From Ligue 1 to League One: How Bakary Sako left France to find love at Wolves
It’s under an hour before kick-off in Milton Keynes. Deep within the bowels of Stadium:MK, Wolves fans are delirious. Their team are four points clear at the top of League One, and seven points clear of the automatic promotion threshold. On the concourse next to Block 36, a pocket of exuberant supporters belt out the feted terrace song with glee – a tribal, rhythmic tribute derived from the Kolo/Yaya Toure song in honour of two of Wolves’ star players, Nouha Dicko and Bakary Sako.
“I know it very well!” Sako, Wolves’ French-born Malian wing wizard tells FourFourTwo. “Yes I’ve heard it. It’s a really nice song and I really appreciate it. I like England a lot. I like the mentality of the people here, I love the football, the atmosphere…I really adore English football.”
On the day Wolves took nearly 9,000 fans to MK Dons, Sako, who missed the game through injury, took to Twitter to congratulate the club’s fans. “Well done boys and all the fans who travelled, I heard that was amazing. Hope to be back very soon :-).”
You sense it is this rapport with and appreciation for both the club’s supporters and his team-mates that has helped keep the Mali international winger in Wolverhampton for so long.
For all intents and purposes, Sako should be playing at a higher level. While Paris Saint-Germain midfield maestro Blaise Matuidi – Sako’s former team-mate - preps himself for a Champions League quarter final against Chelsea, Sako will be getting ready for a home game with Peterborough.
"After relegation last year we want to put the club back where it belongs, because it’s a very big club.”
The contrast says much about the differing paths taken by two players once considered among the best at one of France’s biggest clubs. In 2011, Sako and Matuidi were both nominated for Saint-Etienne Player of the Season. Matuidi won the fans’ vote, before moving to the French capital where he currently occupies a place at the heart of PSG’s midfield.
Sako was considered one of the club’s brightest prospects after a season in which the then 23-year-old hit seven league goals from his position on the left wing. He was expected to push on, but an inconsistent 2011/12 on the Rhone resulted in a move to Wolves for around £3 million.
Relegation in 2012/13 pushed him even further away from the high road taken by his former Sainte colleague Matuidi. Despite a career that at one point only looked like having an upward trajectory (he had been scouted by teams in Serie A and the Premier League), Sako has gone from Ligue 1 to League One in two years.
On a professional level, the drop is obviously an issue for the 25-year-old, who has not been short of offers since. “Of course my objective is to play in the Premier League, like all players. When I joined I hadn’t really heard about Wolves’ history, but I knew the club because I’d heard talk about them when they were in the Premier League – and of course they had a few French players. They had a project that impressed me and that’s why I signed. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to go up and we went down.”
It’s obvious within a few minutes of conversation with Sako, however, (or indeed from a glance at his Twitter account, filled with interactions with fans) that, despite having opportunities to leave Wolves over the past year, Sako has found the right environment at Molineux and is enjoying life both on and off the field.
“Yes it’s true there were offers, from the Championship and Premier League. But in the end the clubs didn’t manage to reach an agreement and the coach really wanted to keep me. So I stayed – and I don’t think it was too bad that I did because we’re doing well this season. We’re focused on keeping that going until the end. After relegation last year we want to put the club back where it belongs, because it’s a very big club.”
Sako has 11 goals and 10 assists in League One thus far as Wolves romp their way through England’s third tier, with a return to the Championship looking increasingly likely. A 1-0 win at MK Dons left them 10 points clear now, with promotion now looking inevitable.
“It’s not bad, not bad,” Sako states with modesty. “But of course, the season isn’t over yet. We can still do better, and we’re going to do everything we can to win promotion. For me personally I’ve managed to play well, score goals and help set up goals for my team-mates. So I think it’s going well.”
When pressed on the difference between Wolves’ relegation season and this current campaign – a well of hope after two years in a desert of desperation following back-to-back relegations – Sako is pointed in his praise for Wolves manager Kenny Jackett, who joined the club last May after Dean Saunders was sacked.
“I would say that the difference between this season and last season is we have a better team spirit,” states Sako lucidly. “Firstly, there are a lot of new players this season, players with a new mentality and who have adapted to the team well. And also the arrival of our new coach Kenny Jackett. He has succeeded in installing a winning mentality, in going for the win no matter what and with a very positive mindset.”
Jackett is no stranger to the demands of lower-league clubs pushing for glory, having won promotion with both Swansea and Millwall. And Sako is wholesome in his praise for the Wolves gaffer, who he says is far more open with the players than the previous boss.
“He’s a very good person. With me he’s been really very open. When he needs to speak to me he comes to speak to me, if something needs to be said he’s not afraid to say it. We’ve always had a good relationship, one built on confidence. At certain times when he’s had something to get off his chest he’s done it and I too can speak to him openly. And I think because of that we get on well.”
Another relationship Sako enjoys at Wolves is that with fellow French native Nouha Dicko.
“We get on really well on the pitch. I could even say it’s automatic – when I’ve got the ball I know what he’s going to do and I know what kind of passes he likes. It’s easier to play with players that you already know well – you know their qualities and their movements. Off the pitch we spend a lot of time together, sometimes at home or we go out together. Yeah we get on brilliantly!”
With power, pace, aggression and an eye for goal, Wolves face a challenge to keep Sako around next season, even if promoted. Last summer Fulham and Nottingham Forest were strongly linked but a deal never transpired. There are sure to be offers in the summer.
“I have one year left on my contract with Wolves after this season and we will see if something comes up which satisfies me and the club. If it does okay, but if not I still have another year on my contract,” says Sako. “I want to stay in England. The mentality here is really good. People don’t judge you, you can do what you like, dress how you like. No-one is going to look at you differently.”
It seems Sako is loving life at Wolves.
Sako features in FourFourTwo's Top 50 Football League Players - out now in the May 2014 edition of FourFourTwo.