“Is that a picture of Kolo Touré in your wallet?”
I was asked that question a lot at the bars of Bournemouth nightclubs during my three years at Uni.
The time was 2006 to 2009 and I had neither a wife nor a child.
So the answer was: “Yes, that is a World Cup 2006 sticker book sticker of Kolo Touré in my wallet, thanks for noticing”.
And the answer is still “Yes” in 2022. He sits in the window of a Christmas present wallet in front of a sturdy spine of Nectar, Club, and Costa Cards.
As a key member of Arsenal’s Invincibles team – the side that didn’t lose a single Premier League match in the 2003/04 season – Kolo Touré next to Sol Campbell in defence was a constant inspiration to me.
It sounds cheesy, but that fading picture of the smiling Ivorian centre back reminds me, daily, to get stuck in. To keep going. To enjoy what I do.
Touré is often talked about as a smiler (see above paragraph). He has a reputation as a likeable, nice, funny guy in the locker room.
Speaking in October 2021 before his side faced Leicester City, where Touré is currently first-team coach, Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira described his former teammate as “a really good human being.”
“He’s energetic,” said former Manchester City defender and teammate, Joleon Lescott, in 2013. “He’s full of life and he’s always smiling every day in training.”
“Every manager has a team of people who you work with,” said Leicester manager, Brendan Rodgers, in 2019: “Kolo is someone that I have transitioned into coaching. He’s got a great rapport with the players – everywhere he goes they have the Kolo dance – it follows him everywhere.
The dance Rodgers is referring to, of course, is the Kolo/Yaya Touré dance to the tune of No Limit by 2 Unlimited that went viral during 2012 when the brothers played together for Manchester City. Players, ex-teammates and fans around the world still affectionately sing and do the dance when the brothers are either present or mentioned. Touré even performed it to journalists at a press conference for Celtic, his final club before hanging up his boots in 2017.
His jovial side would often be the main descriptor of him after his Arsenal days, when his performance levels dropped below his peak, despite managers like Roberto Mancini, Jürgen Klopp, and Rodgers vehemently defending his ability.
In a 2016 ESPN article, Chris Wright described Kolo Touré, then at Liverpool, as “never the most orthodox of defenders”. He went on to talk about a particular tackle during The Reds’ win over Stoke at Anfield during the Capital One Cup Semi-Final that year, saying Touré “once again raised eyebrows with a curious piece of defending.”
He continued: “In a desperate attempt to prevent Xherdan Shaqiri from pulling the ball back into the six-yard box, Toure flopped down on his hands and knees and blocked the cross with his torso as he slid across the floor. It was a little ungainly but undeniably effective.”
Maybe I’m being overly defensive (pardon the pun), but there’s a little too much fun-poking in Chris Wright’s tone for me about an act of instinct from a veteran that ultimately prevented a goal.
In true style, Touré responded with humour. “Jose Enrique called it ‘The Salmon Tackle’,” he said. “I am very proud of this. That’s something I have brought to football. It is a new gesture in football! I give everything for my team to win. The most important thing is to enjoy every second of every minute. Football is great, isn’t it?”
And, in that quote, lies the reason that man’s face is in my wallet. He loved his job. He had fun when many players around him may not have let the fans see that on their faces.
But you don’t win two Premier League trophies with two clubs, two FA Cups, a Scottish Premiership, a Scottish League Cup, and a Champions League runners-up medal by having fun.
You don’t gain 120 caps for your country and win the Africa Cup of Nations in your international retirement year by having a laugh. You don’t get bought by Arsenal for £150,000 from ASEC Mimosas, play 326 games across seven seasons and make a move to Manchester City for £14 million by being a nice guy.
You do so by giving “everything for my team to win”, even if that’s chucking yourself to the ground and waiting for the ball to smash into your ribs.
As an Arsenal fan, my memories of Kolo Touré will not be the dance and the jokes – no matter how good-willed I know they are – that followed him during the twilight of his career. It will be his intensity to win.
An intensity that struck former teammate and Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour about Touré in the defender’s infamous trial with the Gunners in 2002. “He was one of those sorts of guys always on edge,” said Parlour. “He would chase everything.”
Speaking to talkSPORT, the Romford Pele said about Touré’s first-ever training match: “I rolled the ball into Thierry Henry and Kolo Touré from nowhere has smashed him from behind. Two-footed tackle. Terrible tackle. Arsene Wenger says ‘Kolo, what are you doing? Don’t tackle, don’t tackle!’
“Next minute ball goes into Dennis Bergkamp… Kolo Touré does exactly the same and two-foots Dennis Bergkamp and we are thinking ‘this is unbelievable… Arsene Wenger says ‘right no more tackling’.
“Next ball comes in and Kolo Toure makes a great tackle, reads it and the ball is flipped up into the air…and where did it land? Right at Arsene Wenger’s foot and he’s two-footed Arsene Wenger!”
Parlour goes on to explain how Touré looked distraught. Understandably he thought there was no chance of being signed having taken out the top two centre forwards at the club as well as the manager.
After following the boss into the changing room and seeing a big lump on his ankle, Parlour explained Touré didn’t mean the tackle. Wenger replied: “I know. I like his desire. We’ll sign him tomorrow”.
And it seems his desire will not stop now he’s on the coaching side of things. During an interview in March 2020, Touré spoke of his desire to become a successful Premier League manager or lead an African nation to World Cup glory.
With a lack of BAME managers, in particular from Africa, in the top divisions in Europe, Touré, under the guidance of Brendan Rodgers at Leicester City, wants to be someone for kids to look up to and emulate.
“There is no aspiration because there is no African equivalent to a Sir Alex Ferguson figure to inspire future generations,” he said. “The problem for BAME coaches is there are no iconic BAME managers to refer to. So there is no aspiration from BAME players to try management. More African nations than ever appear at World Cups but their managers are French or German. I want to change that.”
Full disclosure, I am a 35-year-old white man from Swindon. But in a starting XI made up of world-class players in their positions like Henry, Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, Vieira, Ashley Cole, Robert Pires, and beyond, Kolo Touré was always the player I could relate to most.
He’d punch the air when something went well. He’d jump around and scream if things didn’t go well. He often looked knackered. He had a pained expression when he ran. He’d chop you down if he had to. While, clearly, extremely talented, Touré looked like he had to work hard to be as good as he was. He wasn’t content with being average. He put the work in.
Whenever I watched him play I got the sense I was watching a man so grateful to be where he was, he was going to put everything he had into it.
I’d be lying if I said I think about that each and every time I open my wallet. But, on the occasion I catch him smiling up at me on a rainy day pulling out a train ticket, struggling to find that stamp I’ve lost, or checking my disappointing bank balance, I am reminded to crack on, and do my best.