5 MINUTES WITH...
Roberto Martinez's first signing as Everton manager, Kone had previously scored goals all across Europe. It was a pleasure to speak to him this week about his career
Arouna Kone is a familiar face amongst football fans around Europe; he has scored goals in most of the top leagues around the continent, including Spain, Holland, Germany, Belgium, Turkey and of course the English Premier League.
Kone has always been a fighter, his career has been the result of a genuine rags to riches story, with his family at the very heart of everything he has achieved. He comes from of a huge family, he was one of 16 children all living under the same roof. The family had very little, his father was elderly, meaning it fell upon Kone and his brother to try their best to provide for the whole family; I have read stories from previous interviews where he has spoken of all 16 children having to eat from the same plate. Kone has never lost perspective of his humbling beginnings, in 2013 he founded the Arouna Kone Foundation, with the dream of providing academic, social and physical education to children, young people and adults within the Ivorian community.
His time in Spain was a mixed bag, struggling with serious injuries and even malaria at Sevilla, however in the season prior to his move to Wigan, he played a big part in helping Levante secure a 6th place finish, scoring 15 goals in La Liga during his loan spell, including the winner against the mighty Real Madrid. In fact, he was deemed so vital to Levante at the time, that they reportedly had to stop playing him as he was ‘scoring too many goals’ and would be contractually obliged to return to Sevilla should he reach 18 league goals.
After a somewhat nomadic, yet successful, career around Europe’s elite leagues, I was intrigued to find out where Kone felt he enjoyed his best football?
“That is a difficult question to answer. I could not give you the name of just one club, because I think there were three clubs at which I played my best football, in my best condition without injuries.”
“There was my beginnings at PSV Eindhoven, where I discovered and played in the UEFA Champions League. Then there was Levante UD, where I felt I had really matured in my football.”
“Then of course Wigan, where I discovered the Premier League, which for me is definitely the best championship in the world, in terms of comparisons to the other championships I have played in.”
It was at Wigan, of course, that Kone struck up his relationship with Roberto Martinez, somebody who would go on to have a huge effect on his career.
“Roberto Martinez was such a big influence on my career, he was like a big brother to me. He both guided and taught me, I really learned such a lot from him. Being at the end of my career, I can tell you now that he has definitely been the best coach for me in my whole career.”
Kone spent just one single season at Wigan; scoring 11 Premier League goals in a rollercoaster season which saw them hit the highest high - winning the FA Cup Final at Wembley, and the lowest of lows – relegation from the Premier League. It was the ultimate underdog tale that afternoon at Wembley, as Martinez men bamboozled Manchester City, with Ben Watson firing in a last gasp winner and writing Wigan Athletic in to the history books.
It was both a tactical and psychological masterclass from Roberto Martinez, his team talk of "You dreamed of this as a kid. Close your eyes, and imagine it" ringing in their ears as they took to the Wembley pitch.
“Winning the FA Cup with such a small club like Wigan was fantastic and such a historic achievement. It was the highlight of my career for me because from then on I knew that I was ready to go on and play for a big club.”
He didn’t have to wait long for that chance, as just days after becoming Everton manager, Martinez made Kone his first signing at Goodison Park, joining for around £6m.
He had a slow start to his career at Everton, just a handful of substitute appearances and a number of frustrating knocks and niggling injuries setting him back time after time. He made an appearance off the bench against Hull in October 2013, getting another knee injury in what would prove to be his last appearance of the season. A frustrating start to Kone’s dream move; it was confirmed in the November of 2013 that he was to need extensive knee surgery and would have to undergo a long rehabilitation program. Season over.
As time went on, rumours inevitably circulated that Kone would never play again; Martinez, however, was convinced Kone’s chapter at Goodison Park was far from over.
"I managed to overcome this tough test with the support of Roberto Martinez, his staff and also the Everton fans who encouraged me whenever we crossed paths at the stadium, or on social media. Their support gave me even more motivation to work hard and come back to my best level, I wanted to please the staff and the Everton fans."
In December 2014, after many false dawns, Kone finally made his full Everton debut, away to Newcastle - almost 18 months after signing for the Blues. He marked it in some style too, a goal inside 5 minutes, not dissimilar to his Ivorian compatriot Lacina Traore, whom I also spoke to recently.
"It also took a lot of courage and belief that I could not give up, because my rehabilitation was really difficult and without that courage I would not have been able to return."
"To get out of this kind of injury you must have a steel mind and never give up and I got that steel mind from my family, they always supported me and were always telling me that they counted on me."
Things were looking up for Kone, although perhaps sensibly, he was used sparingly for the rest of the season. A full pre-season behind him, and an injury free start to the following season followed before Kone produced a showstopping performance against Sunderland at Goodison Park, as Everton thrashed The Black Cats 6-2. Kone bagged a memorable hat-trick, linking up fantastically with strike partner Romelu Lukaku throughout. It was an outstanding performance, one befitting of the famous Everton number 9 jersey which Kone adorned, not to mention a huge lift to what must undoubtedly have been the most difficult 18 months of his career, both physically and mentally.
“I am so proud to have worn the Everton No.9 jersey which is so special; and to mark that unforgettable hat-trick, I still see the images all of the time.”
That game also brought with it financial reward, as it marked his 35th appearance in an Everton shirt, triggering a 1 year extension clause. It was, however, to be pretty much downhill from there for Kone at Goodison Park. The partnership with Lukaku, which looked so dangerous in that game against Sunderland, never really developed. It was a poor season for all concerned at the club, Kone became a peripheral figure again and the writing seemed to be on the wall when his mentor, Roberto Martinez was sacked.
“Everton was such a big club in my career, one which I could never forget, I keep very good memories of this club. It gives a family treatment to all of the players, that is something that really makes you feel good.”
“I can never forget my injury period and how the club and the fans supported me for 18 months to get me back to my best level.”
Another obstacle that was often mentioned as an obstacle to Kone’s struggling fitness, was during the period of Ramadan; As a devout Muslim, Kone would have to train and play while fasting, something which has always intrigued me. While he admits it was tough, Kone suggests this is just something he has become used to doing.
“Doing Ramadan during competitions is really difficult, but for me it was just a matter of habit, that’s why I managed to do it without any real problem. I was still able to perform during the period because I organized myself in relation to my diet, so that I was able to withstand the physical trials of playing Football.”
I would like to thank Arouna for being so approachable and agreeing to speak to me,
and a special thank you to his agent Armand Cisse for kindly putting me in touch with him and helping me out!