In an in-depth interview which first appeared in Everton's matchday programme for Saturday's visit from Manchester United, Ibrahima Bakayoko insists he wouldn’t change anything about an “amazing” eight months at Goodison Park, revisits his Ivory Coast upbringing and explains why he returned home to launch his own sport and education facility.
He’s on his feet now, striding into the glaring daylight, hoisting and circling his mobile phone to provide a 360-degree view of his pride and joy.
A conversation with Ibrahima Bakayoko darts in various directions but we follow a vague outline.
It unfolds with Bakayoko homesick in France and finishes here, at the sport and education establishment in Ivory Coast created and managed by the former Everton centre-forward – and visits all points in between.
Bakayoko owns an endearing personality but is unmistakably headstrong and, as such, wants to direct the narrative.
So when the issue of Bakayoko being asked to remove his tracksuit top during a penalty shootout at Goodison Park is mentioned, the incident is dismissed as a “trifle” and we are asked to move to the next question.
Being detained in a military camp following Ivory Coast’s Africa Cup of Nations exit in 2000?
“A minor incident,” sounds Bakayoko.
On other matters, he is a stickler for details.
Bakayoko’s Premier League goal against Southampton in December 1998 was the first scored by an Ivorian in England’s top-flight.
“It was not the first by an Ivorian,” corrects Bakayoko.
“[Former West Ham United striker] Samassi Abou scored before me but he’d adopted French nationality by then – a technical point.”
Bakayoko is squinting against the midday sun, adjusting his eyes from the comparable gloom of the unlit indoor room where he sat for most of this interview.
“I want to show you… this is my school,” he trumpets.
Bakayoko, his dark goatee beard and thick, cropped hair specked with grey, is talking English now, having used a translator for the most part.
He made a point of learning the language in school – Bakayoko concentrated on only a handful of subjects, reasoning time was precious with football eating into his days – because “even then, I knew I wanted to play in England”.
Mathematics was another focus.
“A very important subject for any footballer, because, let’s not be shy, that helps with contracts,” asserts Bakayoko.
His education facility in Ivorian capital Abidjan is designed for football and learning to sit side by side.
Indeed, maintaining grades is a prerequisite for playing sport at the Louis Nicollin school, which opened in 2010, four years after Bakayoko alighted on the concept.
“This school is named after my former president in Montpellier,” declares Bakayoko, proud.
“Learning helped me be invested in my country and in Abidjan,” he continues.
“We need education, if we do not go to school, we cannot play football.
“There are no barriers between these two things.
“To advance your career as a footballer, it is important to have a good educational grounding.”
The man holding court saunters back through the entrance of Group Scolaire Louis Nicollin, a formidable project returning excellent academic results and proving opportunities for children where otherwise none would exist.
Bakayoko turns his head towards his mobile phone screen and continues his passionate championing of the value of learning.
Bakayoko’s dad – “a celebrated footballer for several teams” – was “a big part” of a childhood “dominated by football and school” but powerless to resist when Ibrahima’s – it is Ibrahima, not Ibra – goalscoring feats were noted by Abidjan club ASC Bouaké.
The wilful 17-year-old moved 300 miles south from hometown Seguela, bunking down with extended family to pursue his football ambitions.
“It was difficult because my father wanted me to stay and continue with my studies,” says Bakayoko.
“He was always very keen I should concentrate on school, as well as football.
“But I wanted to go and that was the start of it.”
Bakayoko had global suitors as his star continued to rise during one year with Bouake and it seemed perfectly natural to join Montpellier in Ligue 1 despite his tender 18 years.
He plainly adores Montpellier and idolised club overlord Nicollin.
The 43-year-old nevertheless offers up his first year in France as a cautionary tale.
“It was a very difficult time for me, actually,” begins Bakayoko.
“Where I was coming from, everyone says hello to each other in the street, everyone is super friendly.
“When I moved to Montpellier, I had no neighbours, nobody to chat with.
“I was young and had no family there.
“To be honest, I wanted to go home.
“If you said, ‘Hi’ to somebody in the street, they didn’t take to it.
“They were scared, having this African youth greeting them, they thought, ‘What’s this? Why is this person speaking to me?’
“I didn’t go out and didn’t know anybody.
“Now, I say to young players, ‘Don’t head to another country too young’.
“’It is better to stay home and learn your trade, to ground yourself before taking off to another country’.”
This is, perhaps, where we learn the genesis of Bakayoko’s hunger for learning.
When he telephoned the house he had shared with his parents and one brother and one sister, the advice from the other end of the line eschewed uniform urgings to focus on his dreams.
“The greatest richness in life is education and my family was very invested in that,” explains Bakayoko.
“Although my life had changed, I continued to work to improve myself, not just as a player but with education.
“That is how I continued. My parents were a great support.
“My difficult phase lasted about one year, then I adapted and life became easier.”
While he studied management courses – Montpellier shipped a teacher into the club’s training centre – and acquired the driving licence which meant he didn’t need to cadge a lift every day, Bakayoko began to score goals in the kind of numbers to alert clubs across the Channel.
He had four in seven matches at the start of 1998/99 when Everton manager Walter Smith lavished £4.5m – a considerable sum during a relatively austere period in the Club’s history – on bringing 21-year-old Bakayoko to Goodison Park.
“Walter Smith was a very nice fellow, very charming,” says Bakayoko.
“I was very impressed with him as a coach.
“Yeah, he was a good ‘un.
“It wasn’t difficult at all, the second step in my career.
“I knew I was realising this goal I’d had since childhood.
“My main objective from a young age was to play in England.
“I knew Everton was a big club and about their success in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
“They had top players: Olivier Dacourt, John Collins, [Marco] Materazzi, [Mickael] Madar.
“And,” beams Bakayoko, “I knew the nickname, the Toffees.
“I was quickly at ease on arrival.
“There was an amazing atmosphere around the Club, it was exceptional.
“The fans were great with me.
“Everton is known for having a lot of Season Ticket Holders and very passionate support.
“I was very happy to play in front of those Evertonians and for the Club.”
Without prompting, Bakayoko leaps forward nine years to the month from his Everton debut.
In October 2007 he came back to Goodison with Larissa – the first of Bakayoko’s four Greek teams and the club he joined following a whistle-stop tour of France, Spain and Italy.
Everton beat Larissa 3-1 in a UEFA Cup tie best remembered for Leon Osman’s swerving finish to cap a wondrous team move.
“I am very happy you contacted me,” Bakayoko reroutes.
“I always gave the best I could for the Club and I am very proud of that.
“I have great respect for Everton and the time I spent there.
“I came to the Club with Larissa to play in the UEFA Cup.
“The fans applauded me for 10 minutes.
“After the game, I discovered I had been nominated for man of the match.
“I was very proud.
“I said, ‘Why is this?’
“They said, ‘The fans have chosen you… they don’t want you to forget this match – you have imposed yourself and made a great success in the game’.
“The fans know a player – and I respect that.”
Bakayoko had been in England four days when he made his debut in a furiously-contested goalless Goodison Merseyside derby.
Readily finding his feet off the pitch, with then Liverpool midfielder Paul Ince a next-door neighbour in Bramhall – “a great guy and good neighbour, I went to his wife’s birthday party, it was great fun” – Bakayoko arced a 25-yard free-kick into the top corner on his third appearance, in a League Cup tie at Middlesbrough.
His Premier League career was nine games old when he opened his account in the competition with the only goal of the game against Southampton at Goodison.
By this time, Bakayoko had been involved in one of the stadium’s more curious incidents.
Everton’s League Cup fourth-round tie with Sunderland went to penalties.
Before goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen saved his kick, Bakayoko was reminded by referee Mike Reed to remove the sweatshirt covering his Everton jersey.
Bakayoko wants clarity over the episode he’s being asked about.
“How could I be wearing a top before taking a penalty?” he questions.
It wasn’t during the match, it was in a shootout.
“I don’t recall,” says Bakayoko, nonplussed.
“We will move on to another question.
“I remember all the great things I brought to the Club, not trifles like that.”
Bakayoko scored in minutes 86 and 88 – the first goal a sumptuous, curling free-kick – to win an FA Cup third round tie at Bristol City in January 1999.
He struck another double two months later, when hordes of Evertonians descended on Ewood Park for a 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers critical to their team’s survival prospects.
“Everton paid a lot for me but it was worth it for the Club,” says Bakayoko.
“It was great – never pressured.
“I remember the great effort we put into our victory against Blackburn.
“When you travel from Ivory Coast to play in the Premier League, you have to give 115 per cent.
“You have to perform above and beyond yourself to make an impact.
“It is a source of great pride that I played and scored in the Premier League.
“There have been many players from Ivory Coast who have followed from my example and I am very proud of that.”
Everton sold Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle United barely one month after Bakayoko’s signing, albeit the African insists he didn’t feel additional responsibility following his fellow striker’s departure.
“He liked to find space to play in and I liked to play a high line and down the centre,” explains Bakayoko.
“It was hard to know where he was going to pop up. He was very mobile. An excellent player.
“Not every moment is a goalscoring opportunity.
“But you have to impose yourself… always be looking to score. The Evertonians appreciated we were doing that.”
Following their Bakayoko-inspired win over Blackburn, Smith’s side lost four straight matches to sink deep into trouble, before the newly-arrived Kevin Campbell hauled Everton out of the mire.
Bakayoko returned to the south of France one month after the season finished, joining Marseille, where he had a productive four years until beginning a romp around Europe with a transfer to Spanish team Osasuna in 2003.
“I can’t say I would do things differently at Everton,” says Bakayoko.
“It was not in my hands.
“I am happy I went to Everton and played for the Club and gave everything I could.
“But there were financial problems in the Club at that time, Dacourt, Materazzi and I were sold.
“At the time of my departure, the Club wanted me to stay.
“But Marseille were playing in the Champions League and would give me the chance to force my way into the national team… so it was a decision I felt I needed to take.”
Bakayoko’s first season with Marseille – which he began with five goals in eight games, including one in an Old Trafford Champions League meeting with Manchester United – was interrupted by the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations in Ghana.
It was Bakayoko’s third African tournament – Ivory Coast lost a quarter-final on penalties, the forward converting his effort, to eventual winners Egypt two years previously – and he would play one more in 2002.
Ivory Coast exited the 2000 competition at the group stage.
Two days after their final match, which they won against the hosts, following one draw and one defeat, a BBC report read: Ivory Coast’s national football squad has been detained by the military authorities in an army camp following its elimination from the African Cup of Nations.
A spokesman for the military government of Ivory Coast said the squad was being held for its own protection, to guard against possible reprisals by angry fans.
The squad was released after three days with the words of the country’s military leader, General Robert Guei – who assumed power following a Christmas Eve 1999 coup and remained in office 10 months – ringing in their ears.
“I asked that you be taken there so you could reflect a while,” declared General Guei, contradicting initial claims over shielding the players.
“You behaved unworthily. You should have avoided us such shame.”
General Guei, who would be killed at the onset of the First Ivorian Civil War in September 2002, concluded: “Next time you will stay there for military service.
“You will be sent to the barracks until a sense of civic pride gets into your heads.”
“We should look at the positives rather than minor incidents like this
“The most important thing is to focus on the positive aspects of the AFCON.
“Playing for my country was a big opportunity and big success for me.
“I am the second highest scoring player for the Ivory Coast national team.”
Ibrahima Bakayoko knows his history.
The children of Abidjan are in very good hands.