MANCHESTER, England — One by one, Manchester City’s players walked up a ramp to the stage where the gleaming Premier League trophy was positioned and about to be raised aloft.
City’s fans cheered as each of the player’s names was belted out over the loudspeaker, and the biggest roar of all was reserved for the team’s forgotten man this season.
Yaya Toure hasn’t started a single league game – in fact, the 34-year-old midfielder’s contribution to City’s title-winning campaign has consisted of nine appearances as a second-half substitute – but that didn’t matter.
This was one of the last sightings of Toure on the Etihad Stadium field and City’s fans were going to ensure he felt their love.
After eight years at City, Toure is leaving the club at the end of the season. He will go down as one of its greatest players – perhaps behind only David Silva, Sergio Aguero and former midfielder Colin Bell – and there’s a case to be made that he’s the most important.
Toure’s arrival from Barcelona in 2010 heralded the start of the most successful period in City’s 138-year history. Silva, Aguero and many other big names followed him to the club, which had recently come under Abu Dhabi ownership.
So did the trophies.
“He has helped make the club bigger and bigger and bigger,” City manager Pep Guardiola said Tuesday, a day before Toure plays his last home match for the club against Brighton. It might even be his 230th and final league appearance for City.
“Hopefully we can make a good game and dedicate it to him,” Guardiola added. “Tomorrow, we are going to play for Yaya.”
Toure, a powerful and technically gifted midfielder, will be remembered for being a man for the big occasion. He scored the winning goal in both the semifinals (against Manchester United) and final (against Stoke) of the FA Cup in 2011 as City ended its 35-year wait for a trophy.
He played a huge role in City’s Premier League title triumphs in 2012 and ’14 – scoring 20 goals in 35 appearances in the 2013-14 season – and helped City win three League Cups, too, scoring a brilliant long-range goal against Sunderland in the 2014 final and the decisive penalty in a shootout against Liverpool in the 2016 final.
“When I signed from Barcelona, I was talking to (City’s then chief executive) Garry Cook, and he said I hope you can bring success when you sign for us,” Toure said. “I loved the challenge. I said I am going to show you the way. I said one day this will be the biggest club in England. You will see.”
Toure departs with City back on top of the English game, but having only played a peripheral role in this season’s title win after being marginalized by Guardiola since the Spanish coach’s arrival in 2016. The pair, who were together previously at Barcelona, clashed over Toure’s attitude and some comments from the player’s outspoken agent.
However, Guardiola always valued Toure’s influence as a player, on and off the field. Tellingly, he was the only player at City to earn a contract extension at the end of last season, although he spent much of this season as an understudy to midfield anchorman Fernandinho and those rampaging runs from midfield were barely seen.
“He is loved in the locker room,” Guardiola said. “For young guys and old guys, he deserves the respect of the other ones … a guy like what he did in this club, we should not judge what happened a few months ago.”
That was demonstrated in City’s title-winning party at the Etihad on Sunday. The fans weren’t the only ones to fete him, with City’s players also joking around and dancing with him on the stage and then on the field. City captain Vincent Kompany made a point of getting Toure to hold one handle of the trophy as it was lifted to the backdrop of fireworks, flames and tickertape.
Toure still plays for Ivory Coast – he came out of international retirement last December – and Guardiola, who has criticized the midfielder’s fitness on occasions, said he “can stay in world football if his desire is still to play.”
“He enjoys the training sessions,” Guardiola said, before adding with a smile: “Especially with the ball.”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
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