Adebayo Akinfenwa: ‘People said I’m too big to play football, but I kept playing’

Adebayo Akinfenwa

If you had expected Adebayo Akinfenwa to be talked out by now, you probably needed to improve your research. A Football League launch at Craven Cottage is winding down, a good three hours in, and the Wycombe Wanderers striker has commanded more attention than any of the players and coaches from higher divisions who have passed through.

There have been endless television appearances, photographs with supporters and, latterly, an impromptu Facebook Live event with the relatively reserved Brighton goalkeeper David Stockdale that swiftly sees first acquaintances playing off each other like old friends.

That is the effect Akinfenwa has. These are the twilight years of a peripatetic career that has run alongside an off-pitch brand through his exceptional – maligned and admired in turn – upper-body strength and size, and the instinct is to enjoy every moment. It is not hard to see why Gareth Ainsworth, the Wycombe manager, enlisted the 34-year-old to bolster a shot-shy team for the new League Two campaign; Akinfenwa’s charisma certainly lights up a room and he intends to use the audiences he is afforded for good.

“The attention is humbling, mindboggling really,” Akinfenwa says. “I’ve played in the lower leagues for most of my career but everyone here wants to talk to a League Two player. At the same time, I embrace it. It may sound cliched, but it just shows that when you don’t let people put you in a box then anything can happen.”

There is still the sense that mouth occasionally acts before brain but in a way that reassures. This summer one member of the media felt the sharp side of Akinfenwa’s tongue after suggesting the image he projected – he has made the nickname “Beast” his own – was merely a persona, a gimmick. Akinfenwa asserts that he has simply been given a chance to be himself and as the words pour out it would take some very confident judgment to accuse him of affectation.

“This isn’t a reward for anything, I didn’t set out to be this way, I’m honestly just me,” he says. “People said: ‘You’re too big to play football’, but I kept playing and it just happened that people have caught on to me and taken to me. The nicest thing I get from it is that I can be myself, and people seem to like it.

“When you’re in that kind of position, I think you’re obligated to try and help the next generation. The areas where I went wrong, things like that, I’ll talk to them about it. I’ve seen where you can go left or right; I was raised in an inner-city school and some of my classmates went to prison or down other bad roads. Football was my saving grace, so I want to let people know that you can achieve whatever you want. People like to concentrate on what you can’t do, so let’s preach what you can. Why would I want to talk about not being quick when I’m strong? That’s what I want to get across.”

Fame has had its perks. Akinfenwa has more than a million followers across his social media platforms, his “Beast Mode On” clothing line has led to commercial opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic and it is a rare day when he is not recognised in the street. His five children – “Yes, five,” he emphasises, unprompted – keep him grounded. “I come home and I’m like: ‘I got stopped in LA and Vegas’, and they just go: ‘Daddy, stop making noise.’ I’m just the embarrassing dad to them.”

The more serious business begins now and there was quite a choice for Akinfenwa when, straight after helping AFC Wimbledon to promotion in the play-off final at Wembley, he found himself a free agent. “I think I’m technically unemployed, so any managers, hit me up on WhatsApp,” were his words broadcast live by the side of the pitch, and they did, offers coming in from Qatar, Australia, Mexico, Turkey and the US.

Ainsworth’s entreaty came by the comparatively old-fashioned medium of SMS and it struck a chord with Akinfenwa. The two knew each other as playing opponents of old and Ainsworth says they “had that feeling of respect for each other, the look you can give someone that says: ‘You know what, I know what you’re about.’” Wycombe fell away from the play-off race at the end of 2015-16, a goal tally of 45 their major deficiency, and his presence on and off the pitch would have obvious benefits.

“A year ago I’d have been more geared for a move to MLS, but this year going abroad wasn’t high up on my priorities,” he says. “When I sat down with the gaffer, everything he said resonated. It’s just a nice fit and it’s very similar to AFC Wimbledon – tight-knit, everyone in it for each other, putting in the work with nothing just given to you. After the first conversation I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

The final kick of Akinfenwa’s two years at Wimbledon was the penalty that confirmed their ascent, one that caused a degree of awkwardness after he took the ball from the designated taker, Callum Kennedy. Here is where the showman comes out; he has no qualms admitting he was working to a script.

“I’d known I was leaving, and the night before you play it out in your head and think: ‘What’s the best scenario to depart with?’” he says. “It played out exactly as I’d dreamed. It was an emotional, euphoric moment but I’d already come to terms that it was my last game. Getting promoted with the team, scoring at Wembley aged 34, it’s just dreams – if I didn’t still have the desire to play football, I could have left the game off the back of that.”

Wycombe will need that desire. Ainsworth is unlikely to fill his substitutes’ bench at Crawley on Saturday and, at 43, the ex-QPR winger has signed on as backup for another season. A club with no academy or reserve team – although there are plans to resurrect both – has a squad of 19 and, through Fifa’s wisdom, no emergency loan system this season to help plug further gaps. It seems like the kind of challenge Akinfenwa relishes; neither player nor manager is the type to go quietly. “It’s been intense so far, I’m not going to lie, and that’s what the gaffer is,” Akinfenwa says. “Nothing gets left on the training field or the pitch. I’m mad excited about this new challenge and we’ll see what the season brings.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nick Ames, for The Guardian on Friday 5th August 2016 11.59 Europe/London

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