MENTION Cheick Tioté’s name in black and white circles and the response is nearly always a broad smile.
Newcastle’s players, management and supporters all love Tioté, a special player whose infectious will-to-win and drive has made him such a massive part of the recent St James’ Park success story.
An anecdote recounted by Alan Pardew in the days leading up to the Wear-Tyne derby is indicative.
Recalling how Gael Bigirimana had taken a bite out of his Ivorian warrior on the training ground, there was a real sense of Tioté’s importance to this Newcastle team.
He smiled: “We call Gael ‘little Cheick.’ They had a little rumble in training and I told Cheick off for bullying him! He won’t be bullying him much longer though, Gael’s getting stronger.”
However, in the wake of a derby-day battle in which Tioté’s dismissal was a turning point, is it time to confront uncomfortable truths about the Ivorian’s disciplinary record?
To be frank, it is nothing short of eye-watering. In 54 matches, he has collected 27 yellow cards and two reds – an average of a caution every other game for a player Newcastle United desperately need to be doing the business on the pitch.
Last season, he picked up more yellow cards than any other player in the Premier League.
Even Joey Barton, whose ill-discipline and recklessness has seen him leave the country, has picked up less cautions over the past two seasons. He has 19 in 69 games. From six starts this year, the record books show Tioté has four yellow cards and one red card already.
None of the cautions have been contentious either – with one picked up in just 16 minutes of a substitute’s appearance against Norwich.
The red card issued by Martin Atkinson on Sunday might have been contentious but it was also a reckless and unnecessary intervention by Tioté.
He had already won the free-kick when he launched himself into a challenge on Steven Fletcher which lacked intent, but came loaded with risk. In short, it is the sort of challenge Tioté should have cut out of his game by now.
With three years of English football under his belt, he is now a seasoned Premier League campaigner who should have some understanding of the sort of play which prompts the ire of referees in this country, yet he left the field with 65 minutes still on the clock.
It says it all about the player, his popularity in the Newcastle ranks and his importance to the black and white cause that no one was rushing to condemn him in the aftermath of the game.
James Perch, no stranger to a tackle himself, led the way by saying no one in the dressing room held him accountable for the incident.
He said: “You take that side of the game out of Cheick and you don’t get the same player.”
Similarly Pardew – while accepting the validity of Atkinson’s decision – did not condemn his player for a challenge motivated by a desire to win the ball rather than wound Fletcher.
The problem here is Tioté’s impressive will-to-win is a rare thing in Premier League circles.
There are other midfielders in the league who might pass the ball better or contribute more going forward, but you couldn’t name many who can dictate a game or influence a match like Tioté can. Pardew knows this. When the midfielder returned from injury last month, the manager hailed him with a remarkable tribute.
Asked what he brings to the team, the boss reeled off a list of attributes that made it clear how important he is. Pardew said: “Drive, passion, a determination to win whatever he is doing, whether it’s table-tennis or a game of football,and an ability that many players can’t reach.” Newcastle will miss him immensely in the coming weeks, but that is part of the problem.
Pardew must find a way for him to temper the aggression in his game while still retaining the fire which burns deep within the midfielder – but that is not such an easy task. Just ask Martin O’Neill, who is wrestling with the problem of his own midfielder with discplinary issues.
Lee Cattermole did not feature on Sunday and his presence was sorely missed by the Sunderland boss.
The former Middlesbrough midfielder is an oft-misunderstood player, but to those who watch him regularly they can see what he gives to the Black Cats.
That drive, passion and fearlessness would have been a major boon for Sunderland as they struggled to reignite their derby challenge but he ruled himself out of the game with a tackle of monumental recklessness against MK Dons in the League Cup.
It is sadly a recurring theme on Wearside, too.
Cattermole’s yellow card count is slightly lower than Tioté’s but he has still accrued 32 yellows in 79 games – an unwanted accumulation to his five red cards.
The problem on either side of the divide is these are terrific players who are hugely important to their teams but, with referees cracking down on foul play – or even intent – they are finding themselves on the wrong side of the thin blue line with increasingly regularity.