Kone determined to make up for lost time after the loneliness of recovery
Today's result will not define Everton's season
Arouna Kone has played against Liverpool before, just not for Everton. Today will be his first Merseyside derby, and the distinction is not lost on a player now in his third season at Goodison. Cruel luck with injuries kept the Ivorian on the sidelines for most of his first two seasons at Everton after following Roberto Martinez from Wigan.
The last one, involving complicated knee ligament surgery, was so serious he thought he might not be able to run and balance normally again, let alone play. Even when he came on as a sub in the opening game of the season his entry was regarded with scepticism by many Everton supporters, mainly because the home side were struggling against newly-promoted Watford. Yet he quickly won them over with an assist and a goal.
Kone played an important part in Everton's latest comeback, from 2-0 down at the Hawthorns last week, and admits he is revelling in the chance to make up for lost time. "After what I've been through, every minute on the pitch is an absolute joy," he says. "I never felt like packing it in when I kept getting injured. I knew I had to stay positive, but it was a challenge I had to face alone. All that kept me going was the memory of winning the FA Cup with Wigan, it reinforced my belief in myself and made me want more.
"But it is a lonely life working your way back from injury. You don't get to train with the rest of the players or share the dressing room banter, you do a lot of work on your own and I suppose you get wrapped up in yourself. Losing two years to injury is bad enough for anyone, but for it to happen just as I had joined a new club was very hard to take. You arrive with all these great hopes and then you have them taken away.
"It bothered me because I wanted to repay the confidence the manager had shown in me. And, of course, I was wondering what the fans must be thinking. It has taken a long time but now I have the chance to show what I can do. I've heard players saying I am like a different person this season and it's true. When you are back with the team you can be yourself again, you can join in the fun and express yourself more normally."
Kone has noticed a difference in Everton of late, not just in himself. "I think we are a bit stronger for the experiences of last season," he says. "Not everything went our way last year, but a lot of our young players learned from the process. Sometimes it takes a few setbacks to force you to learn and grow. I would definitely say we are mentally tougher this season, as we have already shown we can manage games better and respond to unpromising situations. At times last season we couldn't cope, but now we have a slightly bigger squad and a bit more experience we have shown we can take care of ourselves."
Partly for that reason, Kone ventures to suggest this could be one of Everton's more successful seasons. They go into today's derby slightly higher in the table than Liverpool, and he hopes it might be possible to finish in that position too.
"I am not saying that because Liverpool haven't made a particularly good start, I'm just thinking about us," he explains. "It is important not to think about just one game instead of the whole campaign. Even if we get a great result against Liverpool there is still a long season ahead. I know how big derbies are on Merseyside, but while this might be a huge result it might not be a season-defining one."
Gerard Deulofeu played against West Brom after asking his manager for more game time, one of the reasons Kone started from the bench. At 31 and making up for lost time, Kone could do with more starts himself, though he is not about to complain about the situation. "I know that even if I don't start the game I can still come off the bench and make a difference," he says. "The manager is actually really clever at making sure we are all ready at the right time. My mentality is that if I don't start then I want to be 100 per cent prepared for the moment he wants to change something, and there have been times this season when he has done that and turned the game. In an ideal world you would not want to be chasing the game in the first place, but I think it's better to take the positive view and say we have learned how to cope with adversity."
Kone is speaking at the Everton Free School, a sixth form college the club's community scheme has just opened. A couple of years ago, when he arrived on Merseyside, Kone had similar plans to help provide educational establishments for disadvantaged children in his native Ivory Coast. He still has the plans, and the intention, though as with his playing career actual progress was put on hold while he recovered from injury.
"Everything is now two years behind schedule, in Africa and in England," he says. "I am in the final year of my contract now and I have only just started playing. I would love to be able to do enough to earn an extension, and at least now I have the chance. I am really happy with my fitness at last, injury free and I feel capable of playing at my best.
"Whether that will be good enough I don't know, but when I leave Everton I hope I will have left a positive impression. I would like to be remembered for being a guy who tried his hardest and showed a good image of himself when he was able to play, not for the missing two years when nothing was achieved."
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