When Newcastle United faced Tottenham in October, it was a Sunday for looking forward. A new dawn, a future that could, in time, surpass the wildest dreams of those who packed away ends at Molineux and Vicarage Road in the weeks preceding.

But it was also an apt time for a glance over the shoulder. A time to remember the past. Wor Flags returned from their Ashley enforced hiatus, hairs stood to attention as Jimmy Nail’s Big River flooded ears, and St James’ Park played host to a  ‘This is your life’ Toon special. New owners; past owners; PJ and Duncan; the Entertainers re-united; Micky Quinn; David Ginola and Kieron Dyer. Countless more.

Others were enforced absentees. Sir Bobby Robson – that trademark sparkle in his eye that could light the Tyne Tunnel in the depths of winter – would doubtless have been looking down, most likely sat next to Jackie Milburn. And alongside them a man mountain taken long before his time; Cheick Tiote. The family of United’s former midfield warrior were present though, a poignant picture appearing afterwards of his son pointing at his late father’s name.

Tragically taken from the world four years ago aged just 30, Tiote had departed Tyneside only months prior. Two days after his final professional appearance for Beijing Enterprises, he suffered a fatal heart-attack in training.

In six-and-a-bit seasons in NE1, Tiote became a firm favourite amongst fans, teammates and managers alike. In full-flight he was amongst the businesses’ best. Less Rolls Royce, more Monster Truck-come-Sergeant Bash. But there was grace in his destruction.

Signed in late August 2010, few Geordies had heard of the Ivorian. He arrived from Holland; the proud owner of an Eredivisie medal having helped FC Twente – under Steve McLaren’s tutelage – to their maiden league title. Impressive performances in the World Cup – this time under Sven’s watchful eye – persuaded Newcastle to drop £3.5million for his services. Bargain? You can say that again.

His signing was low key, overshadowed by that of Hatem Ben Arfa the following day. But Tiote and his infectious smile endeared himself immediately.  The pair debuted in a 1-0 victory at Goodison Park, Hatem’s worldie winning it. But United’s new midfield man won many plaudits.

In some ways Tiote was relatable. He wore the Newcastle shirt with pride, and played with the passion and enthusiasm of a supporter. But unlike terrace dwellers, he had the quality that saw him at home in the top-flight.

Never was that more apparent than on a Wednesday night in early January 2012. Manchester United were in Toon; they left empty handed. Three zip, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye and a comedy Phil Jones own goal. But Tiote was everywhere that night. A human wall there to protect at all costs. “Possibly the best individual performance” of Alan Pardew’s reign.

His partnership with Yohan Cabaye that season was instrumental in a fifth placed finish. Win possession; wreak havoc; feed the quarter-back.  The intensity never dropped, even in training. Dan Gosling will attest to that.

An occasional skipper, Tiote was a natural leader armband or not. And he loved a booking, Like seriously loved one. 52 in just 139 Premier League outings. There was a smartness to his play though. Yes, the threat of a second inhibited his freedom, but he trod the tightrope well. Never was Tiote dismissed for two yellows, although he twice saw red. Once at Stevenage to miss derby day, plus a harsh one at the Stadium of Light for a tackle on Steven Fletcher.

159 appearances in black and white brought just a solitary strike. But what a goal it was. The mood was gloomy, Andy Carroll’s £35m departure still raw. Four in the red at the break, many left. But those who remained enjoyed 45 minutes that will never leave them. Abou Diaby’s dismissal started it, before a brace of Joey Barton penalties sandwiched Leon Best’s strike.

And then IT happened. A corner half cleared, Tiote stationed on the edge of the area drew back that left peg and swung. It was the sweetest of volleys, dipping away from helpless Wojciech Szczęsny. He knew not what to do and so simply ran as those in the stands danced. He ended beneath a pile of black and white, Steve Harper dropping the infamous People’s Elbow.

There were always tales surrounding Tiote’s use of alternative medicine, witch-doctors apparently his go to. Rumour has it that one such practitioner cleared up a troublesome knee injury that had previously side-lined him for months. We will never know quite what the truth was but it all added to the mystique.

The love with which Tiote was held by his teammates was obvious. There were two sides; that menacing ‘I’m going-to-fuck-you-up’ on pitch scowl, the Hyde to the Jekyll that was a kind, soft-natured, jokey character who was always giving. His move to China was borne out of a desire set-up his family for life.

As Newcastle United looks squarely ahead, it is worth remembering that amongst the vacuum that has been the last decade and a half, there was plenty of soul.

Cheick Ismael Tiote; 21 June 1986 – 5 June 2017; gone but never forgotten.  

SAM DALLING