“I think I’m technically unemployed, so any managers, hit me up on WhatsApp,” were Adebayo Akinfenwa’s words in a live television pitch-side interview after scoring at Wembley to clinch promotion to League One with AFC Wimbledon six years ago – a come-and-get me-plea if there ever was one – and so it seems fitting that one of the game’s household names will return there for one last kick, one last dance, to bring down the curtain on 22 years as a professional. He ended up fielding offers from from Argentina to Australia but signed for Wycombe Wanderers, where an initial one-year deal has turned into a six-year stay and the best days of his career. “I remember looking in my DMs, there were CEOs and I thought: ‘I should have done this years ago!’” Akinfenwa says. “It was mad.”
Akinfenwa is hoping to write one final chapter when Wycombe take on Sunderland in Saturday’s League One playoff final in front of about 70,000 spectators. He grew up on the Mayville Estate in north London, playing on Hackney Marshes and off Market Road, and earned his first contract in Lithuania before signing for Barry Town in search of a leg-up into the Football League. Stints at Boston, Leyton Orient and Rushden & Diamonds followed before a breakthrough at Doncaster. Akinfenwa, who turned 40 this month, will bow out in style after almost 800 appearances and more than 200 goals.
After celebrating a season of firsts upon promotion to the Championship two years ago, this week has marked a series of lasts. A final training session on Friday. A last overnight stay. One more pre-match meal. “Always chicken and gravy,” he says. “Maybe a bit of toast. I won’t miss that. I eat plantain, curry goat and jollof rice at home, so I’ll enjoy that. It’s only at football that I’ll eat chicken at 11 o’clock in the morning.”
Akinfenwa is a one-off. Pep Guardiola described the striker as “a legend of English football” and Jürgen Klopp sent him a congratulatory video message, which, typically, went viral. He has 1.4m followers on Instagram, a clothing label called Beast Mode On, his name is in effect a global brand and, regardless of the stature of the opponent, he is used to opposition players waiting in the tunnel to ask for his shirt after matches. Social media has driven the public’s infatuation with a player who has spent the bulk of his career in the third and fourth tiers. “My status off the pitch is bigger than what I’ve done on it. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling for me. It’s humbling. 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 was either me or Messi, and I beat Messi. I was like: ‘What. Wait. What am I missing?’”
He does not know how he is going to fill his weekends but is adamant he will stay in shape. He has been given a degree of freedom by his manager, Gareth Ainsworth, permitted to train with his teammates only a couple of times a week. “I’m a creature of habit. I do 47 minutes on the bike every morning. I try to burn 850 calories before training five days a week. That is my routine and that sets my day. That’s my ‘me time’ to sweat out any tension and I’ll continue to do that. I enjoy the gym. No one forces me to go the gym. I’ve got two daughters, and one of them is turning 16 soon, so she may be going into that boyfriend stage, so I’ll be staying in the gym for that as well … !”
The joke goes that Akinfenwa is yet to meet a teammate he cannot bench press. “I’m trying to look through the Marvel universe now, to see if Thanos wants to take me,” he says, laughing. “I said I would end the game still the strongest and at 40 I don’t see anybody around here that can take my crown.” But that does not mean he has given up trying to improve. “I watched Vokesy [Sam Vokes] the other day and I thought: ‘If I can just add in that little header where he comes in off the blindside’ … The problem comes when you think there is nothing more to learn.”
Akinfenwa has been derided over the years and hopes his journey can act as inspiration. “I am unapologetically myself,” he says. “Being who you are is the most powerful thing that we own as individuals. Some people will say: ‘He’s built like a rugby player, he’s built like a wrestler, I don’t get all the hype around him.’ It’s fine because we’re all entitled to our opinions but I do want people to know that the strongest thing that we own is our mind and if we believe it in ourselves, then we can achieve it. The mind is a powerful thing. If people say something, it doesn’t make it so. I was told I was too big to play football … and I’ve played this game for 22 years. I don’t need acknowledgement from anybody. I will sit down and say: ‘You know what, B, you did all right.’”
Asked how he wants to be remembered, his response is snappy. “As authentic. I didn’t set out to be different. I didn’t set out to be 17st, I didn’t set out to love to bench press 190kg. I set out to be myself, so whenever anybody interacts with me or sees me play, I hope they think: ‘B’s authentic.’” How does he think he will be remembered? Akinfenwa takes a moment to consider his answer. “As a person who is charismatic, a good character. Do I feel that sometimes that supersedes what I have done in the game? Yeah. 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’m comfortable and I know my strengths.
“I remember some commentators saying: ‘You know, he hasn’t got a bad touch for a big guy.’ And: ‘He’s a big guy but he got up well there.’ That [comment] always used to follow. I get it, we’re humans and we’re visual creatures. But big or small, I can head the ball and I’ve got a good touch. I know I’m not going to run away from anybody over the top, I’m not going to do a step-over but put me in areas where I know there is nobody better, and that is those back-post headers, in ‘my office’, that ‘pin and spin,’ and that’s what I’ve concentrated on, especially in the latter stages of my career. I’d be lying if I said I still thought I’d be playing at 40 … but timing is everything.”
And with that Akinfenwa heads to his “office” – the penalty box at an empty Adams Park – to have his photo taken. “This is it,” he says. “Whether I am involved for two minutes, 10 minutes or 15 minutes, if I could have written it, I would have written it this way. Once I’m in game mode, tracking a marker or going for a header, I will forget about everything. But at the final whistle it will be: ‘Yeah, you know what, it’s full circle, we did it, and thank you.’”