Ivorian midfielder was a colossal presence during City's title-winning seasons under Mancini and Pellegrini
'Uncle' Yaya Toure leaves Manchester City feeling 'empty' after his pivotal role in the club's rise
It qualified as a major understatement. “I think I contributed to something,” Yaya Toure said. His was a modest verdict. Pep Guardiola’s verdict was more realistic. “Without doubt one of the most important players in our history,” the Manchester City manager said.
Vincent Kompany’s actions were similarly instructive, telling Toure to lift the Premier League trophy with him on Sunday. “This means you have respect,” the Ivorian said.
He has that, but an era ends at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday night. Toure is guaranteed a first Premier League start of the season against Brighton and Hove Albion and a last on home soil.
After eight years, seven major trophies, 82 goals and 315 games, he goes this summer as the difference maker. “I said when I came I wanted to leave the club with big achievements,” he said. “We made it and it was perfect.”
He spanned ages, a man who sometimes drives to City’s old training ground at Carrington by mistake, who joined a club without major silverware in 34 years. “Big, big, massive change,” he said. “Everybody wants to be at City now.”
That was not always the case. Toure recalled a conversation with City’s former CEO when he arrived in 2010. “I said to Garry Cook: ‘One day a lot of players are going to come to City and not say they don't want to come to a small club and want to go to Chelsea or Arsenal.’”
Toure helped make City a destination club. A fan of the film Gladiator proved a gladiatorial figure, their ultimate big-game player. “He is a player with a huge personality. He doesn’t feel the pressure,” Guardiola said.
Toure has had a bit-part role in securing his third Premier League, but Guardiola highlighted how pivotal the Ivorian was for his two predecessors. “He came in the [Roberto] Mancini era and after for Manuel [Pellegrini], the two leagues they won, he was decisive, so so important,” the Catalan said.
Pellegrini brought the best from Toure by liberating him to roam forward; he responded with 24 goals in a season. “When you are a kid you just enjoy with your friends, it is more about freedom,” Toure explained. “For me, it was always about to try and score the goals or give the pass. That is what made me happy: to run the midfield, smell the grass, touch the ball and make my opponents suffer.”
He did so with a blend of the technical and the physical, a force of nature with the most delicate of touches. Manchester United suffered more than most.
“United was in our way. When I came to City, to be a big club, we had to remove them,” he said. “The fans have been so long in the shadows of United and now they live in this city like they are the kings.”
The 2011 FA Cup semi-final was pivotal and he scored the only goal. “At half-time we were nearly fighting in the dressing room,” Toure recalled. “[We had to] go out and play like men - or we go home again and say to [chairman] Khaldoon [Al Mubarak]: 'Thank you, we've eaten the money but we move on because this club will never achieve.’”
Toure ensured they have achieved more than any other English club in domestic competitions in the 2010s, despite certain issues caused by his agent Dimitri Seluk.
“My stepfather [Seluk], he is crazy sometimes,” Toure said. “During these difficult two years, I was behaving like a proper person.” His dedication is such, he said, that: “This football club was my first wife. Even my wife knew it. What this club wants from me, I have given to them.
“It's like I'm empty,” he said, drained by his exploits. He has become City’s senior citizen, nicknamed “uncle Yaya” by footballers more than a decade his junior.
“I'm going to miss my little [Raheem] Sterling, my little [Leroy] Sane. They look like my babies,” Toure said. The youngsters spent much of Sunday’s title celebrations mobbing a gentle giant.
“Yaya is beloved in the locker room, for the old guys, with the young guys,” Guardiola said. That popularity is not confined to the players. “He was so happy here, he’s had a lot of success. He loves the fans and the fans love him.” As he will discover again on Wednesday night.