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Ade Akinbiyi: My debut against Bayern Munich was a real surprise
IT was while sitting in the two-bedroomed terraced home of his elderly landlady, Ethel, that Ade Akinbiyi wondered if he had done the right thing.
He hadn’t even been sure about football in the first place.
As things turned out, he played more than 500 games for a total of 14 clubs, earned international honours and commanded record transfer fees with almost every move.
It is a career that now, in retirement, he looks back on with immense pride and gratitude.
But unlike most young boys growing up it is not one he ever envisaged for himself.
He had to be coerced into playing, even at school.
It wasn’t that he did not like the game. He loved Arsenal and used to sneak in to Highbury when stewards would open the Clock End gates 10-15 minutes before the end of home games.
But athletics was his passion, particularly sprinting.
Designs on being the new Carl Lewis were more his thing, not the next Alan Smith.
“I looked up to people like Daley Thompson, and Carl Lewis and all the famous runners,” he said.
“I did 200 metres, 100 metres and I was doing long distance as well at the time. I would just run, I was full of energy.
“I was interested in football but not massive on playing it.”
His school PE teacher had other ideas though.
“He forced me into football because he thought I was quick. I could just get the ball and run,” he recalled.
“I went to play for my district team, Hackney, and it all started from there.”
From Hackney Greenwich-born Akinbiyi joined nearby Senrab, a team that has blooded the likes of Jermain Defoe and Muzzy Izzet, and Burnley’s former assistant manager Jason Tindall. Nineties’ alumni include Ledley King and John Terry.
His age group earned a place in the ‘Canary Cup’ – a children’s tournament that still runs in Great Yarmouth today – and it was there he was spotted by Norwich.
Arsenal had made an enquiry too. But while they loved the Gunners Akinbiyi’s parents could not see a pathway for their young son and thought he would fare better away from the capital, so he signed schoolboy forms with Norwich and left home.
“The schoolboy and youth team system was second to none, as it still is now,” said Akinbiyi. But those early days were hard for this London lad. He longed for the bright lights of the big city, and his mum’s native Nigerian cooking.
“I wanted to stay with a few of the lads but I was on my own with an old lady called Ethel.
“That’s why I found it difficult because she didn’t know what food I was used to.
“We only had one television in the house and everything was with subtitles.
“I started to get really bored.
“I kept sneaking back home – £10 a time on the train – telling my mum that I’d got the day off. She eventually found out the truth.”
But soon afterwards Akinbiyi found new digs with a few of his team-mates, dug in and earned a dream debut against Bayern Munich in the return leg of their UEFA Cup second round game less than a month after his 19th birthday.
“Efan Ekoku dropped out through injury and Mike Walker, the manager at the time, called me and said ‘You’re going to be involved in the squad’.
“That was just the day before the game. Knowing that you’re going to come on as a sub against Lothar Matthaus – it’s phenomenal.
“I couldn’t think of anything better for my debut.
“I was a young kid playing against a European team. But I was nervous.”
So nervous, that he did not even tell his family so that they could be added to the 20,463 crowd.
“Having them there would have made me worse,” he admitted.
“They weren’t mad about that, they just couldn’t believe it because it came a lot sooner than I expected.
“I thought my debut would come in a cup game, perhaps against lower league opposition, not against Bayern Munich.
“Not many people make their debut in a European cup competition.”
But after such an early high there is often only one way to go, and although Akinbiyi made 51 league appearances for Norwich his Canaries career never really took off. There were loan spells with Hereford and Brighton before he became a record £250,000 buy for Gillingham in January 1997.
“That’s when my football career started,” he said.
Tony Pulis had spotted him playing for Norwich City’s reserves and made a move. Akinbiyi repaid him with 29 goals in 67 starts, leading to Bristol City paying £1.2million for the striker following their promotion to the old Division One (now Championship).
Eighteen months later, when the Robins were looking for a new manager, Akinbiyi returned the favour by recommending Pulis for the job.
“It was me that told the chairman about him,” said the former striker.
“I give him DVDs and they next thing you know they were appointing him. But obviously because he was a Bristol Rovers man the fans had mixed feelings. But then he moved on to bigger and better things from there, and he’s still in the Premier League.”
The pair were to be reunited again at Stoke City later on, but not before Akinbiyi had made a few more moves, including an ill-fated big-money transfer to Leicester, and was capped by Nigeria.
But his international football experience was soured by politics and misinterpretation.
“There were people involved in the camp who weren’t players or staff and I didn’t think it was right,” said Akinbiyi, who made his Nigeria debut in a friendly against Greece in Athens in 1999.
“I got called up again. I was injured but I still had to travel to Nigeria, which I wasn’t too happy with.
“I got called up again for a friendly in London. But there were all these different players who were playing non-league in Nigeria – no disrespect to them but they were playing ahead of me and I questioned it.
“Some people said ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’.
“I said I wasn’t going to play if that was going to carry on because I thought you were meant to be picked on your merit.
“The next thing, people were saying I didn’t want to play for my country. It was all over the news in Nigeria.
“I had to come out publicly and say that’s not the case.”
But Akinbiyi never did add to his only cap.
Instead he continued to make a name for himself on the domestic front, leaving Bristol City for Wolves in another record move.