In his first season in the English Premier League, Cheik Tiote has already turned some well-known heads. Not only has the rugged Côte D’Ivoire defensive midfielder become a vital cog in Newcastle United's team, but coach Chris Hughton has likened him to Ghana and Chelsea icon Michael Essien.
It’s a sentiment that has been backed by Sven-Goran Eriksson, who said recently that Tiote was so good that he could claim a place in any side in the world. High praise for a 24-year-old from his former international coach, but again it is backed up by one of Africa’s biggest stars: Didier Drogba. “I think Cheik is going to go on and be one of the strongest players in this league," said the 32-year-old striker after his compatriot helped Newcastle hold Chelsea to a 1-1 draw last weekend.
Ominously for competitors, Drogba expects Tiote to improve. “I think supporters have only seen half of his potential so far," he said. "You have only seen half the player, but the more Cheik plays at Premier League level, the better he will become.”
Atmospheric praise then, but the humble, hard-working attitude of the Yamoussoukro native leaves no doubt that he has the determination to live up to the hype. “My success so far means the world to me,” he told African Football Media. “The simple key has been training hard and playing hard, and just doing what comes naturally to me. That might sound simple, which it is to an extent, but I’ve not changed the way I play and just work incredibly hard in training each day to make myself into the best player I possibly can be.
“All my new team-mates have been fantastic and the manager has great faith in me too, which gives one confidence. The stadium is terrific and the fans too, so when you put all those factors together, you see the best of Cheik Tiote. I want the people of Newcastle to see Cheik Tiote as a player who gives 100 per cent for the team. You can never take anything for granted, so you always have to keep working, keep level-headed and keep improving your game.”
A new favourite for the Magpies, Tiote was also admired in Enschede as he helped Twente to their first-ever Dutch Eredivisie crown last term. Having started his European club career in Belgium with Anderlecht, the Ivorian spent two seasons under Englishman Steve McClaren before moving to newly-promoted Newcastle this summer for almost $5.5m. Despite leaving behind the chance of UEFA Champions League football, he knew moving to England was too good an opportunity to pass up.
“It wasn't a hard decision, I just saw it as a step up in class, which is what the Premier League is,” explained Tiote. “We’re playing teams like Arsenal and Chelsea, and beating and drawing against them respectively, so it’s really been fantastic. It was great to win the championship at Twente, but this is undoubtedly a progression to come to Newcastle. Just playing here is an achievement for me.”
The positive settling-in period in England has been a welcome development for the player, who was as saddened as the rest of his team-mates to exit the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ at the group stage. But he waves off suggestions that the hugely promising team were unlucky to be drawn into what many called the ‘group of death’ along with Brazil, Portugal and Korea DPR.
“Ah, yes, the group of death, although we didn’t necessarily see it as that,” said Tiote, who played every minute this summer for the west Africans. “Regardless of who you are drawn with, you just have to get on with it. It just wasn’t to be in South Africa, but that doesn’t hide the bitter disappointment the whole squad felt at not progressing further in the competition.”
Having made his international debut just 18 months ago, Tiote is nonetheless looking forward to a bright and fruitful career with the Elephants. And he said there will be no let down even as observers continue to worry about a trophy-less ‘golden generation’ heading into their 30s. “We can remain a dominant force in African football,” he said.
“We have the nucleus of a very good squad, with some top-class players as well as some younger ones like (23-year-old) Gervinho of Lille. He is really good, and another is (22-year-old) Seydou Doumbia of CSKA Moscow. He's a striker and he's a great prospect as well.”