New talisman of Highbury can be a real Touré de force

The Interview - Kolo Touré: Arsenal's defensive icon may be replaced in the fans' eyes by an engaging young star from the Ivory Coast. Nick Townsend hears his story
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The Independent Football

It was somehow apposite that in the week that we witnessed the passing on of an Arsenal defensive talisman to the vagaries of a new career, the Highbury faithful should receive confirmation of the stature of a young man, Kolo Touré, who is already beginning to replace him in their affections.

On Wednesday morning, we awoke to newspaper images of the former posing with an expansive smile and hands raised above his head, but this time clutching a Wycombe Wanderers scarf in them - rather than using them in a fashion we were more familiar with, to appeal for offside - as he obliged the requests barked by photographers. Tony Adams, formerly of Arsenal and England, and all-round reformed character, had resurfaced in football and the uncertain world of management.

It seems an eternity since we last observed that profile which came to represent everything about the defensive philosophy of Arsenal Football Club. In fact, it is only 18 months since he resigned his Arsenal commission following the FA Cup final triumph over Chelsea. With it, a mighty buttress in the fortress that had afforded protection to the Gunners over the years finally toppled.

Though we knew we would not see the like of him again, nor the like of the quintet who had served Arsenal since that defensive fanaticist George Graham moulded them into that highly efficient unit, the concern around Highbury was, how do you replace such principal boys? Surely, not, it was being muttered in the stands, by some of the pantomime ugly sisters who had been paraded since. Harsh? Maybe, but names like Stepanovs, Cygan and Grimandi were scarcely going to be the stuff of legends. Yes, Sol Campbell had been acquired, but it had scarcely been a seamless transition. As for Matthew Upson, well, his departure from the club to Birmingham, and England recognition, is best not mentioned.

Then along came Touré, signed from Asec Mimosas early last year. Another of Arsène Wenger's wonders, or one of his occasional wastes of the club's salary budget? The then 20-year-old from the Ivory Coast announced his arrival with an equaliser at Stamford Bridge. But what was he exactly? Wenger had announced initially that his acquisition was a midfielder. Or perhaps he was a right-back? At less than six feet tall, certainly not a centre-back. Whisper it quietly, but even the manager did not appear to know.

By a process which will probably be attributed to the manager's astuteness, but was possibly the result of nothing more than good fortune, Touré found himself in tandem with Campbell or Martin Keown. He has been a revelation this season. He has already won the club's player of the month awards for August and September. Wenger called him "a lion" after his performance against Internazionale, despite the 3-0 defeat.

But it is the crowd which is traditionally the harshest judge of a player's diligence. "I always try to do my best for them," he says. "I love to give everything I have for people who come to see us - the people who have been working hard all week and pay their money to watch us. You see the sick [handicapped] people watching from the side. You have to do it for them. That is what is important."

The player himself appears bemused that supporters imagine he is a "convert" to his current role. "Centre-back is my best position, but when I first arrived I had to play elsewhere," he says. "Now I think I have a very good partnership with Sol."

And importantly, you put it to him, his agility complements Campbell's towering presence. "It is important to have the right combination if the team are going to be strong," responds Touré. "The guy who is tall can get higher; the guy who is short can go quicker. In every job it is like that. Like yours, no? Some of you are good at the writing, some are good at asking the questions."

Before it can be pointed out that some of us like to think we attempt to make a reasonable fist of both, he moves to the subject of Wednesday evening and the vital defeat of Dynamo Kiev in the Champions' League. It was not the Gunners' finest hour by any means. You could just about make a case for it being a reasonably decent final three minutes, following Ashley Cole's desperate, diving-headed winner.

Among the few positives, Touré was a beacon in the gloom which pervaded Highbury for much of the contest. He was the essence of dependability, intercepting the ball one minute, committing himself to an excellently timed sliding challenge out on the flank the next and, most crucially, charging down goal-bound attempts when required. Just as importantly, he surged upfield with menace, co-ordinating the efforts of his midfielders, and would have scored but for a saving tackle on him.

He smiles ruefully at the memory. "The last 15 minutes, it was very hard. Of course, I was worried that we were going to go out of the Champions' League, but we showed we are strong enough. But, yes, I like to get forward. Sometimes it is difficult for the strikers to get a goal because the opposition is very tight on them, so I like to open the game up. I can find more space. But you must have the confidence to do that."

Such words should not convey any impression of arrogance. He is humility personified; still regarding himself as essentially a student of the game, and surrounded by professors. "Sol and Martin Keown as well - he's a fantastic guy - they talk to me before the game, through the game, after the game. They tell me, 'Don't do that, do this, think about that'. I really appreciate learning from them, because they are great players. They teach me things like how to be clever when you have a difficult striker against you. How to make sure he doesn't pass you."

But Adams remains his prime inspiration. "A great man. He was here when I first arrived and he helped me a lot; I played with him in the reserve team. We won 2-1, and I think he scored a goal."

Touré laughs, as though the concept was faintly ridiculous. "Tony has always been a great example to me with his performances for his national team and Arsenal. It was an honour to play with him and I just want to be like him, although I think it will be very hard, because he was an unbelievable player."

You advise him that the supporters are expecting nothing less. "I will do my best to be near him" - he holds up two fingers with just a centimetre or two between them, to emphasise the point - "maybe not at the same level. But near."

Everybody tells you Touré is a charming, engaging character. He is precisely that. One who appears to regard it almost as a pleasure to do an interview, or at the very least his duty, even if you have to wait for him while he drives to the mosque and back after training. Like all his family, he is a Muslim, and it is Friday, his day of prayer. It is also Ramadan, but fasting would clearly be incompatible with his profession. "God understands," he says. But then, as one unofficial Arsenal website irreverently opines: "God is a Gooner".

If you believe this particular Touré is gifted, look out for his younger, even better, brother, currently playing for Arsenal's Belgian feeder club, Beveren. "He's a central midfielder, like Patrick [Vieira]," you are informed. "Heh, maybe he can be the second Patrick?" And he's really better than you? "Sure, he's better than me. Sure. He's taller than me, he's better at tackling than me. He's a very good player."

Touré is the son of a retired army officer, one of nine children. He sends part of his salary back home. "My family need it," he explains. "I always think about them, and I always try to do my best for them. When I become a big, big player, I will give them more."

He adds, lest there be any misunderstanding: "I'm not from a poor background. I wouldn't say that. OK, I didn't have a PlayStation. We weren't rich. But it wasn't bad. I was happy." What he did, though, was watch English football on satellite, although he never imagined that he would one day be part of it. "As a boy, I never thought about being a footballer. It was just a hobby. At school, I was good but never the best in the class. I thought about being a lawyer, or something like that."

He was first discovered by a Frenchman, Jean Marc Guilloc, who had started a football academy in the Ivory Coast. Touré came to Arsenal's close attention when his club team played their reserve side. It resulted in a two-week trial. Wenger was smitten.

"When I came here, it was really different from what I had been used to," he says. "You look at all these great players, see their big cars, but I say, 'Kolo, you must always remember where you come from. You have worked very hard to be here. Now you must work very hard to be like them'." He pauses. "Or even better than them."

A tall order, but one not beyond a character who, in spite of his lack of stature, is fast developing into a giant of a defender, and a talisman in the Adams mould.

Biography: Kolo Touré

Born: 19 March 1981.

Family: Married to Aoure. Kolo means "follower of twins" - he has six brothers and two sisters.

Position: Central defender/midfielder.

International career: Ivory Coast (18 matches). Debut v Rwanda in 2000.

Club career: Asec Mimosa (July 2000 to February 2002). Arsenal (February 2002-present). Signed for undisclosed fee, believed to be in the region of £150,000.

Also: Relaxes by "going shopping with Aoure", using his computer and watching football on TV. Has been ever-present for Arsenal this season in the Premiership and Champions' League.

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