Manchester City will be eyeing a domestic treble when they face Watford in Saturday’s FA Cup final, with the team a far cry from the one that Yaya Toure inspired to the 2011 title.
Having clinched the Premier League at Liverpool’s expense on Sunday, added to the EFL Cup in February, City are aiming to become only the eighth side to win the domestic treble in English club history.
While this season has been yet another consistent campaign of achievements for Pep Guardiola’s side, now firmly considered among the world’s Super Clubs, it was a very different story eight years ago, when Toure scored the FA Cup final winner.
City defeated Stoke 1-0 in the final to win their first major honour since 1969 and their first trophy since 1976, and was arguably the true launch of the club we see today.
It drew a line under the club’s previous stuttering attempts to return to the pinnacle of the English game, following Thaksin Shinawatra and Khaldoon Al Mubarak’s waves of eye-watering investments.
Amidst the triumphs of the last eight years – both in terms of style and status – the veteran’s contributions to the club City are increasingly in danger of being overshadowed.
Toure’s decline in standing at the club coincided, directly most would agree, with the arrival of Guardiola in 2016. Age, and strategic differences between the two men, reduced Toure’s influence, but his role in the formation of this modern giant ought not be underestimated.
“He’s a Manchester City icon,” says Central African Republic international Frederic Nimani, who played alongside Toure at AS Monaco in 2006.
“He launched the club which are now English champions. You could say that it began from when Toure was there.
“That was when this club really began to really be serious, when they started to get bigger and better.”
Let’s rewind a bit…
In the late 2000s, there were few doubts about whether City’s project would one day get off the ground – there had been too much money thrown at the club for that – but there were many questions about when they would actually reach English football’s upper echelon.
It’s become easy to forget, amidst the procession of successes in recent years, that as recently as the 2009-10 season, City failed to qualify for the Champions League when they were pipped to fourth by Tottenham Hotspur.
Newly-arrived Toure was influential in the league the season after, as City finished third to finally secure a first-ever participation in the UCL, scoring eight and contributing four assists in Roberto Mancini’s first full campaign in charge.
However, the most notable contribution of his maiden year came in the FA Cup, where, after scoring the winner against Manchester United in the semi-final, he netted the only goal of a frustrating final for City.
His 74th-minute goal – a thumping left-footed effort that had fallen into his path after Mario Balotelli’s effort had been deflected – ended Stoke’s bold resistance and finally added a stamp of legitimacy to City’s lofty ambitions.
Sir Alex Ferguson had described the ‘noisy neighbours,’ the grand plans of their new owners, and the billionaire/s backing it as ‘all talk’ back in 2008, but here, finally, they had begun to fulflil Mancini’s vow – upon his arrival – to change the club’s history.
Managers often talk about instilling winning mentalities in players, and of constructing the foundations to build long-standing success, but Mancini – thanks to Toure’s left foot – had ensured that City were finally on their way, and Emirati ambitions to conquer the footballing universe were firmly in motion.
“[Winning that first cup] is very important,” adds Nimani. “That’s when you start to grow up, when you start to be known in the whole world.
“It’s from that moment that Manchester City became the club that we now take seriously, compared to before.
“It’s when they really started to become a big European club. Everyone had heard of Manchester City before that, of course, but it wasn’t what it is now.”
The club’s influence grew outside of the UK, too. Toure’s former Ivory Coast teammate Kanga Akalé says the midfielder’s influence at City changed the club’s standing in his homeland, similar to the surge in popularity Chelsea enjoyed following Didier Drogba’s move to Stamford Bridge in 2004.
“They were the two legends of the country, the two best players that the Ivory Coast have had for a very long time,” Akalé tells ESPN.
“There were many people who didn’t really take notice of Manchester City, but as Yaya grew and grew, he and Kolo changed people’s perception, because they started watching City, and loving them.
“Often, when you walk in the streets of Abidjan, you see people wearing the Yaya’s [City] kit…and sometimes Kolo’s too.
“Before, I didn’t really follow Manchester City, but Yaya’s arrival changed the mentality, at least for Africans, and our perception of City.
“There are players like that who make you follow a club. They make people, anywhere in the world, follow a club like City.”
In subsequent years, Toure played his part in a litany of successes as City built on that initial Cup triumph, both during the rest of Mancini’s reign and the subsequent tenures of Manuel Pellegrini and, latterly, Guardiola.
Sergio Aguero’s last gasp winner on the final day of the 2011-12 season – as Queens Park Rangers were dispatched amidst such emphatic, undiluted drama – was the defining image of their first league success since 1968, yet Toure was majestic in the heart of the park throughout that campaign.
He was named in the PFA Team of the Year for that season, making 12 decisive goal contributions, including both goals in a late victory away at Newcastle United in their penultimate game of the campaign, and a 95th-minute winner against Stoke in late March.
Aguero rightly received the adulation for that late, late winner, but City arguably wouldn’t even have been in touching distance of United by that point without Toure’s decisive efforts in the run-in.
Finally, City stood at the pinnacle of the English game, and the West African’s influence – as much as almost anyone’s – was all over that monumental triumph.
“When you saw him play, you just had to feast your eyes on him, you just had to watch,” remembers Akalé.
“He was capable of doing anything with the ball. Anything. You see his size and you tell yourself that he can’t do certain things, but he could do everything with the ball.”
Before leaving City under a cloud last year, unwanted if not unloved, Toure would accumulate further league titles in 2014 and 2018.
He scored in the League Cup final victory over Sunderland in 2014, and netted the decisive penalty in the shootout victory over Liverpool at Wembley in 2016 following a 1-1 draw, yet again stepping up to ensure that City had the silverware to vindicate their ambitious strategy, and underpinning their status as a modern European powerhouse.
His zenith, surely, was the 2013-14 season, as he scored 20 goals and weighed in with nine assists as City reclaimed their title from United.
For context, that campaign represents only the second time in Premier League history that a central midfielder had struck 20 goals, with Frank Lampard’s 22-goal campaign with Chelsea in 09-10 the only other previous instance.
“I’ve never seen a player like that,” said Nimani, of Toure’s consistency in big matches.
“He was a midfielder who scored more goals than a striker during a season, it was really impressive.”
Akale agrees: “He’s someone who’s always strong in the key moments.
“Even in the Champions League final with Barcelona [in 2009], they played him in the centre of the defence and he was great.
“I remember the Africa Cup of Nations that the Ivory Coast won [in 2015], and in the semi-final he scored a fantastic goal. He had this quality, in the big moments, to be present, to pull his team through, and to ensure victory.”
It can be said that Toure never truly got the credit he deserved for winning Guardiola over enough to make 25 appearances during the 2016-17 season, despite not even being registered for their Champions League squad.
Nimani adds: “Guardiola coached [Yaya] at Barcelona, and he didn’t play there much… I don’t know why… and then they found each other at Manchester City and he didn’t play much there either.
“The connection just wasn’t there between them again.”
The two goals he scored in the 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace in November 2016, his comeback match after a period on the sidelines, was to be his last great showing for the Sky Blues.
In a decline that somewhat mirrored that of his brother Kolo, whose defensive qualities became lost amidst his antics and various off-field misdemeanours, so Yaya increasingly began to make headlines for the events that accompanied him, rather than those he influenced.
There was birthday cake-gate, a £54,000 fine for drink-driving, and his petulance at the Confederation of African Football’s decision to name Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – and not him – as the 2016 African Player of the Year.
All of this contributed, during the latter part of Toure’s career, to detract from the immense talent that had strolled through, paraded around, and dominated Premier League midfields.
Toure achieved success beyond Manchester of course, winning two Spanish titles and the Champions League with Barcelona, and the Africa Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast in 2015, but he truly reached his apogee during those marauding years at the heart of City’s footballing ascent.
“Personally, I think, they should have done more for Yaya, because he brought so much to the club,” Nimani says.
“It’s thanks to him that they’ve arrived at this point.”
Toure’s retirement was announced by his agent Dimiti Seluk last Friday, although the 35-year-old later denied that he’d officially retired. Either way, it seems the former City hero can’t stop creeping into the headlines, even if the club is enjoying success without him.
One suspects, by the way he was mobbed by Guardiola’s players after their victory over Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday, or in the way the Citizens fans chanted his name at the Amex Stadium, he’ll always have a special place in the heart of anyone of a Sky Blue persuasion.
Indeed, if City do win the treble on Saturday, if they do one day get their hands on the Champions League, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to remember Toure’s left-footed finish against Stoke in 2011, and identify that as the moment when this procession of success truly began.