Signed from Montpellier by Walter Smith for £4.5million in October 1998, Ibrahima Bakayoko was heralded as one of the Premiership’s most exciting foreign arrivals. Considered a player of pace and promise, the 21-year-old striker was thrust into a Merseyside derby on his debut and almost realised Evertonians’ hopes in the opening stages when he nearly bundled the ball home. Alas, this set the pattern for a disappointing eight months at Everton in which he remained very much a nearly man.
Glimpses of his potential were fitful: though quick and lively and possessing a formidable shot, he struggled with the aggression and intensity of English football. There were, however, magnificent braces at Bristol City (the first from a late free kick of majestic velocity) and Blackburn Rovers, as well as a deftly taken winner at home to Southampton. But increasingly he found himself a marginalised figure, more so after the arrival of Kevin Campbell in March 1999, and by May Smith was prepared to cut his losses and sell him to Marseille for £4million.
The first Muslim to play for Everton – his daily prayers at Bellefield were the source of respectful curiosity among his colleagues – questions were nevertheless asked about Bakayoko’s origins. One French coach claimed in the late 1990s that Bakayoko was at least eight years older than he said he was, having seen him play for the Ivory Coast’s under-21 team at the start of the decade. Other rumours hinted that a move to Arsenal had collapsed because a bone scan revealed him to be older than he claimed.
Such innuendo remains questionable, however. In October 2007 Bakayoko, now aged 30 (or a sprightly 38, depending on your view), made a surprise return to Goodison with Greek side Larissa in the UEFA Cup group stage. Although his goal had helped knock out Blackburn Rovers in the previous round, as with many of his other showings at Goodison he had a quiet night as his former team ran out easy 3-1 winners.