“I think I’m technically unemployed so every manager WhatsApp me,” said Adebayo Akinfenwa in a live TV pitchside interview after scoring at Wembley six years ago to help AFC Wimbledon advance to League One – a comeback. and-get-me-please, if there ever was one – so it seems fitting that one of the game’s household names should return there for one last kick, one last dance, to lower the curtain on 22 years as a pro. He ended up receiving offers from Argentina to Australia but signed with Wycombe Wanderers where what started as a one-year deal turned into a six-year stint and the best days of his career. “I remember looking at my DMs, there were CEOs and I was like, ‘I should have done that years ago!'” says Akinfenwa. “It was crazy.”
Akinfenwa is hoping to write a final chapter when Wycombe take on Sunderland in Saturday’s League One play-off final in front of around 70,000 spectators. Raised on the Mayville Estate in north London, he played at Hackney Marshes and Market Road and landed his first contract in Lithuania before signing with Barry Town in a quest for promotion to the Football League. Stations in Boston, Leyton Orient and Rushden & Diamonds followed before he made his breakthrough in Doncaster. Akinfenwa, who turned 40 this month, will bid farewell in style after nearly 800 appearances and over 200 goals.
After celebrating a season of firsts following promotion to the championship two years ago, this week was a series of finals. Friday final training. One last night. One more meal before the game. “Always chicken and gravy,” he says. “Maybe some toast. I won’t miss that. I eat plantains, curry goats, and jollof rice at home, so I’ll enjoy that. The only time I eat chicken at 11 a.m. is when I’m playing football.”
Akinfenwa is unique. Pep Guardiola described the striker as “a legend of English football” and Jurgen Klopp sent him a congratulatory video message which, as usual, went viral. He has 1.4 million followers on Instagram, a clothing label called Beast Mode On, his name is practically a global brand and regardless of the opponent’s stature, he’s used to opposing players waiting in the tunnel asking for his jersey and matches. Social media has fueled the public’s infatuation with a player who has spent most of his career in the third and fourth divisions. “My status off the pitch is greater than what I’ve accomplished on the pitch. Yes, yes, yes,” he says. “For me it’s amazing. It’s humiliating. I remember they did a Fifa poll [on the video game]about whose card they [the gamers] were most looking forward to playing with? It’s me or Messi, and I beat Messi. I thought, ‘What. Waiting. What am I missing?'”
He doesn’t know how he’ll fill his weekends, but he’s adamant that he’ll stay in shape. His manager Gareth Ainsworth has given him a degree of freedom as he is only allowed to train with his team-mates a couple of times a week. “I’m a creature of habit. I ride my bike for 47 minutes every morning. I try to burn 850 calories five days a week before a workout. It’s my routine and it defines my day. This is my time to myself to sweat out tension, and I will continue to do so. I enjoy the gym. Nobody forces me to go to the gym. I have two daughters and one of them will be 16 soon so maybe she’s going into boyfriend phase so I’m staying in the gym for that too…!”
The joke goes that Akinfenwa is yet to meet a teammate he can’t bench. “I’m trying to search the Marvel Universe right now to see if Thanos wants to take me,” he says, laughing. “I said I’d still finish the game strongest and at 40 I don’t see anyone here who can take my crown.” But that doesn’t mean he’s given up trying to improve. “I’ve seen Vokesy [Sam Vokes] the other day and I was like, ‘If only I could add that little header where it’s coming from the blindside’… The problem comes when you think there’s nothing more to learn.”
Akinfenwa has been ridiculed over the years and hopes his journey can serve as an inspiration. “I am uncompromisingly myself,” he says. “Being who you are is the most powerful thing we possess as individuals. Some people will say, “He’s built like a rugby player, he’s built like a wrestler, I don’t understand all the hype around him.” It’s okay because we’re all entitled to our opinions, but I want people to know that the most powerful thing we have is our minds, and if we believe in ourselves then we can achieve it. The mind is a powerful thing. When people say something, it doesn’t make it that way. I was told I was too big to play football… and I’ve been playing this game for 22 years. I don’t need validation from anyone. I’m going to sit down and say, ‘You know what, B, you did everything right.’”
When asked how he would like to be remembered, his response is scathing. “So authentic. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to finish 17th, I didn’t want to bench press 400lbs. I’ve made it my goal to be myself, so I hope everyone who interacts with me or sees me play thinks, ‘B is authentic.’” How does he think he’ll be remembered? Akinfenwa takes a moment to consider his answer. “As a charismatic person, a good character. Do I sometimes feel like this replaces what I did in game? Yes. I wasn’t the typical footballer, I know that. I look at myself on TV, in the mirror, I know I’m not, but at the same time I feel good and I know my strengths.
“I remember some commentators were like, ‘You know, he doesn’t get a bad grade for a big guy.’ And: ‘He’s a big guy, but he got on well.’ That [comment] always used to follow. I understand we are human and we are visual creatures. But big or small, I can head the ball and I have good touch. I know I will not run away from anyone who is over the top I will not take a step but take myself to areas where I know there is no one better and that is this back post header ‘my office’ , that ‘pin and spin’, and that’s what I’ve focused on, especially in the latter stages of my career. I’d be lying if I said I still thought I was playing at 40… but timing is everything.”
And with that, Akinfenwa goes to his “office” – the penalty box in an empty Adams Park – to have his picture taken. “It is,” he says. “Whether I’m involved for two minutes, ten minutes or 15 minutes, if I could have written it, I would have written it that way. Once I’m in play mode, chasing a marker, or heading for a header, I’ll forget it all. But after the final whistle it will be, ‘Yeah, you know what, it’s full circle, we made it, and thank you.’”