Nonetheless, Kone’s performances on the pitch belied any potential issues off it. His impressive showings, capped off by that magical night against Everton, ironically, established him as a fan favourite as Sunderland completed another great escape.
But that’s where the problems began. The player’s agent, Mark McKay – who had previous dealings with Sam Allardyce after West Ham signed Diafra Sakho in 2014 – claimed that Kone had been promised a new deal in the summer. The player would later confirm this himself, eventually requesting a transfer, despite David Moyes revealing that the club had offered a new contract. The player had said ‘no’ to this offer of a new deal, seemingly not even viewing the contract, but rather rejecting the idea of being presented with it.
He then ruled himself out of the game against Middlesbrough with a 'sore back' just two days before the teams were set to clash. The manner in which Moyes informed the media suggested that the injury was far from black and white.
With Kone unsettled, Premier League rivals, most notably Everton, began to show an interest in signing the player. The Toffees were said to have tabled a number of offers in the region of £15M-20M, which were firmly rejected by David Moyes and co.
In retrospect, Everton’s offer should have been accepted. But that’s easy to say now. It was a difficult decision for the club to make. Do you take the money, lose a key player, and hope that you can find a suitable replacement? Do you stand firm, rejecting the player’s and agent’s demands, and risk owning an unhappy player whose dissatisfaction could disrupt squad harmony? Or do you accept their demands, setting a potentially dangerous precedent for others to follow, but hopefully placating the unhappy player?
Kone got what he wanted in the end; a new contract and significantly more cash in his pocket, and the club held onto a player who was key to their future. Was key, that is.
That should have been the end of it; for another season, at least. But rather than knuckle down and show his qualities, Kone has shown signs of petulance and has performed in a manner that is hardly deserving of his wage increase. Besides, he'd still be 'earning' £70,000 per week if he found himself out of the team. And I doubt that that would bother him.
But that's no excuse for not trying. The minimum requirement of a player is to give their all in each game. As Sunderland fans, we are used to tolerating mediocrity if we see effort - to a certain extent, at least. Can you really say that Kone has given his maximum effort though?
Lamine Kone gives the impression that he simply doesn't care about Sunderland. Yesterday's performance, if there wasn't enough evidence already, appeared to have made that abundantly clear. Billy Jones was turned too easily by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Kone barely made an effort to prevent his shot at goal. He then showed no desire to stop Mhkitaryan's second.
It was the latest in a growing collection of poor performances. Are headed goals by the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Islam Slimani against Kone, created by simple movement, down to a lack of ability, or rather a lack of desire?
Kone has shown what could be perceived as a lack of professional pride, and his performances and general conduct suggest that money is his main priority. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the latter, but at least give the impression that you are earning it on the pitch. Admittedly, we should be used to situations like this as fans of modern football. But it still rankles when your team is fading towards relegation, leading to the inevitable loss of behind-the-scenes jobs once it is finally confirmed, while a player with little interest is collecting a fortune each week.
All in all, these things have contributed to a decided aura of unlikability surrounding the player. Contrast that to his fan favourite status only a year ago. Perhaps we were taken in by #TeamKone, which has proven to be nothing more than a façade. Perhaps we should know better than to form an attachment to a player, particularly when we are reminded so often that football 'is just a job.' Or maybe we just expect the players to give a damn; it's really not too much to expect a committed performance from the person undertaking that job.
With just seven games remaining of this torrid season, and Sunderland edging closer to relegation, there's an argument to be made that Kone shouldn’t play again. Papy Djilobodji is likely to be a starter in the Championship - Lamine Kone will not be - and while he has been poor this season, there's a chance to get some more games, and hopefully confidence, under his belt ahead of next season. It's not like Sunderland have anything to lose now.
Somewhat ironically, Kone’s only worth to Sunderland now is purely financial. His performances and attitude will likely see teams reconsider their interest in the player - Everton fans, for example, commented that they had 'dodged a bullet' after yesterday's game, and it would come as no surprise if Ronald Koeman felt the same way - or certainly the level of offers that he was attracting last summer. Nonetheless, Sunderland should easily make a profit on the £5M paid to Lorient, and it's in the best interests of all parties for him to depart Wearside.
It's hard to imagine that he'll be missed much.