It’s fair to say Emmanuel Adebayor isn’t universally appreciated, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how good he was for a while at Arsenal. He even managed to take on the mantle left by Thierry Henry.
To say Adebayor is controversial would be a mild understatement at best; indeed it’s difficult to remember any other footballer over the past decade who sharply divides opinion more.
The discussions surrounding the 33-year-old largely centre on his commitment to the game – or lack thereof – and the arguments are so ferocious that it’s easy for his undoubted talent to become forgotten, a sideshow to the circus that surrounds him.
However, at his best Adebayor was a supremely talented operator, with a physique that sometimes belied his technical proficiency and insouciant grace on the ball.
He joined Arsenal in the 2006 winter transfer window to as much fanfare as one would reasonably expect for a relatively unknown £3million signing from Monaco.
He had been an unused substitute in the French principality’s Champions League final defeat to Porto in 2004, but little was expected of him at the start and rightfully so. It felt like one of those Arsene Wenger signings from Ligue 1 where he got in early for a promising player with eyes firmly on the future.
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When Adebayor, a Togo international of Nigerian origins, turned up and took the number 25 shirt, there were lazy comparisons with the man who wore the jersey before him. But while Kanu was renowned for his close control and silky touch, Adebayor in 2006 was still raw, unrefined magic.
He was, however, thrown straight into action by Wenger and, after scoring his first Arsenal goal just 21 minutes into his debut in a 2-0 win over Birmingham, started 11 of the next 12 games. A respectable tally of four goals was his return for his debut half-season in the Premier League.
Adebayor’s first full season for Arsenal coincided with their move to Emirates Stadium. He ended the campaign with 12 goals in 44 games, the high point being a coming-of-age display at Old Trafford where he scored in a 1-0 victory and also won a penalty which Gilberto Silva failed to convert.
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But the real turning point in Adebayor’s Arsenal career came when Thierry Henry jumped ship to join Barcelona.
The Frenchman was dogged by injuries in his final season in England and scored only 10 goals in the Premier League, but his departure was still a telling blow to Wenger; replacing Henry was Mission Impossible.
The list of candidates to fill his boots for the 2007-08 season was hardly inspiring. Robin van Persie’s injury troubles meant he was unreliable over the course of a campaign; Nicklas Bendtner was talented but young, still at that thin line between potential and wasted talent, and Eduardo was a low-risk £7.5million signing from Dinamo Zagreb.
The climate was ripe for someone to step up as Arsenal’s leading man, and Adebayor took up the mantle in impressive fashion.
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The first sign of things to come was in an early-season North London derby at White Hart Lane when Arsenal came from behind to claim a 3-1 win that took them to the top of the table.
With Spurs taking an early lead through a Gareth Bale free-kick, Arsenal’s profligacy looked like granting their neighbours a first win in 17 attempts, but Adebayor headed home an equaliser from a Cesc Fabregas assist on 65 minutes before the Spaniard’s long-range screamer gave Arsenal the lead 15 minutes later.
At this point Spurs were done but Arsenal, and in particular Wenger’s dynamic duo of Adebayor and Fabregas, were not.
With 90 minutes on the clock and the game now in added time, a typically incisive yet seemingly innocuous Fabregas pass found Adebayor on the edge of the penalty area, right inside the D.
Nothing seemed to be on, the returning Michael Dawson close enough to the striker. But Adebayor had other ideas: with a first touch so silky it should frankly be illegal, the ball was set up nicely as it looped in the air.
Dawson was still under the illusion he had his man covered, but the big striker swivelled and deposited a cracking volley into the top corner beyond the ultimately futile dive of Paul Robinson in goal.
All hail Arsenal’s new hero. In hindsight that was Peak Adebayor, Adebayor In Excelsis: moments of head-scratching misses intertwined with sheer brilliance he ordinarily shouldn’t be capable of.
Adebayor ended the season with his best-ever tally of 30 goals in 48 games as Arsenal put up a credible title challenge that saw them lead the way for almost two-thirds of the season before ultimately falling four points behind eventual champions Manchester United, a tailing off most likely caused by the four consecutive draws in the aftermath of Eduardo’s horrific leg break at Birmingham in February.
Inevitably bigger clubs than Arsenal showed interest in their leading man, and though he was convinced to stay with a new contract, it always felt like a short-term fix to a potentially long-running saga, and so it proved in the summer of 2009 when he joined Manchester City’s oil money-fuelled revolution for £25million.
Labelled a traitor and ingrate by Arsenal fans, some of whom vandalised his car during his last season at the club, we all remember what happened at the reunion at the City of Manchester Stadium in September: after earlier stamping on Van Persie, he scored City’s third in a 4-2 win and then sprinted the entire length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the visiting supporters.
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It was one of 14 goals in 26 Premier League games Adebayor scored that season, but that was as good as it got for him at City as loan spells at Real Madrid and then Spurs followed.
A familiar theme emerged at White Hart Lane: he was utterly brilliant one weekend and lethargic the next, like he couldn’t be bothered to turn up. He became the poster boy for the ‘needs an arm around him’ type of player, a cliché that rang true when Tim Sherwood reinstated Adebayor after he’d been frozen out by Andre Villas-Boas and was rewarded with goals and cringe-inducing celebrations.
Unfortunately for Adebayor, Mauricio Pochettino did not prove quite so understanding as Sherwood. The striker’s contract was terminated by mutual consent just a month into Pochettino’s sophomore season in charge.
There’s a tendency in certain quarters to dismiss Adebayor as a man that only ever played for his next contract – and he sometimes helped the prosecution – but he was truly wonderful at times and can point to a not-too-shabby record of 97 Premier League goals in 242 appearances as evidence he tried more often than he is given credit for.
It’s also worth remembering Adebayor has also gone through and survived traumatic experiences, none more harrowing that the terrorist attack on the Togo team bus on their way to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2010 where the team’s media officer, a personal friend of his, died in his arms.
Throw into the mix well-documented familial strife that has impacted his career, and a picture of a resilient character begins to emerge.
He may be difficult to warm to, and some of his behaviour may be grating, but Adebayor in his prime was a fantastic footballer with the requisite resilience to survive in a game that sometimes felt stacked against him.
By Aanu Adeoye
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