When Lamine Kone arrived without fanfare on Wearside in 2016 the world looked a little different to how it does now. Coming in as part of a trio that would go on to play a huge role in our victory over relegation that season - alongside Wahbi Khazri and Jan Kirchhoff - Kone’s transfer seemed to be masterminded by notoriously boisterous man-manager Sam Allardyce.
However, the centre back who had arrived with an unremarkable career to date, who was barely able to speak the lingo of the land upon arrival, and whose transfer was a protracted affair didn’t take long to show us what he was made of.
Over two years we would come to witness a player in extremis as the best and worst parts of his character were on display for all to see. To us now, Kone seems like a known quantity, but I’d be quick to suggest that, on the contrary, we barely even knew him.
There are times that I’ve taken issue with slating players that appear to turn their noses up at the club, and that isn’t simply because I enjoy playing devil’s advocate (though I very much do) but rather because I often can’t bring myself to believe that they’re as crap as many think they are - Lamine Kone is another example of this. Yes, you heard right - I don’t believe that Kone is a crap player.
The reasoning behind this is very basic and doesn’t at all allude to any savvy on my part. It’s not that I haven’t seen him perform terribly, so much that I’ve seen him not be terrible. Like countless players before and likely after him, I’ve seen him give his all in a Sunderland shirt and absolutely dominate world-class players doing it. I’ve seen Kone stand like a titan on the pitch; we all watched in complete awe as Yaya Toure – a player well-known for his sheer power - quite literally bounced off this Ivorian tank.
Of course, by the same token I’ve also seen him jog as opposed to running back to the general area he’s supposed to be occupying, his face the very picture of nonchalance as the goals come crashing past him. More and more as the months went by and his initial expectations of his new life in England dampened, we saw the player we now believe Kone to be.
It’s often said that football fans are fickle and I believe that is true, at least to an extent. For the most part this is due to the impernanence of the thing we love. True, we all love Sunderland AFC, but Sunderland AFC (like many clubs) are in a permanent state of flux. “Sunderland” on the pitch isn’t the crest, or the town, or the stadium, or the fans; it’s an ever-changing amalgamation of new and old faces, each with their own unique vices and virtues. “Sunderland” is whoever is playing with some degree of regularity.
With this constant influx and egress of individuals, I often wonder if it’s possible for a fan to not be fickle; to remain completely resolute in your opinion of something that is ever-changing seems like a silly thing to do.
With that in mind I present this argument.
The more I attempt to answer the question of Lamine Kone, the more apparent it becomes that the question isn’t “Why is Lamine Kone so poor?” so much as it is “What is wrong with Lamine Kone?”.
For me, the defender’s rapid rise and fall from grace is clearly a question of mentality rather than ability. Moving to a new country; learning a new language; meeting two dozen team-mates and assimilating with them – these are remarkable pressures without heaping the added lodestones of Sunderland AFC circa 2012 on top of it.
In his autobiography “Commitment”, Didier Drogba recollects his attempt to buy a house when he first made the big-money move from Marseille to Chelsea. The estate agent is showing him around the local area and it becomes clear to him that it’s out of his price range:
I remember being introduced to one property agent by the club, and it soon became clear that he thought that £24 million transfer fee had gone directly into my own pocket. All the houses he showed me were way out of my price-bracket, with prices ranging between £8-10 million. I tried to explain that I had bought my house in Marseille just the season before for about £500,000, but he just looked at me, confused.
Don’t get me wrong – being shown a mansion and having it be slightly out of your price range for a year or two is what you might call a first-world problem, but I think it serves to highlight the common association non-footballers make between players and the transfer fee we’re made aware of.
We think of millions of pounds and it’s reasonable to jump straight to: “Well for that sort of money I’d do pretty much anything, so he should pull his finger out and stop moaning.” That’s a fair reaction because of the context, but to the player it’s obviously not like that; the higher the transfer fee, the higher the pressure, it could even be argued. The greater the burden on the shoulders, the stronger the one bearing it has to be.
I can’t imagine leaving Britain to live anywhere else – the thought fills me with an eerie sense of danger; as if I wouldn’t understand the place I’m going enough to guarantee the safety and security of myself and my family. While it’s fair to assume I’d be alright with it if I was getting paid tens of thousands of pounds a week, a footballer’s contract is iron-clad.
(I hope that) It’s no secret that the life of a footballer is fraught with doubt and rejection; elation and depression are the bedfellows of an eclectic life led under the scrutiny of the floodlights; judged by legions of roaring, emotional creatures that demand satisfaction for the spending of their hard-earned money, and a return on their dizzying emotional investment.
If he makes that move and it doesn’t work out for him, he can’t just say “Nah you’re alright, I’ll pack it in now and go home.” Everything he has and likely everything he ever will have is dependent on whichever dotted line he signed his name to. Ironically, he isn’t free to make the same choices as you and I are, regardless of the resources at his disposal to do so.
When all is said and done, the responsibility for the mentality and mindset of a player at any club invariably falls to the player himself, but we have to sit back and question the impetus of a player that is promised the world and then given an altogether different reality.
Since we can’t blame Kone alone for the all-too-familiar collapse of our back line in the last two seasons, we should always consider that many talented men have been thrown into the maelstrom of Sunderland AFC only to come hurtling out the other end, crashing to earth at break-neck speeds. When they pick themselves up and dust themselves off seeking pastures new, it’s become something of a running joke that they end up doing better for themselves than they did here. This isn’t because the old adage about the grass being greener is ironically correct; it’s an indictment of the misgivings of a poorly led institution. The domino effect of poor ownership leads to a breakdown in everything from player-coach relations, to obscene queues for pints and pies. Poor ownership is like taking a hammer and chisel to a game of Jenga.
The take-away from this shouldn’t be that Kone is crap because of Ellis Short, but when judging the individual performances (and more importantly: their behaviour) the bigger picture is so often the clearest. This is generally how footballers, agents and clubs view the industry, and why they rightly view many fans as fickle. It’s the reason players leave us with a badge of shame yet go on to achieve equal or greater things, not at all to our surprise.
Lamine Kone could have continued to be great at this football club - as could many others before him. In another lifetime and another world, Kone could have gone on to become one of the best centre-backs in the Premier League. Under Allardyce he was clever, aerially threatening, and a one-man wall in front of goal. We know this because we watched it happen and dared to dream that it would continue beyond that. But under Allardyce he was something far more important than all of those things: he was happy.
The importance of man-management can never be understated. Leadership, solidarity and teamwork – I believe these are the foundations for any truly great team, I believe that every great manager knows that, and that in their hearts the players do too. They have precious little control over the direction of their lives after they commit entire swathes of it to what is essentially a business, and one as unstable as Sunderland must have at times felt like signing up to join a group of suicidal flaggelants marching off in to battle as an army with no General.
When the pressure is never eased and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, people give up and turn inward. They lose their sense of common endeavour and they gratefully shrug off the expectations of them as their own expectations turn to dust; that’s just part of who we are. With everything that’s happened since Lamine moved to Wearside, is it really any surprise that both parties have inevitably come to mutually-assured disappointment?
We can be glad now that we’re rebuilding with fresh optimism and a new model, and that we don’t have to lament the loss of someone with the witnessed potential of Lamine Kone. I’ll wish him the best of luck in his endeavours. I’m not saying he’s going to go on and win the Champions League, but I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he does better for himself than he did here.
Au revoir Lamine, we hardly knew ye.