At sixteen and a half stone and with a 48 inch chest, Adebayo Akinfenwa doesn’t look like your typical footballer. That’s probably because in many ways he isn’t. Starting off his pro career in the most unconventional of ways in Lithuania and encountering horrific racism, he managed to change perceptions and turn most basic stereotypes on their head by doing what he does best, proving everyone wrong. Adebayo has never done things the easy and obvious way, and that looks set to continue on his retirement from football.
When returning to England from playing abroad, the beast, as he’s nicknamed, carved out a successful career for himself at various clubs in league football. As a strong, physical opponent with a knack of finding the back of the net he remains a defenders nightmare. The successful FIFA computer game named him the strongest player in the world, and by all accounts it was justified. We sat down with the big man himself to talk about his fascinating fifteen years as a pro footballer, a rather exciting upcoming Hollywood role and whether a career change to the fight game could see him send Rio Ferdinand to sleep.
The MALESTROM: Do you want to start off by telling us a bit about your journey into football, how it all started for you?
Adebayo Akinfenwa: As early as I can remember, from say the age of five I just fell in love with football, I started playing with my older brother who was three years older than me and you know I remember watching John Barnes and like my Dad, I wouldn’t say he was an overly sporty person, but he did like football, but it was my brother, he was the one that like played football and was very active and I sort of made up my mind, from the age of five. I was like, this what I love to do, and from then I geared my time, my energy, my focus, walking round with a football… I was lucky enough to live on an estate that had a football cage down at the bottom of it, and my parents worked from like 7am till 9pm so I was down there as soon as school finished, especially summertime, so that was as early as I can remember my love for football being there.
TM: When did you realise that football was potentially going to be a career?
AA: I wouldn’t say that I realised at a certain age, I just decided at a young age that’s what I love, this is what I want to do and I’m gonna go and do it. I wouldn’t say there was a plan or… I mean I thought I was gonna sign pro at 16! Just because that’s all I’d known, it’s like I want to play football so I’m gonna play football and it’s like the journey of hearing no and hearing no but still not allowing it to deter me. I want to play football, that’s what I want to, I didn’t map out a journey, it’s (that) I enjoyed doing something so much that it’s all I want to do.
TM: There’s a great story about the Arsenal scout that came to your school, but obviously being a devout Liverpool fan…
AA: (Laughs) Well you know, just being young at the time I remember there was like groups of Liverpool supporters at the time, I don’t think United even really came into it, it was only Liverpool and Arsenal you know at that time. It was you either support Liverpool or you support Arsenal and because I was a Liverpool supporter it was like all my mates were like ‘nah you can’t go with Arsenal’ and I remember just saying that to the scout, you know I support Liverpool so I’m not going to come (laughs).
TM: Who was your inspiration then as a kid, was it Barnesy?
AA: Yeah it was John Barnes, John Barnes was my hero. When I was young my older brother was my inspiration but in the football world it was John Barnes, I just used to think he could do anything, you know what I’m saying, so he definitely inspired me and I as I got older Ian Wright, he was like one of the first footballers that like made football entertaining that I can remember, you know… celebrated with a massive grin on himself, cause football is there to be entertaining. John Barnes was just that wow factor to me and Ian Wright was that character that I think life and football’s about.
TM: Let’s talk about the start of your pro career, not everyone will know that it actually all began in Lithuania, which wasn’t a great experience was it?
AA: I mean no, at the time I’d never even heard of Lithuania you know, and in my head just because I was like I can play you know, I always back myself and thought I’ll never have to go through the route of going to a club in Eastern Europe, I can find a club here and for all the trials I was going to and hearing the same thing, it came to a point where the guy that I was dealing with my agent was like “look… go there and we’ll use it as a bargaining tool,” which like made sense. I never had the plan to sign for them (FK Atlantas), it was just good to have that on your CV. It’s weird because now I’m talking about it… well the first two weeks I went there it was summertime, I stayed in a 5 star hotel, it was a holiday feel – I had no indication then of racial abuse, nothing, so when I made the decision to go back and sign I went back on the fact that it was hot, everybody was smiling you know, so when I went back in the March and it was snowing, everyone was wearing coats, you couldn’t see their faces, it was a whole different world I was going back to. Then of course with the racial abuse, I can say this now, I wouldn’t do it again, but I’m glad I went through it because it literally did shape me to be the person who I am today.
TM: You must be proud of the way you dealt with it, because you managed to turn the home fans opinion around at least didn’t you?
AA: Yeah I mean of course, I look back at it and I’m like proud of what I did, but at the time it wasn’t like I was aiming to like take this mantle and be the person to change their perception, it was just like look, I’m not letting nobody run me out of this place, so that was the focus at the time, but of course I look back at it and when I left that place I remember seeing the elation on the fans faces in the cup final (Adebayo scored the winner in Lithuania’s equivalent of our FA cup final). I remember not having to pay for anything in the shops, I opened an Adidas store and I met the Mayor. You know at the end of the day it was ignorance, it was just ignorance and for me to be the pioneer of that change, I look back and can feel proud of it. It wasn’t me talking at the time it was just… stubbornness, like ‘I’m telling you this now, you ain’t running me out of this country!’ I’m proud that I went through it and I was able to persevere, but at the same time it was an experience that helped me, like so many trials and tribulations I’ve had since seem so trivial, I mean it helped me as a person even though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
TM: Of course. Now we’ve got to talk about your size! You’re a big unit, has anyone ever matched you for strength on the pitch?
AA: Yeah I mean yeah of course I’ve had battles with Wes Morgan, he’s a strong boy, Guy Branston, Sodje – I’ve had battles but I would always back myself, that’s my go to, you know, my strength. If I come up against someone and think right he’s a strong boy it’s like when it comes down to it I feel I will come out on top, you get what I’m saying?
TM: Who’s the toughest you’ve faced, if you were to pick one?
AA: It’s a toss up between Guy Branston and Wes Morgan, they were tough, a tough battle.
TM: Being so big and muscular, has that ever caused any issues football wise?
AA: I see it like this, if you look at stats alone and I’m not a big stats guy, but if you look at stats alone – my stats will match up to other strikers, timing plays a factor, if you look at when I broke my leg I was on the verge of going to Wolves in the Championship, so timing plays a part you know, there’s a perception in football and rightly or wrongly… there’s not one player in the elite leagues that is 16 and half stone so there must be value in that, but my size has been a hindrance in terms of perception. If you just look at stats alone I think I’ve averaged 15 goals a season since 2008, so you know that’s League 1 and League 2, but for whatever reason I’ve never been given an opportunity to try it at Championship level, so I feel like I’ve tried and I’ve failed, but I feel like given the opportunity, I think I would back myself, I feel like I would be able to score in any league do you know what I’m saying? But do I think it’s been a hindrance? Of course, because managers will look and be like Akinfenwa can cause problems but does he really fit my style of play? So I feel like my size has played a part, but I can’t knock it cause I can only do what I do, I’ve had a 15 year career, so I’ve got to be more than just size to be able to have that career, there’s been players that are 12 stone but haven’t had a 15 year career. I can’t just be about size. Do I feel I could of played higher, of course but at the same time I do look back at my career and know I’ve achieved in the game.
TM: Has a manger ever told you to lose some bulk?
AA: I wouldn’t say they’ve said lose the bulk, I mean Aidy Boothroyd came in (Northampton) and said you need to be fitter to play my style of football, Kenny Jackett at Swansea said you need to work on fitness you know, so that was maybe their PC way of saying to me you need to lose weight, but no one’s come and said that – just you need to be fitter. For Aidy Boothroyd I had to get fitter because he played a high pressing game, but my default setting is my size, I’m naturally big and I enjoy the gym. I would also say to a manager don’t sign me if you need someone to run the channels because that’s not my game, you know this is obviously not me putting myself in the same class, but you’re not going to sign a Messi and start looking to put it on his head, you’ve got to try and get the best out of the player, if my size is a deterrent then fair enough, I won’t knock it, I can always continue to do what I’ve been doing for all these years.
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TM: You mentioned the stats earlier on, but what about your FIFA (computer game) stats? That’s pretty cool…
AA: Initially it was it was a running joke, it was my younger brother who was like, ‘they said you’re the strongest footballer in the world!’ So although I back myself, for somebody to acknowledge the work I put in and put me on a pedestal, that’s like saying you’re the quickest in the world, like that’s Usain Bolt’s title, you know he’s the quickest, nobody can take that. So to be the strongest footballer in the world, especially when you know, I enjoy the gym, I workout, I take pride in that, it’s an acknowledgement even though I am a bit disappointed with this year’s stats but we can just ignore that (laughs).
TM: How do you feel about the modern game, do you think its gone a bit soft?
AA: Soft may be too strong a word, I do think the game’s changing and I feel that of course it’s less rugged. It’s funny because I was talking to Paul Merson, Danny Mills and Trevor Sinclair and they were talking about their era and I was talking about my era, and they were saying our era compared to your era – you would have loved playing when we did, and of course you can see as time goes on certain tackles aren’t allowed and I do think it’s losing that ruggedness. I think it’s because players are fitter, the game is quicker and maybe a bit more technical whereas back in the day it was rugged, so yeah I do think the game’s changing, changes in refereeing, you can’t do this and that and of course if it continues that way it’s gonna totally lose its edge.
TM: If you could have played in any era, the 60s, 70s, 80s – would you be up for that?
AA: 100 per cent I would have – but I also say I would’ve loved to have played against Desailly, Sol Campbell, Vidic, you know Tony Adams, Bold, Keown, I would have loved to have played against them because I would have wanted to test myself up against them strength for strength. And this is not me taking away from my technical ability or their technical ability but I’m known for what I’m known for, I know my lane, I don’t try and come out of my lane, my lane is my strength, so I would’ve loved to test myself against them, so that era I would have liked to have played in.
TM: What tricks do the opposition try on you, being such a different challenge to what they’re used to?
AA: Yeah well this is what I’m saying to youngsters, especially young players that I’ve come up against, or young players that are coming through, I’m like, there’s only a handful of us. When I was younger there was a lot of target men and they were big, a similar mould, whereas nowadays there’s not that many – when I talk to defenders and if I get the better of them, it’s like trust me you’re only really gonna come up against one or two similar players to me, the rest are small, agile, quick, so if I beat you don’t worry about that cause I’m rare. It’s the players you’ll be coming up against each week that you need to be focussed on. Yeah I’m different, we’ll come up against teams and the manager will be like, ‘you know what you’re getting today, you won’t get it next week but you know what you’re getting today’, you know. Of course there’s not many strikers in my mould or my build but the game’s changing.
TM: You’ve talked about sticking some gloves on and getting in the ring when you retire, do you think you could cut it in the fight game?
AA: You know what… a good friend of mine is McKenzie (Leon McKenzie) and I’ve seen how he’s trained and it’s not easy. I did three minutes and I was blowing, I ain’t gonna lie to you, but one thing with me I’d never say never, I’m a competitor, I like to test myself, so getting in the ring would be a test, so I’d never say never. I have put on gloves a couple of times, I did call out AJ but I rescinded that pretty quickly, because I’ve seen him put a couple of men to bed (laughs) but yeah never say never.
TM: What do you make of Rio Ferdinand trying his hand?
AA: For me it’s like I actually applaud him, he’s in wicked shape as well and that’s just the dedication. Once you put your mind to it, and that’s something I gravitate to because it’s putting your mind to something and then your body has to follow suit. I mean he’s got a good physique, good height, so yeah man it’ll be interesting – I mean if he wants… like I need to train and that, but I can get in the ring with Rio, we can maybe make that fight happen later on down the line, when I’m retired.
TM: You think you could take him?
AA: Look Rio’s a legend and he’s my guy, but I think I put him to sleep, I’m just saying like, I think I put him to sleep (laughs).
TM: So training wise what kind of weight do you lift? What are you benching?
AA: Not everyday, but I do my one rep max, which is 190kg. I average between 100 and 140kg when I do the bench press and then it just depends, if I’m going hard with the arms and the curls and that. I enjoy the gym, I won’t be lying, I enjoy it. I’ve got two daughters as well so that’s an added motivation to stay big and then keep their future boyfriends away, you know what I’m saying. No, it just depends on the day and how I feel as to how heavy I lift.
TM: Now Wycombe have got the FA Cup 1st Round on Sunday – tell us about scoring that goal against the team you support, Liverpool, that must have been a special moment?
AA: Yeah to be fair up until the play off final at Wembley it was by far the best moment of my career and it was the only time ever, I wanted Liverpool to lose, the only time! But to score and with the build up to the game as well… I remember that I didn’t know what to do when I tucked it in and we were so close to going back to Anfield, which would have been another dream, but that guy Stevie G took a free kick and just shattered our dreams, but for me it’s just continued to embody what’s happening in my life, just keep pushing and things can happen. I always wanted to play for Liverpool, but the next best thing was to play against them and then to score against them, still now it’s just… I got to meet the legend (Steven Gerrard) one of my favourite players of all time, I got his shirt so it still ranks as the second best moment of my career.
TM: And Stevie’s written the foreword as well for your book?
AA: Ah man, I don’t think people realise how much that means to me, that’s Stevie G! That’s one of the best footballers definitely the Premier League has seen, for him to write a foreword for my book, my story, that’s a legend. Regardless, for me I’m proud, I keep saying it but I just hope it shows people that, you know, define limitations, we have no limitations, anything can happen if you put your mind to it and you keep working, and for that to happen to me! For him to do what he did, for me it’s just humbling on so many levels.
TM: Of course. What does the future hold for you then?
AA: The things that are close to my heart – I’ve got a football academy coming up in 2018 with a mentoring scheme, I’m also and I’ve said this many times I’m going to be in a Marvel film, I’ll be doing acting,
TM: What’s the film?
AA: I’ll be in a Marvel film. I can’t really put that out there now, but we’ve had discussions when I was in LA, so I’ll be in that film down the line when I finish. I’ll do presenting as well. I just embrace my life, I put no limitations, no restrictions on my life. The only thing I can’t see, but I would never say never, is being a manager, I just can’t see myself going down that road.
TM: Finally one last thing, do you have any words of wisdom you can give our readers?
AA: Yeah do you know what? What I learnt early on is that on anyone’s journey through life, you are going to fail and that’s okay, it’s what you do after that. As I’ve got older I don’t take the ‘L’s’ as a loss, I take them as a lesson. I don’t do things to prove people wrong, but to prove myself right. So don’t focus on negative things people are trying to say, focus on what you want to try and achieve.
TM: Well good luck with the book, not that you’ll need it, it’s a great read.
AA: Thanks so much, that means a lot.