In memory of Cheick Tiote

News of Cheick Tiote’s passing yesterday was greeted with an outpouring of emotion from across the footballing world.

The midfielder, who was – tragically – just a couple of weeks shy of his 31st birthday, had not six months ago ended his seven-year association with Newcastle for a move to China’s Beijing Enterprises.

The Far East represents an easy pay-day for some, but it’s a safe bet that Tiote – a tireless runner with an engine big enough to power two midfields, let alone just the one – was approaching it with the same enthusiasm as he did sell-out Saturday afternoon Premier League games at St James’s.

The somewhat hackneyed “he covers every blade of grass” phrase – the one that appeared in Alan Pardew’s touching tribute to his former midfield general – has been oft-used in the years since Ferguson paid tribute to Roy Keane’s mercurial performance against Juventus in 1999.

But it seems somehow appropriate for Tiote; a player who you really can’t imagine leaving the pitch to anything other than rapturous applause.

Case in point: he won the respect of jaded Newcastle fans almost immediately after joining Chris Hughton’s newly promoted side from Twente in 2010 – and that’s not necessarily easy. Tyneside has become something of an outpost for sulky divas, and big-time Charlies who see the club as a stepping stone for better things, but Tiote definitely wasn’t one of them.

The way he celebrated that goal against Arsenal in his debut season (well, it was his only goal in English football, to be fair) with all the passion of a dyed-in-the-wool Geordie who grew up just down the road, Alan Shearer number nine shirt and all, made that very clear.

In his second year, he was a crucial part, alongside midfield partner Yohan Cabaye, of the best Newcastle team for a generation, as Alan Pardew’s side pipped Champions League-winning Chelsea to 5th place in the Premier League, narrowly missing out on that fabled top four spot.

More than just energy, Tiote brought to the – at times, chaotic – team a calm presence in front of the back four, where he smothered oncoming attacks with minimal fuss. Whilst he had a reputation as a tough-tackling midfielder (and the disciplinary record to prove it), he rarely lost his head in the throes of battle.

The Magpies, inevitably, couldn’t sustain their challenge at the top of the table in the seasons that followed, and Tiote was duly linked with a host of bigger teams in England and beyond – yet remained loyal to his employers, even after they were relegated to the second tier.

But, whatever his sporting qualities, it seems wrong to end on a line about Tiote the footballer when so many of those who knew him best have – rightly – put the spotlight on Tiote the man.

You can never be sure that a player’s infectious enthusiasm for the game on the pitch mirrors their personality off it – but Tiote’s teammates and managers have all, without exception, painted a picture of a warm and generous person, and one who will be sorely missed.

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