Offside, 22 February

What are Crystal Palace doing spending a king's ransom on The Worst Striker in English Football?

Duleep Allirajah

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‘Oh my god, we’ve bought Ade!’

That was my reaction when I heard that Crystal Palace had just spent £2.4million on The Worst Striker in English Football, Ade Akinbiyi.

The man they called ‘Panicbuyi’ after Leicester bought him for £5million had only scored three goals all season. His fluffed chances had been painfully replayed on TV. Wearing a bewildered expression with the jeers of the Leicester fans ringing in his ears, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. On one rare occasion when he did find the net, he famously celebrated by tearing off his shirt to reveal loadsa-muscles. But sadly for Ade, in the Carling Opta index, which measures individual players’ performances, you get no points for body-building. It’s goals that count, and right now Ade has lost the knack of scoring them.

So what on Earth were we doing spending a king’s ransom on a goal-shy striker? ‘I am very, very pleased to have Ade on board with us. He’s a player that I have tried to obtain for three years without success’, said Palace manager Trevor Francis. (Well, if it’s three years without success you’re after, Ade is certainly your man.) But what exactly do you see in him, Trevor? ‘He’s got a lot of good qualities: he’s strong, powerful and has good pace’, waxed the scraggy-haired Jasper Carrott lookalike.

Yes Trev, all good qualities in a racehorse, but what about his footballing ability? ‘I think he’s proved himself to be of the standard required to be successful in the First Division’, said Francis. ‘You won’t find a better defensive forward in the First Division than Ade Akinbiyi.’ Excuse me, did he just say ‘defensive forward’? What exactly is a ‘defensive forward’?

It didn’t take long for me to find out. In his debut against his old club Wolves, Akinbiyi scuffed a shot here, misdirected a header there, and then, with the goal at his mercy, he contrived to hook the ball over his head and away from danger. With forwards like this, who needs defenders? Akinbiyi had not even worn the famous red and blue jersey for a full 90 minutes, yet already some Palace fans had started jeering him.

Ade’s second game was ‘away’ to Wimbledon, who ground-share with Palace. We taunted the opponents with chants of ‘Fuck off to the Milton Keynes’ (1) and ‘Hey you, get out of my seat’. But although Wimbledon had taken our seats, it appeared that we had stolen their long ball game. Wimbledon passed the ball around neatly while Palace launched hopeful punts over the top for the strikers to chase.

After about five minutes Akinbiyi found the net, but the linesman’s flag was raised. Minutes later, Wimbledon scored. Palace, although playing poorly, still created chances. Clinton Morrison slashed a shot into the side netting, and then Dougie Freedman, through on goal, inexplicably chipped the ball to Akinbiyi who failed to connect. The frustration was mounting. It was obvious to everybody that our 4-3-3 formation was not working. We had neither width nor creativity.

After an hour came the inevitable tactical change. When Akinbiyi’s number was flashed up on the screen it raised a loud cheer from the Palace fans. As Ade trudged off, he turned and glared in our direction. ‘What a waste of money!’, the Wimbledon supporters chanted gleefully, but it was Palace who had the last laugh. With two wingers, Palace were transformed: we were passing the ball to feet and running at their defenders. And eventually we equalised. The Palace fans erupted – elation mixed with relief.

Football grounds might be relatively sanitised places these days, but they also remain stubbornly impervious to the therapeutic culture that dominates much of public life. Merciless abuse is still heaped on those who fail, and there are no social workers on the bench ready to treat a player’s damaged self-esteem.

Ade Akinbiyi is brave enough not to run away and hide from the boo-boys. ‘That’s life’, he says. ‘That’s what the fans pay good money for, to see good football, and if they are not getting it they are going to moan about it.’ His courage is admirable but, as I’ve said, it’s goals alone that count.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) See Offside, 10 August on plans to relocate Wimbledon to Milton Keynes

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