Cheick Tioté is softly spoken and understated under his baseball cap, his words barely causing an echo in the plain, old-school changing room in which we are sitting, at the back of Newcastle United's indoor training centre. Maybe it is the enduring sense of good fortune he feels about his current success – "over the last two years I couldn't have imagined playing against teams like Chelsea and Liverpool," he admits – but the drama surrounding the season's events at St James' Park appears to simply wash over the 24-year-old midfielder.
Today sees Tioté make a welcome return from suspension for the visit of Arsenal but he will fulfil his perpetual role of supporting actor, as all eyes train on a Newcastle side playing their first home game since losing the talismanic Andy Carroll. Making a fuss is not the Ivorian's way, but he rates recent performances in his – and Carroll's – absence as cause for optimism.
"We have a good squad here at Newcastle and the team spirit is very good too," he says. "We've been without several players recently, especially through injury, but football is a squad game and the players who come in are very capable. You only have to look at the three goals Leon Best scored against West Ham to see that."
Nevertheless, Tioté acknowledges being "extremely frustrated" by his ban. "I felt my form was pretty good so to miss out on three important games for the club, when you are fit to play, was terrible. Missing the derby at Sunderland was probably the worst as it was a massive game for the club – the derby [in October] was crazy, I've never been involved in anything like it." Alan Pardew, who describes Tioté as "outstanding", will be delighted to see his midfield pillar return.
The manager's faith has helped all concerned move on from the surprising and unedifying departure in December of Chris Hughton, who brought Tioté to Tyneside in August. "When Chris was sacked, it affected everyone," he admits. "But our way of showing we were with him was to show that we still had the desire to play for the club, and to work for the new manager. It's a pity but that's football and that's life, so the most important thing is to stay on the good path that he [Hughton] sent us on."
That philosophy has worked particularly well for Tioté on a personal level. He has been a huge hit so far in his debut Premier League season. Brought in as a much-needed defensive sitter, he has surprised observers with his cultured use of the ball beyond the centre circle. "My role is to protect the defence," he says, "and then bring the ball out to the more offensive midfielders in front of me, Joey Barton and Kevin Nolan."
Tioté says the experience of the Liverpudlian duo guides the team, and has provided the stability to help him evolve tactically. "I've learned a lot. Before, I was a bit everywhere, but now I know my role in the team, there's nothing to stop me from receiving the ball from the goalkeeper, then going left, right, wherever," he enthuses.
Whereas a defensive midfielder having such a natural feel for the ball may be a surprise in England, Tioté puts it down to his humble first footballing steps back in the Ivory Coast, with FC Bibo. "I started in a small neighbourhood in Abidjan," he recalls. "We didn't have much money and we didn't have any football boots at the beginning. With bare feet I actually had better contact with the ball, and it helped me to develop. When I got my first pair at 15, it changed everything, and it took a fair while to adapt."
Adapt he did, and after moving to Europe with Anderlecht in 2005, a move to FC Twente followed in 2008, where he spent two years working under Steve McClaren.
"He's a good manager," he says. "The first year was great as I played 27 matches." In Twente's title season, Tioté spent a lot of the campaign's closing half on the bench, but he is sanguine about it, and takes no pleasure from McClaren's current struggles at Wolfsburg. "The second [season] was more difficult – the manager had choices to make, but I understand what all managers have to go through – but I was there for the team and there to work, and maybe that experience helped me to succeed here."
He cites the former England manager as a major influence behind his decision to swap the Netherlands for north-east England. Perhaps there was a certain inevitability to the move, with Tioté stylistically made for the Premier League? "I think so. McClaren said that to me, and Sven Goran Eriksson talked to me about that too at the World Cup. That pushed me a little closer to coming here. [Didier] Drogba, Kolo Touré as well, they told me it was the right moment to come here, after the World Cup."
The impact of the likes of Tioté and Kolo's younger brother Yaya at Manchester City, joining Chelsea's Drogba, means Ivorian stock in the Premier League is currently high. There is clear mutual admiration between the two newest members of that group. "I haven't spoken much [with Yaya], but we've sent one another messages to encourage each other, because it's his debut season in the Premier League too and it's hard."
Tioté will come face-to-face with another experienced import from Abidjan, Emmanuel Eboué, today. The midfielder names November's 1-0 win in London as one of his season highlights, and is confident Newcastle can repeat the feat. "Arsenal are an amazing team," he says, "but on the day we fully deserved our win at the Emirates. The plan is to work hard, close them down, stick to your game plan, all 11 do their job to the best of your ability, take your chances. And maybe ride your luck a little."
Certainly Tioté is keen to seize every moment, with the current situation back home in the Ivory Coast putting Newcastle's difficult week into perspective. Western sanctions are starting to take hold against president Laurent Gbagbo as he hangs on to power despite losing elections in December, but daily life is only getting harder in the meantime.
"Everyone knows what's going on there at the moment," he says, "and it's not an easy situation. It's difficult to live with. We need to turn around what's happening at the moment as quickly as possible because we have our families there, our brothers, who need stability to be able to get on with their lives. What's happening stops everything. There's no work, there's nothing to eat, and it's difficult for everyone. We're obliged to show the best image of our country to give our support to our people and our country. That's what we're trying to do at the moment and we hope things get better."
In the short term, his plan is to give some light relief to the fans who have taken him to their hearts. "It's a fabulous club. They live nothing but football here. They're mad for football," Tioté says. He is just the character to help Newcastle get back to normal.
Home from home: Ivorians in the Premier League
Didier Drogba (Chelsea) Signed by the London club from Marseille for £24m in 2004, Drogba has matured into one of the world's most fearsome centre-forwards.
Emmanuel Eboué (Arsenal) The right-back is currently in his seventh season with Gunners without ever cementing a first-team place.
Steve Gohouri (Wigan Athletic) Has established himself as the Latics' right-back after joining from Borussia Moenchangladbach last season.
Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) Attempted to become a Dutch national ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Since capped by Ivory Coast. Has struggled to hold down a regular Chelsea place.
Abdoulaye Meité (West Brom) On the fringes of the first-team. Méïté swapped Marseille for Bolton in 2006. Moved onto West Brom in 2008 but has not featured in the League this season.
Kolo & Yaya Touré (Manchester C) Brothers in arms having arrived via Arsenal and Barcelona respectively. Kolo previously spent a successful seven seasons at Arsenal.Reuse content