Joe Butterfield on a Manchester City legend with a complicated legacy.
It’s 16th May 2017 and the final whistle has gone after a 3-1 victory over West Brom. The result is irrelevant, the euphoria of victory is put to one side. Instead I’m filled with a sense of dread as the Manchester City squad gathers in the centre circle, ready to say goodbye to a club legend. Pablo Zabaleta comes out to thunderous applause and chants from the crowd, given his own guard of honour by the club. His voice and my bottom lip wobble as he thanks the fans, the club and his family for his time in Manchester and promises to return one day. A man who, despite hailing from Buenos Aires, embodies the Manc spirit of the club left the club that day. The club didn’t just lose a player that day, it lost a friend.
So now, one year on, we’ve said goodbye to yet another of the 2012 legends. Yaya Touré played his final game for the club in a 3-1 win against Brighton, though this time the result wasn’t irrelevant. There was no sense of dread as the final whistle went and we prepared to say goodbye. It felt right, it felt like it was a long time coming. There was no lump in my throat, no moment where I had to walk away to sit on my own because I was worried that the kid sat to my left would judge me for shedding a tear, just appreciation combined with a helping of indifference.
Of course, this sounds incredibly ungrateful for everything Yaya Touré has done for this club. At the time of his arrival he was much more important to the club than just a signing. Robinho was the original “Manchester City mean business” signing, back when we were just looking for a marquee name to show that we could buy big names to compete with the top teams after our takeover, but Yaya was the real “we seriously mean business” signing. Along with David Silva, he was proof that some of the biggest talents in Europe were willing to take the risk on Manchester City.
As a Champions League winner with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, keeping a clean sheet against Manchester United that very summer in the final no less, he was an incredible signing for City though he became one of the poster boys for the “mercenary” types City would supposedly acquire over the following few years. Having reportedly arrived at the club on astronomically high wages (somewhere between £150,000 and £250,000 per week, depending on who you believe), he became the stick with which journalists who cried Arab-oil-money and ruining-football would beat the club with for a long time. None of this is his fault, nor are these circumstances anything to do with my feelings regarding Yaya. However they provide some level of context for the events which followed over the coming years.
In his first season, Yaya Touré wrote himself into City legend. Roberto Mancini’s men found themselves in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, faced against their bitter rivals in Manchester United. He absolutely dominated the midfield, taking his new box-to-box role in his stride before scoring one of the most important goals in City’s recent history and one which instantly made him a fan favourite. Yaya robbed Michael Carrick just outside the penalty area, looking like a man playing against boys as he moved into the area, dancing away from Nemanja Vidic before slotting the ball through Van der Sar’s legs. He made an absolute mockery of the team who would go on to be Premier League champions that season and begun to turn the tables in Manchester City’s favour over their rivals, beginning the process which has led us to where we are right now. He then also went on to score the only goal in the FA Cup Final against Stoke, ending Manchester City’s 35-year trophy drought and heralding the start of something new.
In his second season, Yaya would have a huge impact on the club’s title win, most memorably in a game against Newcastle at St James’s Park which was absolutely pivotal in the title race after United had spectacularly bottled an 8-point lead at the top of the table. A win would ensure that Manchester City went into the final game of the season ahead on goal difference with a 10-goal swing in City’s favour. In an interview following the season, Joleon Lescott spoke of how himself and Nigel De Jong were in the dressing room before that game, looking nervous. Yaya approached the two in the dressing room and assured them, “Don’t worry about this game. I’m going to score.” Lescott and De Jong both looked confused, before Yaya casually said, “Yeah, I’m gonna score. I’m feeling good today.” City won the game 2-0 after a magnificent display from the Ivorian, in which he scored both of City’s goals. It was this ability to take a big game by the scruff of the neck at will which took him to levels above anybody else at the club at the time.
Then there’s his Mona Lisa. The Sistine Chapel which will forever elevate Yaya’s influence over City’s success to unmatched heights. In Manuel Pellegrini’s first season, the perfect balance of the pace of Yaya and the team. He had a season which potentially no centre-midfield player will ever recreate, scoring 20 Premier League goals and dictating almost every single game of the season. He was a huge driving force behind the title win, whilst also scoring a phenomenal goal in the League Cup Final to begin the comeback against Sunderland.
All of this is, for lack of a better word, legendary. His status as a Manchester City legend has been cemented and rightly so. He’s a player I’ll show my children videos of when I’m older, he’s a player who I’ll speak about with the same reverence that older City fans talk about the likes of Colin Bell and Francis Lee. However, there will always be a caveat.
Enter Dimitry Seluk, Yaya’s agent and so much more. We’re all aware of the effect big agents can have on a player’s career and reputation, Mino Raiola often catches the headlines for marketing his players round to clubs in order to get new contracts or to get a big pay-off for the inevitable transfer, it’s nothing new. However, Seluk has taken this to extremes bordering on the insane over Yaya’s time in Manchester.
Their relationship is well worth noting as well. They’re not just employer and employee, as agents mostly are. Seluk is a mentor to Yaya, having taken the Ivorian under his wing during his time in Donetsk and ultimately guiding Touré’s career in such a way which led him to Barcelona. Yaya certainly sees Seluk as a huge reason behind his success and owes a lot to him. His child is named after his agent. This is not a normal player/agent relationship. If my best friend was my agent, I’d certainly make sure he put everything he made public past me and insist I give the okay before he did so.
After Yaya guided City to the title in 2013/14, barely a week had passed since the season’s end before Yaya was supposedly considering leaving the club. Had Real Madrid or PSG come in with a huge money offer? Had he been told that he was surplus to requirements? No, of course not. Manchester City had failed to commemorate his birthday properly. Whilst Roberto Carlos had received a Bugatti as a birthday gift from his club Anzhi, Manchester City had simply only offered a birthday cake. Dimitry kicked off to the media about this, sparking a Twitter saga which was so bizarre it has since only been topped by Samir Nasri’s Drip Doctors revelations.
“Please do not take words that do not come out of MY mouth seriously. Judge my commitment to @MCFC by my performances.” Yaya Tweeted. This seemed to be the end of it, Yaya had officially distanced himself from his agent’s comments. About an hour later, he tweeted again, this time claiming, “Everything Dimitry said is true. He speaks for me. I will give an interview after the World Cup to explain.” During the World Cup, Touré then went on to claim that City had stopped him from seeing his dying brother and instead forced him to take part in the post-title celebrations in Abu Dhabi, a claim which doesn’t really hold much weight considering Manchester City’s general policy on compassionate leave, both before and since that time. Still, I suppose only Yaya and City will really ever know the truth to that one.
Dimitry Seluk’s wild ride didn’t stop there. In May 2015, towards the end of the season, Seluk claimed it was “90% certain he’ll leave”, no doubt haggling for either a bit pay day or a new contract for Yaya. When nothing came of that, Seluk decided that the announcement of Guardiola’s arrival in 2016 was his opportunity.
“Pep is a great coach, but he won the title at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The truth is that my grandfather would win the title with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.” A month later, he continued. “I think Yaya will leave the club. It’s not a question of whether Pep likes him or not, it’s life, you know.” Another couple of months passed when Dimitry played the ultimate wildcard – FIFA regulations. “I will not let Yaya waste another year at City. I will not let City keep him because, in one more year, his chances of joining another big club will be smaller. I will go to FIFA. I will write to them and tell them that we will buy Yaya out of his contract. We can do this. It is an option. This is not a threat. I promise you that Yaya will leave City this summer one way or another if they don’t offer him a new contract.”
I remember thinking at this specific point that I really wished Yaya and his agent would just, for lack of better phrasing, fuck off. I wanted Yaya out of my club, along with his parasitic, disrespectful, gobby agent and confidante. I had become convinced, and remain so to this day, that the second Tweet of Yaya’s in the aftermath of cakegate was the far more accurate of the two. Touré is extremely close to Dimitry and it’s no coincidence that Dimitry speaks up whenever Yaya is finding himself in a particularly difficult situation – constantly disrespecting the club in the process – yet Yaya never speaks up to contradict him. Radio silence was all we ever got from Touré and for years he was allowed to get away with it, coasting on the goodwill he’d secured from the success he’d brought the club.
It was around this time, also, that Yaya was being exposed as a massive weakness in our squad. This was helped, in large parts, by Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence on playing the 32-year-old as part of a two-man central midfield pairing when he clearly didn’t have the legs to do it twice a week. He spent the whole of the 2015-16 season (despite scoring a decisive penalty in the League Cup shootout) picking and choosing when he would put a shift in. His agent’s comments did nothing to reassure the fans of his commitment and, as a man who had once asked the fans to judge his commitment to the club based on his performances, neither was his time on the pitch.
Guardiola’s first season brought with it, as you would expect, more Yaya drama. Seluk complained about Guardiola’s treatment of his client after he was left out of the Champions League squad and Guardiola insisted on receiving an apology from the agent before considering Touré for future appearances. Guardiola eventually won the battle and Yaya returned in typical fashion, scoring a brace at Selhurst Park to earn his team a 2-1 victory.
He did enough over the rest of the season to earn a year extension on his contract and we now find ourselves here. A season where Yaya has appeared very little outside of domestic cups, with Pep implying over the course of the season that his effort levels in training have not necessarily been up to scratch. His final game was a brilliant effort. Flashes of the brilliance of old, marauding runs towards centre-backs, opposing midfielders bouncing off him, all we were missing was a goal (though certainly not for lack of trying).
All in all, I find myself conflicted when it comes to Yaya. He’s not the perfect hero we had in Pablo Zabaleta, he’s not the flawless magician we have in David Silva, he’s not the peerless leader we have in Vincent Kompany and he’s not the miracle-producing superstar we have in Sergio Aguero. Instead, he is flawed, he is petty, he did have moments where he didn’t give everything he had for the club. He did treat the club with great disrespect at times, be it directly or through his surrogate, Dimitry Seluk.
I love everything Yaya Touré has done for Manchester City. Yaya himself? Well, that’s complicated…
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