Bakary Sako: It's magic to be back in the old gold
It was magic, you know. Dicko, Afobe, Sako.
One of those fleeting moments in football where something just comes together. And works. Seemingly effortlessly.
The trio developed an almost telepathic understanding whilst together at Wolves, and one which was as explosive and devastating as it was so joyously acclaimed.
The South Bank purred vociferously in admiration. Delivering their tuneful rendition of the ‘Pilot’ classic. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, it’s magic…” In the second half of the 4-3 win against Leeds, it felt like it was never going to end.
The tantalising trio benefitted from a very good Wolves team behind them of course. An excellent goalkeeper, solid defence and plenty of creativity in midfield. But, for a time in the second half of the 2014/15 season, when Benik Afobe joined on loan to a squad already featuring Bakary Sako and Nouha Dicko, it was those three who captured the imagination. “They gave us a sparkle and an X-Factor,” was the synopsis from Head Coach Kenny Jackett.
And yet, it proved all too short-lived. For the four months they were at Molineux, the trio started only 13 games together. Of those, Wolves won nine, drew one and lost three, collecting 28 points. The team scored 31 goals, 24 of which came from these three combined.
Wolves’ powerful surge ended up just failing to reach the play-offs. Despite amassing 78 points, they missed out on the top six on goal difference. With Dicko, Afobe and Sako, no one would have fancied taking Wolves on in the end-of-season slugfest. How history could have evolved so differently. For the sake of a handful of goals.
For Sako, now back home in France after recently pulling on a Wolves shirt again for the TST seven-a-side tournament in America, it was such a special time.
“That sort of understanding with other players probably only happens once or twice in a career,” he tells the Express & Star.
“With Dicko in particular, we played together for a couple of seasons and I think we could have done so with our eyes closed.
“We both knew where the other one would be, and he knew where I would put the ball, and I don’t know how many assists I got for him but our understanding was ridiculous.
“But it wasn’t just about us and Benik, that whole team were so good.
“We couldn’t do what we did without having people pass us the ball at the right time, midfielders like Kevin McDonald, Jack Price and Lee Evans.
“And then Scott Golbourne, who I worked really well with when he was left back.
“I told him at the recent tournament in America that I think he was the best left back I have played with, the understanding that we had.
“That season we got so close to the play-offs, it had been another good season so it was tough to miss out.
“That team was amazing, we got on so well with each other, but we just didn’t quite make it.
“I think the way we were, with the momentum, we would have won the play-offs if we had got in.”
Ultimately, the 4-2 win against Millwall on the final day of the season was to prove the 124th and last of Sako’s Wolves appearances.
It included his 38th goal – dancing in from the touchline and firing home in the first minute of added time – rounding off his Wolves career just as he had started it. By scoring.
Sako had arrived at Wolves in the summer of 2012 following relegation from the Premier League, one of a number of summer signings for new boss Stale Solbakken.
Born in a Paris suburb, the young and ambitious winger joined Chateauroux at the age of 14, emerging through the same as Academy as Florent Malouda, later with Chelsea, and Stephane Dalmat, who went on to play for Spurs.
Turning professional and playing in the French Second Division, he impressed to the extent that one of French football’s biggest clubs, Saint Etienne, snapped him up in the summer of 2009.
He spent three years with Saint Etienne, playing a part in the club’s return to the top six of Ligue One, before the switch to Wolves, which was to prove the next step of his career ambitions.
“It was always my dream to play in England and so I was very happy to come to Wolves,” he says.
“And to have such a good debut made it the perfect start.”
That debut came in the testing surroundings of Sixfields, and a lively League Cup tie with Northampton, in which Wolves just about prevailed 3-1.
Sako started his Wolves career as he finished, scoring in added time, and taking a potentially tricky introduction to life in English football, completely in his stride.
“The big thing for me, is that the English game is my type of game,” he explains.
“Being strong and powerful, going up and down the pitch.
“It all really suited me, and that is why I think I came in and settled really well.”
Wolves, as a whole, also initially settled well under Solbakken.
When the season’s second international break arrived at the start of October, the team had taken 19 points from ten games, and were sitting third in the Championship table, three points off the top.
And yet, as results took a downturn, Solbakken lost his job in January, was replaced by Dean Saunders, and Wolves somehow ended up suffering a second successive relegation.
Sako and others had arrived with the aim of helping Wolves immediately exit the Championship, but certainly not in that direction. They were difficult days.
“We had started off o-k but after that international break we really struggled and didn’t win for a long time,” Sako recalls.
“It was a bad run, and even though we managed to win some games towards the end, it just wasn’t enough.
“I got injured in the first half of the Bristol City game towards the end of the season and I came back off the bench against Burnley before starting on the last day at Brighton.
“I wasn’t fully fit at all, but I just wanted to try my best to help the team because of the position we were in.
“By the time we were losing 2-0 at Brighton on the final day, I think we all knew that was probably it and the manager took me off.”
Wolves were in serious bother by this stage. Off the back of a double relegation, there was a need to reduce the wage bill by moving on higher profile players. Not to mention a rebuilding job, which would eventually be delivered so impressively by Jackett and his staff.
Sako’s future was a subject that cropped up on several occasions during that League One campaign, understandably given his impact at Championship level when, even during such a disappointing season for the team, he had notched ten goals, provided 11 assists and been named Player of the Year.
Wolves were unequivocal from the off in wanting Sako to be among those who would stay. And the player himself, keen to help play his part in the team atoning for relegation, had absolutely no hesitation in doing so.
“I remember speaking to (Wolves CEO) Jez Moxey that summer, who told me he was going to be honest with me, and that they’d had an offer.
“But he said he wanted me to stay at the club and help get Wolves back to the Championship, and so any offer that came in, wouldn’t be accepted.
“I said ‘ok, I will stay and help Wolves get back into the Championship’ – it was as simple as that!”
That wasn’t the last time there was strong interest.
Fulham and Nottingham Forest were regular pursuers, and on a couple of occasions it was agreed for Sako to sit out a game in the wake of the interest, particularly away at Port Vale on the last weekend of Jackett’s first transfer window at the helm.
Nothing materialised, and the winger was keen to get straight back into it, returning to action in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie with Walsall three days later. He scored. Of course.
If there were times that Sako might have moved on while Wolves were in League One - to a large extent it was all out of his hands.
But when prospective moves were swatted away, there was never any show of dissent. Never any moaning. Quite the opposite, infact. Sako rolled back into Compton, as ever wearing a broad smile, and let his football do the talking.
“Why didn’t I let anything affect me? I think that is just how I am as a person,” he insists.
“I just get on with things and try and be positive all the time.
“Sometimes it might not be easy but I always try to give my very best to the football club which I represent.
“Even the times I didn’t play, I always wanted to get straight back, I never liked sitting on my sofa instead of being out there on the pitch!”
The fans loved him being out there as well. The smiles and cheery demeanour off the pitch were matched by a fierce and ruthless intensity as soon as he crossed the white line.
So strong. So powerful. So direct. So willing to take on his defender. To get the crowd off their seats. And a left foot like a traction engine.
There were so many Sako highlights that the man himself can’t even separate them to pick one out.
Between those first and last Wolves goals, there were numerous others to cherish. From the sublime to the spectacular. All different shapes and sizes.
And even if that season back in the Championship – Dicko, Afobe et al – didn’t quite bring a second successive promotion, the record-breaking League One success remains etched in the memory bank.
“I think that season in League One was the foundation of Wolves getting back to the Prem,” Sako suggests.
“It is often difficult when a team gets relegated to come straight back, but we managed to get back to the Championship at least.
“It wasn’t easy in the beginning in League One, but once we got into a rhythm, we destroyed everybody, and we crushed the league.
“The relationship between the players and the staff, and the fans, was unbelievable.”
There was plenty of emotion on show as Sako was moved to tears on the post-season lap of appreciation after his final game against Millwall.
There was genuine sadness that, although Wolves had come in with a late enquiry about keeping him on, there was already Premier League interest, and his mind was made up.
But it was a sadness that also followed on from so much fun off the pitch as, whether in wearing specially made crystal-encrusted boots to mark his 100th appearance against Brentford, or having his hairstyle shaved into the shape of a Wolves head, he nailed his gold and black colours firmly to the mast.
“I still have those boots from the Brentford game, I’ve got them framed,” he reveals.
“Things like that were just my way of saying to the fans of the club, thanks for everything you have given to me – I wanted to show my appreciation.
“That was how I wanted to be, on and off the pitch, having fun and always smiling.
“It was difficult to leave, and the club did come in a week before I left with an offer to renew my contract, but there was already interest from the Premier League.
“I didn’t really have time to consider it, and I just felt I had given everything for the club, and that it was time to go and try and play Premier League football.
“By that time the people at Wolves said I deserved that opportunity and thanked me for everything, it was the right moment to move on.”
Sako however, remained classy to the end. In realising that his contract expired on June 30th, the very day that Wolves were returning to pre-season training, he contacted Club Secretary Richard Skirrow to ask whether he was needed to report back. Obviously, he didn’t need to. It was just one day. But, having experienced so many far more problematic scenarios with players during so many years in the game, it’s a call, and a courtesy, which Skirrow has never forgotten
It was from the Golden Palace to Crystal Palace that Sako travelled. On his debut, against Aston Villa, he scored again. Away at Chelsea the following weekend, he despatched a shot past Thibaut Courtois. Two in two. The Eagle was flying.
His time with Palace, three years during his first stay, was eventually affected by niggling injuries, but he still made it to an FA Cup Final where he was an unused substitute, all the while having achieved that top-flight dream.
He had almost joined West Bromwich Albion upon leaving Wolves, but changed his mind at the last minute, not wanting to immediately tarnish the relationship nurtured with the Molineux faithful.
“My agent was like, ‘Sako, are you crazy?’ but I just didn’t feel I could do it,” he reveals.
“I was a free agent after leaving Palace because I had been injured with a broken ankle, and when West Brom came in again, by then a few years had passed.
“I decided this time to go, although I know some fans were probably still mad at me, going to the enemy, like ‘how can you do that to us?’
“But that’s football, and as it turned out, I was only there for three months in the end.”
From there Sako actually returned to Palace, and he has also had a stint back with St Etienne, as well as with Pafos, in Cyprus, and, his current home, Levadiakos in Greece.
Although coming to the end of his existing contract, Levadiakos are keen to extend Sako’s stay, something he is currently considering along with assessing other potential options. His extensive career has also seen him achieve his international dream, representing Mali, for whom he has scored nine goals from 21 appearances.
Now 35, he still feels there are a few more miles in the tank.
“I am still enjoying my football, and still taking people on, and, as much as I can continue to do that, I will carry on and keep playing,” he insists.
“When I see that defenders are quicker than me, or find it easy to stop me, maybe that is when I will know that it is time to finish!”
Recent evidence as part of the Wolves team which travelled to North Carolina for the inaugural TST tournament showed Sako still has that strength, turn of pace and eye for goal, the famous left foot responsible for several clinical finishes as the team narrowly failed to qualify from their group.
“Goal difference again,” he says with a laugh.
He thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with former team-mates such as Golbourne, Richard Stearman and Leon Clarke, although one familiar – or maybe now unfamiliar - face caught him a bit by surprise.
“Hunty,” he bellows.
“He looks different now!
“It was great to see him again, but I was like, ‘this is not the same Hunty I used to play with!’
“It felt amazing meeting up with everyone again as well as some new team-mates.
“Just the chance to pull on that shirt again was an amazing experience and I felt so grateful.”
Even better for Sako, who planned to take both his sons along only for his eldest Ryan’s passport renewal not to come through, was that his youngest – Baky Junior – was able to see him play.
“During my time at Wolves he was only a baby and has only seen me play for the club in videos or pictures so it was amazing that he got to come along,” he says.
And that feeling about Wolves, an enduring connection even eight years after he left, exists not only for his family. It lingers on within the Molineux family, as well.
“Still now, the interaction I have with the Wolves fans is the same as it has always been, which is brilliant,” Sako says.
“I think they can see and remember that I gave everything for the club, I gave my best in every single game I played.
“To be honest, it was one of the best times of my career so far.
“Not all of it, because we had the relegation, but most of it was so good.
“I am still in touch with so many of my team-mates from that time and we still follow each other and support each other because friendships made on the pitch can last forever.”
It is now a decade since the start of that League One season which carries so much significance in Wolves’ recent history. After the double relegations, there was a rot which needed to be stopped, and that task was achieved in spectacular fashion by that staff and group of players.
Sako, who many fans would have forgiven for moving on during such a tumultuous period, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
Instead, he was to prove a key influence, a talisman even, and one whose status as a firm fans’ favourite – even taking into consideration that short spell down the road with the fierce arch-rivals – is certainly assured.
He will forever be a popular part of the gold and black alumni. He’s magic, you know.