“Sign Silva first, I will come.” In the summer of 2010, so the story goes, Manchester City’s chief executive Garry Cook was trying to pull off two of the biggest deals in the club’s history. But there was a problem. Yaya Touré was on the verge of joining, but wanted to make sure City signed David Silva first. The Valencia man’s response? “Sign Yaya first, I will come.”
They both did and the rest – at least, as of Sunday evening – is history. As Silva took his leave from the Etihad Stadium pitch after his final appearance in English football, the absence of a crowd barely detracted from the warmth of his reception: not just the affection of his teammates and coaches, but weeks and months of tributes and superlatives from the wider game.
Running through all these tributes were a few common themes. Genius. Magic. Humility. Sophistication. Joy. “City’s first world-class player in my lifetime,” said Gary Neville on Sky Sports. “City’s finest ever player,” was Jamie Carragher’s verdict. Elsewhere, we heard even more lavish claims: bracketing him with Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo or Eric Cantona as one of English football’s greatest foreign players. Or with Frank Lampard, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard in a discussion of the Premier League’s greatest midfielders.
The point of this column is not to quibble with the immense and immeasurable brilliance of Silva – which would be stupid – but to point out the curious absence in many of the above discussions. Greatest City player, greatest Premier League midfielder, greatest foreign import: where, pray, is Touré’s name in all of this? Well, as of last week, he was training at Leyton Orient. Still going at 37, and stuck in London during lockdown, Touré contacted the League Two club with a view to building up some fitness while plotting his next move.
In the week that Silva departed English football with praise ringing in his ears, the marginalisation of Touré feels even more poignant: the sense that while Silva’s legacy is secure, Touré’s is still being negotiated.
At City, they need little convincing of his impact. There’s a pitch at the training ground bearing his name, a mural immortalising his feats. Even so, occasionally you wonder exactly what is being remembered. Often City fans will describe Touré as a great match-winner, drawing a fine line between technical ability and competitive instinct. Joleon Lescott makes the same distinction in describing Silva as “the best footballer” of City’s modern era, and Touré as “the best player”.
Asked to pick an all-time City XI for the club’s matchday programme, Micah Richards picked Touré as his holding midfielder, explaining: “He could start the play and just give the ball to [Kevin] De Bruyne and Silva and let them get on with it.” To which the only possible response is: can we possibly be talking about the same footballer here? Touré may have been signed for City as a holding player, but there’s a case for anointing him as one of the most versatile, complete footballers the English game has seen.
Able to play every position from central defence to No 10, able to pile up goals, assists, dribbles, passes and tackles with the same relentless ambition, able to dominate a game in virtually any way he chose. He could sit deep and orchestrate, barrel through the centre, kill you with a free-kick. He could snuff out a game or bend it to his will, run it with breathtaking vision or one of the most sophisticated first touches around.
More than that, he loved City to his bones. He did more than anyone to elevate the club’s stature and mentality, shed their inferiority complex, turn them into serial winners. Yet nobody describes Touré as a genius or a magician, pays tribute to his humility or sophistication. Why might this be? Partly, this is about how we remember footballers. The stories we tell about them. How we condense the thousands of things they have done on into a tidy, bitesize package. Silva: a wizard, a model professional, a club stalwart for a decade. Touré: a catchy chant, a birthday cake, some unforgettable moments and an acrimonious departure.
Clearly, there has been a racial element to some of his treatment: not just the overt abuse he received while playing in Ukraine but the later accusations of physical decline (fair), laziness (unfair) and avarice (what would have been a reasonable wage for a first-choice Barcelona midfielder in the summer of 2010?).
Perhaps, too, Touré has suffered from timing. His career-defining season in 2013-14 under Manuel Pellegrini coincided with the least-cherished of City’s four title wins. He was arguably never quite the same player after the death of his brother Ibrahim in 2014. Having taken a circuitous route to the top, his route down – Olympiakos, the Chinese second division, an aborted move to Botafogo – feels similarly unsatisfactory, a waning rather than a dying of the light.
Yet it is high time for a reassessment. The departure of Silva breaks one of the last surviving links with that first great City team under Roberto Mancini (Sergio Agüero is still elegantly ploughing on). Posterity and hindsight may offer a fairer reading of that side: not simply an expensively assembled star factory that got wildly lucky at the end, but a prototype for the meticulous winning machines that followed it. Silva, finally, has his due.
You only hope that in time Touré will get his.