11 May, 2016. Lamine Koné was the toast of Sunderland as manager Sam Allardyce gloated and boasted live on television, proclaiming how he masterminded another miraculous Sunderland escape. Allardyce in his post-match press conference after a 3-0 victory over Everton praised Koné directly for his outstanding performance, even claiming he “looked like a centre forward today”, scoring a brace to confirm survival for another season.
Later in the transfer window, when linked with a £18 million move to then Premier League rivals Everton, the vast majority of Sunderland supporters were devastated by the prospect of one of the most-likeable players to pull on a shirt leaving. Koné did not just perform well at both ends of the pitch during the second half of the 2015/16 season, his infectious personality off the pitch and smile on it captured the hearts and minds of even the most ardent pessimist, making him an almost instant cult hero.
Fast-forward 15 months on, and now the Ivorian cuts a disinterested and dejected figure, looks unassured and weak at the back, hasn’t threatened from set pieces since that Everton game, is no longer going out of his way to interact with our fanbase and, above all, has the demeanour of a man who cannot wait to move away.
Long gone are his days of making Yaya Toure look like an expensive Milton Núñez.
Rumours of Koné’s impending move away have circled ever since that wonderful night against Everton, with the aforementioned links to Everton have re-emerged at less than third of the original quoted price as well as moves to West Ham, Crystal Palace, Burnley and West Brom. Similar rumours have also emerged regarding the futures of Jeremain Lens and Wahbi Khazri, with the former freshly linked to Turkey on almost a daily basis but continue to play for the team, perform well and, more than anything else, commit everything to winning – even though it is only preseason, unlike the big Ivorian. Precisely just what Simon Grayson has tasked the three to do until and beyond the end of the transfer window.
Koné has never actually publicly admitted that he wants to leave since he signed a new five-year contract last September, while both Khazri and Lens have expressed their desire to leave since the end of last season, with the Dutchman even going so far as to hope for the club’s relegation in January in order to enhance his chances of a move away. Despite initial anger, and continue fury throughout 2017 at the pair – especially Lens – since the players have returned from preseason, a vast majority of Sunderland fans would love for both to stay at Sunderland and play a vital part in our first championship season in ten years, unlike with Koné. As the age, old aphorism goes; a player’s talking really is done on the pitch.
But why are Khazri and Lens performing so admirably despite obviously wanting away, while the quiet but dissatisfied Koné continues to fail to perform, or even try? Accusations of a fragile mentality have been thrown towards the Ivorian, but this is not the case. Just look back to how he performed in 2015/16 compared to Lens. Every Sunderland fan would have unanimously agreed it was in fact Lens with the fragile mentality and work rate, not Koné. Simon Grayson rightfully stood by and defended his player in the wake of the embarrassing Celtic defeat on Saturday, but also gave the player – and the rest of the team – a stark warning ahead of Friday’s opener against Derby County. We cannot afford to be carrying a player who is apparently “fatigued” after 227 minutes of action in eleven days when we will now have five games in merely fifteen to start the season off, but this is not due to any systemic problems with his mentality.
Playing for the Money?
Another accusation that carries weight is that Koné is simply a mercenary, who utilised Sunderland as a stepping stone either to get a move to a bigger team – hence his transfer request last summer as soon as Everton expressed an interest – or to garner a bigger wage. Either way, both are very plausible, evidenced by the significant drop in performances last season. Granted, Younes Kaboul left and was never adequately replaced and David Moyes’ Sunderland team last season was hopeless, but Koné had excelled at times for the team when others did not.
Stoke City away comes to mind, when a toothless Sunderland team were 1-0 down for much of the game until a late Jermain Defoe penalty salvaged a point. During this game, Koné completed 95 total defensive actions with over 74% of them successful, including twelve challenges (60%), sixteen aerial challenges (58%) and a team high five tackles (80%). On the ball, he led passing stats in the defence with 44 passes attempted and a completion rate of 70% - admirable considering how much Allardyce preferred his central defenders to release the ball direct and early as opposed to building from the back or running it out of defence themselves.
Koné’s performances last season pale in comparison, late in the season he was directly at fault for more goals than any other player, even making two mistakes that directly led to goals in one game, against Arsenal in May. He was man marking Alexis Sánchez, but lost him for the first Arsenal goal and then for the second made exactly the same mistake again but this time Olivier Giroud. He was no longer competing physically, anticipating, nor concentrating enough in his defending, three of his greatest assets merely a season earlier. In a game Sunderland was constantly pegged back in their own half by the hosts, he merely completed 46 total defensive actions, albeit with a higher overall success rate at 78%, including merely six aerial challenges (48%) and two tackles all game. This is a regular pattern since signing the aforementioned new five-year deal in September 2016.
Although the above is a vital reason why Lamine Koné is not ready to lead Sunderland’s defence in the less glamorous, more industrious Championship, it is his agent, Mark McKay, who has turned the Ivorian’s head more than any other. One of a long list of celebrity agents, McKay is the son of Monaco-based, notorious money-maker Willie McKay, who has represented Joey Barton, Charles N’Zogbia, Ross McCormack, Pascal Chimbonda and Amdy Faye in the past, all players who are notorious for moving on from team to team amidst acrimonious circumstances. Willie was also one of the numerous agents investigated by the Quest Team, looking into allegations of fraud in football transfers. Organised by Lord Stevens, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, the team announced their findings in the Stevens Report in June 2007 and cleared McKay of all allegations. Later that year, however, he was arrested alongside Milan Mandaric, Harry Redknapp and Amdy Faye – then owner, manager and player of Portsmouth respectively – in relation to allegations of corruption. He was never charged and Police bail was dropped after years of investigations.
Mark McKay is not as infamous as his father, but it just at skilled at eking the best out of any possible deal for his clients. In an exclusive interview with French media outlet Le 10 Sport, McKay claimed the following;
Everyone wanted Payet. We showed West Ham the way…If they went to discuss without us, they would have ended up paying €25 or €30 million. When a Premier League club comes to France, players prices are doubled. I can understand that. Apart from PSG and some big European teams, nobody can compete.
Then Marseille president, Vincent Labrune, revealed that both Mark and Willie McKay started negotiations with the player by offering the French club a1 paltry €4 million, eventually rising to €15 million, roughly £13.5 million after a long month of negotiations. Lebrune is an experienced negotiator, who managed to receive nearly €80 million in transfer fees for Giannelli Imbula, Florian Thauvin and Michy Batshuayi the very same season and after, yet was stumped by the McKay’s.
Although praising the source of much of Koné’s discontent is difficult, it proves just exactly how effective they are at generating interest in, and turning the head of, one of the players they represent. McKay tends to work under the radar, unlike super agents such as Mino Raiola and Reinhart Zeigler. Both his twitter profile and LinkedIn page does not mention who he works for, just that he is an agent as well as a director of “Excelfoot Ltd”, a plc based out of Glasgow with a net worth of ~£450,000 according to their 2014/15 accounts. The company was purely a “management consultancy firm” but do not provide a list of clients or business dealt with, and has now been liquidated.
Although Payet is now no longer represented by McKay, Koné still is. Mark McKay is – once again – unlisted, but does work for the agency firm First Eleven ISM, who represent clients such as Dejan Lovren, Gervinho, Nicolas N’Koulou, Mathieu Valbuena and Serge Aurier. All players who have been involved in either highly controversial or a high quantity of transfers. In the 2015 summer transfer window, ISM negotiated a total of £149.3 million for transfers of their players, and netted themselves an agent fee of £15 million, the ninth highest of all agencies in the same window, merely £3m less than the notorious Raiola. McKay was centre of all press last summer, early on in the window indicating that his client may leave but later claimed;
Lamine will train with Sunderland tomorrow morning and is available for selection for Saturday. In the meantime, Lamine still awaits the offer of a new contract from the club.
This is typical agent work, making sure all avenues are open for his player and taking advantage of the Jean-Marc Bosman ruling ensuring that power is well in the hands of the player, and I would expect McKay to be constantly pushing for a move throughout the whole of the remaining transfer window. Both Khazri and Lens are represented by much smaller companies; World Football, a purely French-based agency and Sports Entertainment Group, out of Netherlands. As a result, they do not have the influence of a footballing super-agent in their ear and are likely honestly attempting to earn their way to a new club, or back to the Premier League. We may never again see the Koné of 2015/16, but here’s hoping if he does stay, which is unlikely at this point, Simon Grayson will do better than the abject David Moyes in getting the big man back to his supreme best.