Ade Akinbiyi - An appreciation

Last updated : 02 April 2009 By Dave Thomas
What is a legend; a particular character famous for a skill or talent maybe? Or it is a story or set of stories that have grown over the years that are not really true. It is possible that both these definitions apply to him.

What is a cult figure? It's a bit more difficult to pin down; we all have our different interpretations. Is it someone, not necessarily hugely talented or even long-serving, but who has made a great contribution to a club, uniquely entertaining us, and for whom we feel deep affection and has left an indelible mark on our memories?

Ade certainly had a talent and that talent was scoring goals. The story that he was utterly bad at this is totally inaccurate, but that is the legend that developed, at one club in particular, Leicester City.

In truth, at Burnley too, he missed sitters that Harry Redknapp might say his wife could have scored. But then so do all other players and in many games he displayed all the things that he was good at, and the attributes that he had in abundance.

If he left Burnley a legend and cult hero, just how then did he do this? Here was a player of no great finesse or technical ability. He had no great elegance either in the air or on the ground; he couldn't shoot with unerring accuracy like a Malcolm Macdonald or head a ball like an Alan Shearer, and he moved from club to club with clockwork regularity.

But he had talent and it was based on running, strength, power, size, pace and muscle and very often being in the right place at the right time. On this he founded a lucrative career and his popularity at Burnley will remain undimmed.

We will remember him for moments of glory - the hat trick at Luton when Burnley were reduced to ten men and goalkeeper Jensen had been replaced by midfield player John Spicer. And then there was the never to be forgotten night at Chelsea when his superb strike levelled the score and set up extra-time and the penalty win.

If those are the two events that secured his legend and cult figure status they contrast hugely with the impact of his debut. Within three minutes of coming onto the field as a substitute he was sent off for the perfect head-butt on Sunderland defender George McCartney. Debuts don't come more spectacularly than that and it still makes me shake my head in disbelief. It was so unexpected, so outrageous, so daft, that allied to the contrasting inherent goodness and honesty in him, it instantly made him a cult figure.

In between the head-butt and the goal at Chelsea he ran and ran, tried and tried, was totally honest and fair, and behind the scenes we were told he was a thoroughly nice guy, a great clubman who went out of his way to mentor people like Jay Rodriguez. His celebration after the latter's goal against Tottenham in the Carling Cup semi-final was almost as memorable as the goal itself and he clearly shared Rodriguez' joy.

In his first spell at Burnley, 2005 to 2006, he played superbly well and his arrival was the result of a game for Stoke City at Turf Moor when he and Noel Gifton-Williams ran Burnley ragged. Manager Steve Cotterill clearly memorised the two names and eventually brought them both to Burnley. In that first period at Turf Moor Akinbiyi's career seemed revitalised. He ran, chased, covered every inch of ground and scored goals. He was almost prolific, 16 goals in 39 games, a more than excellent return for a modern-day striker. Warnock at Sheffield United was thus tempted to take him to Sheffield for £1.75million but there he did little of note other than incur the wrath of the manager who allegedly berated him on one occasion for not deliberately going down under a penalty area challenge. He preferred to be honest and stayed on his feet. He did not score and thus Neil Warnock was not best pleased.

In his second spell at Burnley, 2007 to 2009, brought back for a much smaller fee, looking more like Hercules than a professional footballer after all his weight training, he was less impressive, sometimes assuming the mantle of the old Ade (Leicester City) who on some days seemed incapable of hitting a barn door with a banjo. And yet we smiled, continued to give him our respect and just accepted his shortcomings. "Well that's Ade," we would say, and shrug with a sort of wry, benign acceptance. With other players we would be far less charitable.

Into the early months of 2009 and it was clear he had lost many of the qualities that made him what he was. The running and chasing decreased and the acceleration was gone. Now aged 34, the heart might have been willing, but the legs were older. Some players with a more slender, wiry physique might continue far longer than that, but big players whose games are based solely on power and running, seldom do.

We will not forget Ade, that is a certainty and it is perhaps that one goal at Chelsea that seals and confirms his place in Burnley hearts. Ironically it was at a time when his powers were certainly declining; he was used from the bench as an impact player. How it paid off.

His career began at Norwich as long ago as 1993 where he made 49 appearances, scoring three goals. The son of Nigerian parents, he was brought up in multicultural Hackney in London. He was an Arsenal supporter and in his early teens was more interested in athletics than football, the 100m and the 200m his best events. It was a PE teacher who nudged him towards soccer. The teacher said they needed a striker for the school team so he volunteered. He then played for Senrab, an East London team that also produced Ledley King and John Terry. Muzzy Izzet played alongside him there and Lee Bowyer was a year younger. He wanted to stay in London and sign for Arsenal but with the choice of Arsenal or Norwich, his parents wanted him to get away from London teenage life and all its attendant pressures and problems.

Moving to Norwich at the age of 16, in digs with an elderly lady in the middle of the countryside, was a great culture shock. Looking back he thinks they both found it difficult. Not the least of the difficulties was the food she made. From a Nigerian-based diet of rice and chicken, his landlady made potatoes and roast dinners. He returned home as often as he could.

His racial difference in Norwich was very apparent. 1993 might not seem that long ago, but it was far back enough for skin colour to stand out in a predominantly white place like Norwich. He found it a relief to see another black face. Standing at bus stops waiting for the bus for training was not easy. To avoid this he would often walk rather than wait in a queue. He was only 16, ill at ease, feeling vulnerable and worried.

In his early days he remembers that the abuse, both racial and non-racial, was endemic. His mother never liked seeing him play because of the swearing and the shouting.

His background and culture is clearly important to him. At one club another black player referred to him as "African this" and "African that." It was banter but it was clear that the other player had no concept of his roots until Akinbiyi pointed out to him that they were all from Africa. At another club, young kids wanted to touch his hair. He let them do it seeing it as an important step in their learning. Learning is important to him, reading about history and other cultures and passing these on to his own son.

In his very early days at Norwich the team was doing well in Europe. Under Mike Walker they were a force to be reckoned with. During training Walker called him over, told him one of the strikers was injured and that he would be in the squad for the Bayern Munich game at Carrow Road. He was only 18 and had never played a game for the first team.

"It was a bit of a shock to make my debut coming on against Lothar Matthaus and Bayern Munich. I couldn't believe it. "So I got in the team, scored some goals but then Norwich said they needed some money so they offloaded me (after loan moves to Hereford and then Brighton). I went to Gillingham for £250,000 where Tony Pulis did a lot of work on my finishing."

From there, 29 goals later in 67 games, no mean return for a modern day striker; it was a £1.2million move to Bristol City. 23 goals came in his first season. And this prompted the first really big money move - £3million to Wolves. Fulham and Birmingham were reportedly also pursuing him but Akinbiyi was swayed, and understandably so, by the history and tradition at Wolves, the big stadium, the ambition and the training ground. All these made him feel this was the right club.

"I could see it happening for me at Wolves, they are a massive club. I settled in well." He thought he would be there for years, scored 16 goals in 37 appearances but then it was the next move. Again he says it was the old story. Having missed the play-offs by one place, Wolves needed money so that when Leicester and Peter Taylor came knocking on the door, a £5million deal took him to Filbert Street.

Things here did not go well and he looks back at this period with no real fondness. A return of 11 goals from 58 appearances earned him poor reviews and much criticism. At the end of his second season Leicester were relegated. The outstanding Martin O Neil had left, and under Peter Taylor Leicester went into freefall. Akinbiyi had been the replacement for Emile Heskey and life in the Premiership, against top-quality defenders, was far harder than anything he had experienced. Today he suggests that whilst Wolves played to his strengths, Leicester City did not. Eventually Taylor was sacked.

All these things conspired to make him look like a fish out of water in many games, and it was at Leicester that a long spell when he was unable to find the net earned him some cruel comments and national notoriety when at last the drought was broken and the match was featured on Match of the Day. But in truth, Ade Akinbiyi was never as bad as his time at Leicester might suggest. His goal record there was not that much inferior to the low-scoring Emile Heskey. Emile Heskey too went through periods when his detractors were numerous.

Crystal Palace rescued Akinbiyi from his misery but his stay there was short-lived as Tony Pulis, now at Stoke City, took him on loan and then made the signing permanent. At Stoke it was 19 goals in 63 games. Not prolific you might say but certainly not disastrous.

Steve Cotterill took Akinbiyi to Burnley and it was an inspired purchase. He was 30 and it could be said hit peak form in his first spell at Turf Moor. 16 goals in 39 games was excellent and some of them were stunning. His infectious enthusiasm, huge smile, willingness to run and pressure the opposition; his work rate, all endeared him to Burnley fans. The latter can spot a phoney a mile away and they recognised in Akinbiyi a genuine player. His own explanation for his popularity is simple. "I think if you work hard the fans will give you praise and if you aren't working hard they'll give you stick so that's part and parcel of it all. I want to go out there and even if I'm not scoring, I want to work hard and give 100%. There are going to be days when I don't play well, because as good as you get, you can also be bad too but I want to work hard every week and keep going."

His departure from Burnley was for the same old reason, his club needed the money. But having said that, even if cash-strapped Burnley had been better off, it was still an offer that was too good to turn down - £1.75million for a 30 year old. Neil Warnock wanted an in-form striker for his Premiership team but his appearances there were just three.

It was not a happy stay and there were stories of a major training ground confrontation involving himself and Claude Davis. Allegedly the incident happened after insulting text messages were sent to Akinbiyi by Davis. These followed Akinbiyi's jokes about Davis' poor performance in a game at Everton when United lost 2 - 0. The face to face row broke out when Davis reportedly made remarks about one of Akinbiyi's parents and the pair decided to resolve their differences at the training ground. Sources claimed that punches were thrown and it was also alleged that Davis pulled out a razor, although Akinbiyi would never confirm this.

Akinbiyi was, in fact, quite angry that this story ever became public. "There was a row lasting about two minutes," he said. "But where do you get all this stuff from," he asked reporters.

His return to Burnley after the brief unsuccessful sojourn at Sheffield United prompted Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times to write a delightful, tongue-in-cheek piece about him. He asked the question - just what was it that managers did in January, when the play-offs were still a distant target; the place needed a lift, the fans needed cheering up, the season needed saving or disaster needed avoiding. Bizarrely, he wrote, the answer is that they inevitably turned to Ade Akinbiyi as the solution to their problems.

Every January, long before the hounds of spring are on winter's traces, the ground is hard with frost and the play-offs still beckon, tantalisingly in the middle distance, football managers sit themselves down, wracked in deep thought. What, they ask themselves, will save this season from being a complete and utter disaster? Is there a panacea immediately at hand, which will rescue my team and thus my job? Is there something, short of divine intervention, which when visited upon my squad of petulant and underachieving monkeys will enable them to soar?

And, bizarrely, the answer they frequently, repeatedly, arrive at is this: Ade Akinbiyi... …The wheeling and dealing of January rarely has a real impact upon the comparative fortunes of the teams in question, much as we supporters might lick our lips in anticipation. Poor players go to poor clubs; average players go to average clubs. The best players end up at Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. And somebody, somewhere, gets Ade Akinbiyi.

Such articles, (though I stress again, it is a lovely piece and written with humour and affection), do not upset Ade Akinbiyi; nor did the catcalls at Leicester City.

"I don't care if I am playing in front of 100,000 people all giving me stick. I will never hide because I love football. People watch me and say this boy's a hard-working boy, he's not hiding. I can miss as many chances as I want but I won't care, I will carry on playing. I would die for football. Football's a short career; you have to earn as much as you can and enjoy yourself. Ten years ago, a lot of professionals enjoyed football. Now it's totally different, football is more of a job for players. It's more about politics and money. It's a 50 - 50 split between those players who enjoy football and those for whom it's a job. Me? I enjoy every minute. The more that fans and media try to hammer me, the more I enjoy football. Criticism just gees me up more. Even though I don't read the papers, my friends do, and the criticism gets back to me. I don't have to prove them wrong. I just have to prove to myself right that I can rise above this."

Ian Wright said something to him in his teens when he was briefly at Arsenal. "Wrighty made one statement which I have never forgotten: 'I never care whether I am playing in the reserves or the first-team, as long as I am playing.'"

Overall, his goal-scoring record is just about a goal every three games. It is no Jimmy Greaves (but then Greaves was a one-off), but it is very acceptable and only his short time at Leicester City was a disaster.

Three of those goals came in one memorable game. It was November 5th, 2005, bonfire night, and oh how the fireworks went off after the astonishing result at Kenilworth Road. Steve Cotterill was Burnley manager and he had placed his faith in Akinbiyi when he bought him. Burnley had only won six games up to this point, but the Luton result came in a spell of four consecutive wins which gave grounds for optimism and the club moved up the table. That promise never materialised. There were a number of reasons and Cotterill, in a later season, would eventually take the club to a record sequence of 19 games without a win. On November 5th, however, the trials and tribulations that would beset team and manager were yet to come and the supporters who had made the trip to Luton went home with their disbelieving heads in the clouds after a quite remarkable game, an extraordinary team performance, and a quite superlative individual performance.

Ade is on his way to Houston. His second spell at Burnley was never as successful as the first but we wish him well. He has left indelible memories. We thank him for them all. During the weekend of the Plymouth game the team stayed in the same hotel as the Supporters Club group who had travelled down. On the Saturday morning before the game we mingled with them and chatted away. Ade was charming and happily posed for pictures. Thanks Ade.