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Ade Akinbiyi: It wasn’t the best first impression!
ADE Akinbiyi has never knowingly encountered racial abuse.
He was informed of it after the event, when Leicester had lost to Red Star Belgrade and bowed out of the UEFA Cup.
The home fans had targeted Akinbiyi and Andy Impey with racist taunts, for which the Serbian club were later fined £15,000.
A flare had landed near Foxes goalkeeper Tim Flowers during the game, played at a neutral venue in the Austrian capital Vienna.
But the vile verbal volley had fallen on deaf ears as far as Akinbiyi was concerned.
“People told me about it, but I didn’t hear it at the time,” said the 39-year-old, who found the cold, cutting comments of the national press the hardest to swallow during his career.
Akinbiyi had settled in quickly at Wolves after his £3.5million move in September 1999, top scoring with 16 goals in his first season at Molineux, including eight in his first 12 games. But less than 12 months later he was on the move again, to Leicester for £5m – another record swoop.
The pressure of his increasing pricetag – a fee he did not feel he warranted – took hold and hampered his performances in the Premier League.
“It was difficult because I was only just settling into Wolves and the next thing you know you’re moving on,” he said.
“Emile Heskey had just left and I had to fill his boots. That was a big step for me.
“I had my ups and downs. I scored 10 goals in my first season, which if you scored that in the Premier League now you’re going to be happy with it.
“But at the time people were saying ‘We’ve bought a player for £5million and he’s not scoring’. I had a nightmare against Liverpool the following season and that was it.”
Akinbiyi’s tally halved in his second season at Filbert Street. The stick he received doubled, and it had a direct impact on his performance.
He started to miss chances, and was cruelly labelled ‘Akinbadbuy’ by the national media.
One red-top journalist wrote a scathing piece when the striker dared to speak of his ambitions of playing for Nigeria against England in the 2002 World Cup.
“Everyone jumped on it,” said Akinbiyi. “I said to myself ‘I’m going to meet this guy one day and I’m going to give him a right mouthful’.
“But something else inside me said ‘No, don’t do it’.
“But in my lifetime I thought I was going to meet this guy somewhere, and just last year I did, at an event.
“He saw me and he knew what he’d done and he knew how long ago it was.
“He came up to me and apologised. He said he was sorry, that he was new to the job and that he’d been under pressure from his boss to write it.”
But that put the microscope further on Akinbiyi.
Behind that 6ft hulk of chiseled muscle was a human being with feelings that had been fractured.
“I was going through a hard time for a couple of months, but after that I stopped caring what other people thought, I just wanted to go out there and do what I want to do; I’m playing football, I’m doing something that I love and people can write what they want to write,” he said.
“From then I stopped reading the papers.”
But while he hid from the headlines he never shied away from his duties on the pitch.
“When people put more pressure on you, you don’t score. But if I don’t score goals I still get out there and keep trying,” he said.
“I learned how to cope with the bad times and with the good times enjoy it. It’s just like life really.
“In football you’ve got to take the good with the bad. If you can’t do that, there’s no point in playing.”
After spells with Crystal Palace and Stoke there were more good times ahead with Burnley. So good they signed him twice.
The first time was in February 2005. And it was first impressions that counted for the front man.
“Wigan came in for me, Sheffield United and Burnley,” he said.
“I’d spoken to Paul Jewell (then Wigan boss) on the phone and that wasn’t enough for me.
“But when I went up to meet Steve Cotterill for the first time at the Dunkenhalgh hotel, he convinced me and that was it.
“It was the way he put himself across, his ambitions, what he wanted to do.
“He talked to me about everything he wanted me to do, which is what I did do, and that he would back me 100 per cent.
“The squad was a good squad, my debut wasn’t a good debut,” added Akinbiyi, noting how Turf life got off to the worst possible start when he was sent off for a headbutt on Sunderland’s George McCartney inside two minutes.
“I was trying to make an impression.
“I was trying to quickly grab the ball off him. It went out for a goal kick and as I grabbed it off him I just put my head towards him. I didn’t headbutt him, but the referee said that I had.”
The striker had previous, having been fined two weeks’ wages by Wolves plus £2,000 by the FA and banned for four games for a headbutt on Nottingham Forest defender Tony Vaughan in February 2000.
“It was disappointing on my debut,” added Akinbiyi of the Burnley incident.
“It wasn’t the best start. Steve didn’t say anything, but he was obviously disappointed because he had gone out of his way to sign me.
“The board must have been thinking ‘What have we signed here?’.”
It seems entirely out of character for someone who was a gentle giant off the pitch.
But an aggressive, fiercely competitive veil descends when he crosses the white line.
“When I’m on the field I’m always intense but off the field I’m totally different,” he said.
“On the field that’s my job and I want to win the game and I’ll do anything to win.
“As soon as I go down the tunnel and walk on the pitch, that’s it, until I come off it.”
The only way was up after such a disastrous start, and Akinbiyi went on to score 18 goals in 43 league and cup games before being sold to Sheffield United for £1.75m the following January.
“I didn’t want to go, Steve didn’t want me to go and there were a few bids turned down. But they made another improved bid and it was a chance for me to get back into the Premier League again, so we decided to go ahead,” he said.
“But it was a bit of a risk because they had a lot of centre forwards and when I got there I was about sixth or seventh choice.
“Everyone warned me ‘Give it six games, things will change’.
“I played six games, the last on the right of the front three at Coventry, I’d never played there and I didn’t play that well.
“The next game I was sub and that was it.
“Although we went up to the Premier League I didn’t get many games at all.”
Akinbiyi took his frustrations out in the gym and bulked up before returning to throw his weight around in the Championship again with Burnley.
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