THERE are times when a piece of information creeps up on you, and then controls you. It consumes your every thought. It bends your emotions.
I’m sat in front of my laptop, scrabbling for an intro on a Jürgen Klopp piece while scratching around in a bowl of fiery Cheetos, and out of nowhere it hits me.
The Europa League final will most likely be Kolo Toure’s last game for Liverpool.
I dust off the residue of crisps on my fingers, push my Mac back, and pour over my thoughts on this.
I’ve known for months that the Ivorian, at 35, is closing in on his time as a Red.
I’ve known for much longer that he is out of contract in the summer.
I’ve known, I’ve known.
But there are times when a piece of information creeps up on you, and then controls you.
In the build-up to the European showpiece, I wasn’t expecting Kolo to dominate my thoughts. Wasn’t expecting his face to make mine turn upside down. Wasn’t expecting to be this affected.
Walk with me…
At the start of June 2013, when it became apparent Liverpool would complete the signing of the Ivory Coast international as a free agent from Manchester City, I thought we’d rewinded to April 1st.
The Reds were having us off! What was the sense behind recruiting a 32-year-old, who’d given his best years to Arsenal and was already fading at the Etihad? What sort of ambition was that?
Now, here I am. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m writing this with unbrushed teeth, uncombed hair, in Piglet slippers and PJs. I’m not ashamed to admit my insides are twisting at the idea of not seeing Kolo lighting up the pitch pre and post-match with his laughter.
I’m definitely not ashamed to admit I couldn’t have been more wrong about him three years ago.
Liverpool may have signed a player past his powers, but they acquired one that has never given less than everything of himself at the club. There will be those who choose to highlight comedic own goals, untidy back passes or brainless clearances. If that is what you associate Kolo with, above all, I feel bad for you son.
He is a player who does not equate his profession merely to ‘minutes on the pitch.’ Whether he starts a game, is on the bench or is not in squad altogether, Kolo contributes. His worth cannot be measured by the usual metrics of blocks, aerial duels and the like. To limit his offering to statistical data would be to ignore his importance as Liverpool’s golden thread. He stitches everything together and ensures everyone is okay.
Kolo was the player Daniel Sturridge turned to during his nightmarish injury run.
Jordon Ibe has stated he seeks the consul of his “big brother” on matters football-related or otherwise. Simon Mignolet has highlighted the defender’s calming influence in the most chaotic, despondent or pressured situations. If you took a poll at Melwood about the most influential player at the club, he’d be sitting pretty at the top. The most popular? Him again. The most respected? You know the answer to that.
Watch the clip of Steven Gerrard leading the team in a west-African dance while chanting Kolo’s name on holiday in Dubai again. Look at them, all having the time of their lives celebrating a man who is the very meaning of fun. Who absolutely loves what he does, and it shows. Who warms you and is welcoming and is wondrous in his enjoyment of every little thing. Who makes you feel like it’s going to be alright.
Toure is not just all laughs and good vibes though. One of the biggest reasons Stevie holds him in such high esteem is because “he always stepped in to help. He always said, ‘I’m here.’”
When Luis Suarez felt like the walls were closing in on him after the gutting 3-3 draw at Selhurt Park in May 2014, it was Kolo who picked him up, shielded him from the cameras and guided him to the tunnel as the title dream died. “It seemed to take an eternity to get there; I was being led almost as if I was a blind man,” explained the Uruguayan.
“I didn’t take my head out from my shirt the entire way. Kolo walked me all the way, talking: “Okay, okay, we’re nearly there…”
“In the dressing room, there was absolute silence, no-one said a word. Not one word for 20 minutes at least…
“Kolo was the person who broke the silence. That’s the way he is; it’s his personalty. I really appreciate what he did for me, leading me off the pitch. It’s rarer than you might think to find a player who supports you like he did that night. And the important thing for me is that he didn’t just do it there, as we went off the pitch, in front of everyone. No.
“He stayed by me in the dressing room, when I still felt awful, and on the team bus afterwards, he came and sat with me for a bit. He came to see how I was, to try and comfort me.”
Last year, when Ivory Coast ended 23 years of African Nations Cup disappointment by finally being crowned champions, I interviewed the centre-back, who slotted his penalty in the final against Ghana, as well as some of his team-mates. Unprompted, they all referenced his positively in the build-up to the match as well as during it as a factor in their victory. “Kolo made us believe,” said goalkeeper Boubacar Barry, who was the hero of the night.
He also admitted that Toure sparked his performance by telling him in the days leading up to the showpiece that he was going to be difference between both sides: “He made me feel like a giant. That is what he does to us.”
If the affection from Kolo’s peers at club and country was unsurprising, so too was his reaction when I asked him about a project I heard he was working on.
He is building a home for orphaned kids in the Ivory Coast, but refused to talk about it: “That is something to do, not to speak about,” Toure said with a twinkle. “It is for them, not for me.”
Kolo is giving. Of his time, of his experience, of his wealth – but most importantly, of himself.
We all feel like we’ve got a piece of the man born in Bouake, because we actually do. Large chunks. Everything he’s had, he’s shared.
Tonight, in Basel, I hope he gets something back.
I hope he holds that heavy-ass trophy aloft.
I hope his engulfing smile paints St Jakob-Park.
I hope, if this is goodbye, it’s a golden one.
I know I’ll often stop and think about you, Kolo. In my life, I love you more.
DO IT FOR KOLO!