CHEICK Tiote’s return couldn’t have come at a better time for Newcastle United.
CHEICK Tioté is a big noise for Newcastle United – with a small voice.
It might be somewhat out of kilter with his reputation as one of the Premier League’s most fearsome competitors, but Tioté’s voice carries far less weight than his no-nonsense displays on the pitch.
He is softly spoken and while he has completely mastered the English language, it will be a while before his performance in front of a dictaphone matches the kind of displays that boss Alan Pardew admits Newcastle have “sorely missed”.
Responses to questions are clipped and economical and it is possible to detect a faint sense of embarrassment at being the centre of attention when he conducts interviews. There might be bite in his high-octane game, but soundbites will forever be missing.
So when Tiote makes a bullish statement about Newcastle’s Champions League chances – like he did on Thursday – it is worth making a note of it. He is the most high-profile player yet to predict a top-four finish, and what’s more he has shared that outspoken assessment with one of the best players in the wobbling Chelsea dressing room.
Asked about just where Newcastle’s stirring campaign can take them this season, he responded: “I discussed this with Saloman Kalou.
“I told him we'll finish fourth, and Chelsea will finish seventh. I told him that. He said 'okay then, we'll see'. I suppose it shows the confidence I have in our team that I said it to him.
“But if we keep working hard, everything's possible and we can go for fourth. I think we've got a good chance to finish in the top four.
“We're a point behind Chelsea and Arsenal and we have everyone back in the squad, Demba's back and if we keep playing like we do I think we can stay in the top four. This team isn't just about two or three players, it's about the whole squad.
“It doesn't matter if one or two of those are missing, it's down to the team to come through that.”
A fortnight after the Tottenham debacle, optimism appears to have returned to Newcastle’s Benton training base.
A 5-0 walloping at White Hart Lane might have dented pride but one look at the Premier League table tells you it didn’t inflict a mortal wound on the team’s unlikely tilt for Europe. The way Arsenal and Chelsea toiled while Newcastle regrouped has refreshed enthusiasm for a Champions League challenge on Tyneside – and back-to-back wins would provide the perfect platform until the end of the season.
Tioté’s comeback adds substance to those claims.
His unassuming off-the-pitch character is totally at odds with his importance to the Newcastle cause – and being able to call on a born winner in the centre of midfield is a real bonus for his boss.
When Tioté admitted this week that he gave away his African Nations Cup silver medal it came as little surprise to Pardew. The midfielder – who says he likes the Mr T nickname given to him by some supporters – has been a big miss for the last six weeks.
“We need to stay focused and strong as a team,” he said.
“If we do that I think we'll be okay. I watched the games while I was away, the Aston Villa match and the one against Spurs. It's difficult to watch when you're not playing. The next three games are important starting with looking to get a win on Saturday.”
There is now personal motivation for Tioté, who fully expected to return from international duty having helped Ivory Coast conquer Africa for the first time since 1992.
Widely regarded as the Continent’s strongest group of players, there was shock in Abidjan and beyond when they came unstuck against an unheralded Zambia in the final.
Tioté had been one of the better performers of an altogether under-whelming competition but he found little satisfaction in personal accolades.
“People back home in the Ivory Coast were sad that we lost, but they understand what can happen in a penalty shoot-out,” he said.
“It was very difficult to handle losing the final – I gave my medal away to my friend because I wanted the gold one.
“The silver isn't important to me but my friend likes it! Normally I don't take penalties but luckily I scored one in the shoot-out.
“Now I want to show the fans I'm back. The ANC is over now and I'm okay, and mentally I'm okay. I've put the disappointment behind me, it's a couple of weeks ago now. I need to look forward to the future, not dwell on what's happened.”