that of Jens Lehmann, that flipped the switch: Arsenal’s defence was restored to its brutal best, and the team promptly went the season undefeated.
With hindsight, perhaps Toure’s elevational effect shouldn’t be much of a surprise. It’s a remarkable feature of the Ivorian’s career that every team he joined has taken an immediate turn for the better. At Arsenal his introduction into the starting XI coincided with the Invincibles season. His first three campaigns at Man City saw the club clamber up the league from 10th place to first. His arrival at Liverpool came as the team underwent the transformation from seventh-placed mediocrities to a freewheeling band of title hopefuls. His first and only season as a player at Celtic saw the club complete a domestic treble, losing not a single game in the process.
Not bad going, then. And although correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation – this could simply be a footballer making the right moves at the right time – it’s difficult to overlook a trend that shows Toure to be rather more than the gormless mistake-merchant he’s too often characterised as.
Which isn’t to say that a Toure-led defence was always a mistake-free zone. Reputations, even unfair ones, do not spring from nowhere and Manchester City and Liverpool fans in particular will need little reminding that Toure was no stranger to the odd act of unprompted self-immolation.
Off the field, too, there was sometimes reason to doubt his prudency: namely a six-month drugs ban for misguidedly guzzling his wife’s diet pills and the tabloid exposé about his marital indiscretions – carried out under the guide of a car salesman named Francois – accompanied by a picture of him peering guiltily out from behind a shower curtain.
Safe to say that neither episode covered him in either glory of dignity, although given that we were at this stage talking about a multiple title-winner who had captained two elite-level teams, the instinct to portray Toure as little more than a figure of fun seems a tad odd. After all, dunderheaded drugs bans and unseemly extramarital antics have featured in the careers of other players of his generation without reducing their reputations to laughing-stock status.
Perhaps that’s because they weren’t quite as accident-prone on the pitch as Toure. But perhaps there is a racially tinged element to all this, too – an instinct to interpret Toure’s missteps through a narrow lens of haplessness, to point and laugh at the man with the funny name.
Because while he was undeniably guilty of a clanger or two over the course of his career – and good luck finding the centre-half who wasn’t – it seems to have been too easily forgotten just how imperious Toure was in his pomp. Not only was he a mainstay of a defence that kept a staggering 10 successive clean sheets en route to the Champions League final in 2006 (a competition record that still stands today, and which included two-legged ties against Real Madrid and Juventus) but he was also a rare centre-back who understood how to inject an ailing team performance with a sense of urgency – most notably by setting off on a marauding run upfield.
It was part of the reason he was no stranger to an open-play goal: his unerring one-on-one finish against Liverpool in 2006 was an Adams-against-Everton tribute act and his tap-in against Villarreal, on Highbury’s last ever European night, was the goal which took his side to the Champions League final.
With Toure though, the running theme throughout the testimonies of his colleagues and coaches is one of mentality. As a typically philosophical Arsene Wenger said: “A successful life is about attitude and he had the right attitude.” Brendan Rodgers called him “an authentic winner”; Mark Hughes “a vocal leader with great enthusiasm”; Roberto Mancini “a fantastic man and a fantastic professional”.
All this could easily be mistaken for not so much a back-handed compliment as a direct slap in the face. Except it’s borne out by a career which shows the tangible impact of such intangible qualities; a man with seven major honours to his name clearly had something about him that turned his team-mates into winners. And sometimes the qualities weren’t all that intangible: his leadership was evident enough when, with Gervinho unwilling, he put himself forward to take a penalty in the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations final. Toure missed it and his team lost, but an unmistakable resilience was on display three years later when he did the same thing on the same stage, this time helping his team to the trophy.
Read through the numerous tributes to Toure that were penned when he called time on his career a year ago and you’ll soon notice a running theme: his perennial smile. Fair enough, but perhaps his career should be remembered with slightly less laughter.