Offside, 28 March
Has the Worst Striker in English Football finally found his feet?
Ade Akinbiyi, the striker who couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo, has been a Crystal Palace player since February 2002 but I have yet to see his name on the back of a replica shirt. However, after last Saturday’s victory over Walsall, could Ade’s nightmare finally be over?
As you may recall, Palace parted with £2.4million for the goal-avoidant Leicester striker whose hapless penalty-box antics had made him the laughing stock of the Premiership (see Offside, 22 February). Palace manager Trevor Francis was unperturbed. ‘You won’t find a better defensive forward in the First Division’, he proclaimed cryptically.
But Ade’s goal celibacy continued. After a couple of fruitless starts Akinbiyi was relegated to the bench. Then a lucky break. Palace were winning 2-1 away at Barnsley when Akinbiyi came on as a substitute. Within a minute, a Julian Gray cross found Akinbiyi unmarked on the six-yard box with the goal at his mercy. He failed to connect with his forehead, but the ball struck him in the face, wrong-footed the keeper, and bounced in.
This solitary strike proved to be a false dawn. The goal drought resumed. Even worse, Ade’s wretched form afflicted the other Palace strikers who also stopped scoring, as though in solidarity with Akinbiyi. Events took a surreal turn when the goal-shy Akinbiyi was called up to the Nigerian national squad (it transpired that Ade was one of twenty-three strikers in a large ‘training squad’). ‘I intend to have a chat with him’, said Nigeria’s coach Festus Onigbinde. ‘Some of these players are unfortunate sometimes. They fall into the wrong hands and they are badly used.’ (Some might say that allowing Ade to play football in the first place was a prime example of being badly used.)
To everyone’s surprise, Ade was restored to the Palace starting line-up against Walsall. Early in the first half he was put through on goal but he miscontrolled the ball and was quickly closed down. On another occasion he gathered the ball outside the penalty area and shaped to shoot, but his feeble shot trickled harmlessly through to the keeper. Then, six yards out, Ade contrived to mishit a simple volley and the ball bounced wide.
Matters didn’t improve in the second half. Ade’s first touch was consistently dreadful and his jumps were badly mistimed. ‘He doesn’t look like a footballer at all’, said my grim-faced friend. When he finally managed to trap a ball and lay it off to a team-mate this elementary schoolboy skill was greeted with loud applause. How low our expectations have sunk! You can’t accuse Ade of not trying but, in his desperation, he was trying too hard. In full ‘defensive forward’ mode he raced to close down defenders like a man possessed. He made a spectacular salmon-like leap towards a high ball, only to miss completely and crash into a nonplussed defender. At one point he fouled a Walsall player and was admonished by the referee. ‘Off, Off, Off’, chanted the Palace fans in a moment of absurd comedy.
In a bid to break the deadlock, Francis made three substitutions and switched to three up front. Incredibly, Akinbiyi remained on the pitch. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’, chanted the disgruntled home fans. But the manager’s gamble paid off. On 77 minutes the Walsall keeper fumbled a cross and Clinton Morrison bundled the ball over the line. Three minutes later Akinbiyi powered past the last defender and was hauled down. Penalty!
Although Dougie Freedman took the spot kick, calmly sweeping the ball home, Akinbiyi celebrated as though he had scored. This was the moment of deliverance. Akinbiyi visibly grew in confidence; transformed from lumbering farmyard animal to something resembling a footballer. His first touch seemed more assured and, but for alert goalkeeping, he might even have scored. At the final whistle even the Walsall players went to congratulate him.
Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Ade and the Palace faithful? Will the goal-dodger become a goal-glutton? Will a rejuvenated Akinbiyi line up against England in the World Cup? Stranger things have happened in football.
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